Over the past several weeks, remote working has transitioned from a “nice-to-have” to a workplace must. Along with this shift, video chat tools like Zoom have gone from the realm of the distributed workplace to a platform for families that are isolated from each other, schools hosting classes, and even daycare centers hosting virtual play dates.
There’s much to love about video conferencing, as well as many other tools that are central to remote working, including chat clients like Slack and Microsoft Teams, and project management tools like Asana, Basecamp, and Trello. But tools on their own can’t replicate the rich, dynamic exchanges that happen naturally in the office. Connecting remotely is often productivity-focused, which lessens the opportunities for informal creative exchanges, and simple, non-work conversations that create tightly bonded teams.
That’s not to say that these things can’t happen remotely via technology, it just takes a little more thought. Here are a few ways you can help your team build and maintain a strong community from the comfort of every person’s individual living spaces.
We all know that good communication is key to workplace collaboration and productivity — all the more so when you’re not working face to face. But there are many different kinds of communication and many ways to support it.
Synchronous communication is communication that occurs simultaneously. A conversation or a meeting in which one person speaks and another person or people are expected to respond immediately are examples of synchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication is communication that doesn’t require or expect an immediate response. Email and letters are good examples of asynchronous communication: you send your message out and then go about your day, knowing that the person you’ve messaged will respond in their own time.
When you’re looking to replicate the in-office experience, tools that support synchronous communication are key. Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts support synchronous communication through video chat, which replicates an in-person meeting. Slack supports synchronous communication because it’s a chat app; send a message, and, if the person you’re speaking to is online, you’ll engage in an immediate, back-and-forth conversation. Zello is mostly considered a synchronous form of communication, because you push to talk and expect the person on the other side to be listening and to respond. This combines the more casual nature of tools like Slack with the power of the human voice as you might find it in a video conference. When you’re working from home, it’s an easy way to collaborate verbally with colleagues without having to set a meeting. And because the person you’re chatting with can always check messages later on, it can also function as a form of asynchronous communication.
One way to support community through tools like Slack, Teams, and Zello is by creating channels for members to participate in as is relevant to their jobs or to their interests. For instance, you might create one channel where the marketing team can post work updates and another where they announce their latest rollouts to the wider team. You might also create non-work related channels, where employees can discuss their thoughts on the latest bingeable Netflix series, or connect over personal finance, or post cat memes. These kinds of channels may seem off-task, but they help to re-create the casual banter that happens in the office all the time, helping to better bond the team. Meeting leaders can also create time and space for this at the beginning of meetings by simply asking a personal question, like, “How was everybody’s weekends?” rather than jumping right in. Just because remote work happens at home, doesn’t mean it should be entirely productivity-focused.
That said, going remote also makes for a great opportunity to actively lessen the amount of synchronous communication going on. In our collaborative workplaces, asynchronous communication gets a bad rap, but there are great benefits in giving employees space and time to work on their own schedules without the distraction of chat apps.
Which brings us to our next point...
When going remote, it’s important to set clear expectations about how you’d like everybody to work. When it comes to communication, for instance, it makes sense to have core hours when everyone is in the chat app and can be reachable, as well as “heads down” hours when workers know they’re not expected to respond immediately. Managers would also do well not to message employees past normal working hours even if they’re working themselves. These measures will help to lessen the “always on” feeling of remote work, which creates anticipatory anxiety that leads employees to constantly check all of their communication platforms rather than concentrating on their work.
Additionally, make clear which tools everyone should use, and what they should be doing on them so as not to create double work and a feeling of disorganization.
Lastly, set policies about what’s expected in terms of meeting attendance. Make some employees optional when they’re not totally necessary. Setting time for one-on-ones is essential for remote work, so that employees know they always have a time to get questions answered and roadblocks cleared.
Again, making time to just connect as colleagues is key! Zello Work can be great for this, as its push to talk technology allows you to just push a button and instantly connect to ask a colleague a question or convey critical information without the need to set a formal meeting.
Virtual happy hours via video chat are also a thing now. Grab your favorite cocktail, wear your most impressive yoga pants or PJs, and simply hangout.
Some workplaces also have great success with book and article clubs, though make sure that these are voluntary, as some people with full personal lives will have trouble contributing to this.
For teammates that extra miss having a buddy, video chat can make a great virtual office. Colleagues or teams could connect for work sprints, where everybody launches their video client, chats for a few minutes, then mutes themselves but keeps their video on, working together online for a set amount of time, like forty-five minutes or an hour. Again, it’s best if this kind of approach is optional, as some people will find it motivating and others will find it distracting.
Miss that regular team lunch? There’s nothing saying that you can’t send each team member some food delivery now and again. Or, how about a gift certificate to a music streaming service like Spotify, or to a fitness app of their choice? Doing so will help your employees feel like you see the full array of their personal needs.
You may be working at a social distance, but there are still lots of ways to connect and create community from afar. How has working remotely gone for you and your team so far? Let us know in the comments below.