Technology has made it possible for a situation that didn’t exist a couple of decades ago: working with strangers. In a new culture of remote work, collaborating with coworkers in another city has become more commonplace. This situation can be comfortable for some people; awkward for others.
As these situations occur more often, it has become an issue that remote companies must tackle. How do these companies create an inclusive culture for their remote teams?
With work from home, you may never meet your coworkers face to face for a casual conversation at the water cooler. You may even stagger interaction times because you’re logging into work as coworkers are having lunch or getting ready for dinner.
Interactions are formal: Meetings are done virtually, with set start and end times, and people stick to the agenda to respect schedules. Meetings can seem less formal because you get a peek into your coworker’s home, and you’re not meeting in the boardroom.
However, it’s harder to relate to someone you know little about, apart from their name, job title, and what their home office looks like.
The management team has an important role in creating an inclusive work culture for their remote teams, starting with how they communicate and meet.
1 In-person team events
Virtual meetings are an effective way to collaborate quickly without wasting time on travel (by transit or by foot when you walk to the meeting room), but it isn’t easy to get to know people by meeting on a computer screen.
Technology cannot replace in-person events. If a group of coworkers lives within driving distance, it’s worth it to find a day when most people can meet for lunch and a chat. Occasions such as greeting a new team member, saying goodbye to someone moving away, or celebrating a holiday are the perfect reasons to socialize and get to know your team members in a non-work-related context.
If possible, arrange for the whole company to meet at a central location. This annual meeting can be a day for everyone to meet in person and bond over activities that are completely unrelated to work.
2 Developing an inclusive culture from the top down
An inclusive culture for a remote company starts at the management level. New hires and team members follow the example that their direct report or supervisor sets.
The tone used in emails, group chats, and direct messages is a part of the company culture. Do messages sound supportive and friendly? Or do people stick to the point? (The occasional curt message doesn’t count- eventually, you’ll catch someone in a hurry if you message them often enough.)
Do group chats and meetings include sharing news and photos about what company members have been up to? A photo of a company lunch helps to connect names to faces and gives a sense of what other teams or departments are doing.
Group chats and meetings are also opportunities to share what individuals have accomplished. For example, what projects were completed this past quarter? What did Jane contribute to the company lately to improve operations? What presentation did Sean do last month that won an award?
These are just some ways the company can create an inclusive culture that connects names, accomplishments, and faces. People become more than employees that you know by name.
3 Starting team meetings with a little socializing
Team meetings are usually scheduled for a half hour to an hour. It’s typical to have a lot to cover in that short period of time. However, the team can spare a few minutes for some socializing. That casual start to the meeting can do a lot to build relationships.
The person acting as meeting moderator can start with a question such as, “How is everyone doing?” or ask about the weather. When your team lives in different cities, comparing the weather can be interesting. If the weather seems dull, other neutral topics are also worthwhile, such as everyone’s upcoming weekend or holiday plans (although this topic tends to create long discussions that take the meeting off topic).
These short one to two line conversations are a way to break the ice and get to know team members more personally. You find out that a teammate’s work buddy is a dog (who may pop by during the virtual meeting). Or you may find out someone likes beach weather as much as you do.
These bits of trivia come in handy when you need to message someone for the first time with a work request. You can add a personal note by adding, “Hope you have a good rest this long weekend at your summer cabin and let me know when the report is finished!”
4 One-on-one chats with remote team members
One-on-one chats with team members are a great way to get to know other people who work at your company. When you can speak one-on-one at a virtual meeting or on a phone call, you have the chance to get to know each other on a personal level.
For example, you can find out what brought that person to the company or what their specific role is (especially if you don’t work directly with that coworker). Depending on how social the other person is, you might share details about your personal life.
Team members can message each other with work requests and add the latest picture of their dog or cat if they discover that their coworker is also fond of animals or also has a pet. In some cases, these chats evolve into sharing anecdotes about hobbies or jokes interspersed with work related chatter.
When you really connect with your coworkers, you may also open up personally, knowing your coworker will offer you support. For example, offering to pick up a work task for you because you’re sick, or sending you a joke to help you feel better because you’re struggling with something in your personal life.
These personal connections can also happen with your supervisor or mentor. People who are in management or supervisory positions should take the time to get to know their team members by booking time for one-on-one meetings.
During that time, they can find out more about why someone is working for the company (they might not have been involved in the hiring process), what that person’s career goals are, and how that person likes to work (such as they like to be included in teamwork or they prefer to work independently).
This is also the perfect time to find out if the team member is struggling with something at work or at home but is reluctant to share. Discussing a solution can help to deal with mental health issues or possible future challenges.
These types of connections are entirely possible with remote teams.
5 Setting a tone of sensitivity
People who work with remote teams can find it challenging to connect with their coworkers. You don’t have the chance to run into them before or after work for a quick conversation, for example. This lack of opportunity to connect results in coworkers that are faceless entities that you email with work requests.
However, if company culture includes the occasional in-person event, promotes having a snippet of social time at the start of a meeting, or encourages people to get to know each other on a more personal level, people will feel more included.
Some may resent social opportunities and consider this inclusive culture to be a waste of time. Introverts want to be left alone to work. A direct, to-the-point person will avoid wasting time with unrelated chatter.
The downside of this type of disconnect is people working in silos, and when they need help (and this will happen), their coworkers aren’t as quick to give a helping hand. This isolation can also open the door to misunderstandings and resentment.
An inclusive culture of respect and support for others will create a more connected workplace. There are a few ways to create this sensitivity.
For instance, if you discover that your coworker has social anxiety, the team can be more encouraging. They can ask for that person’s opinion, knowing that person isn’t likely to share. They can also respond in a non-judgemental way and show appreciation when their coworker does share an opinion or idea.
Taking the time and initiative to get to know your coworkers creates a positive environment for your remote team. Making these connections are important when you don’t see everyone day-to-day. It’s too easy to see coworkers as just names when you work from home. But when you discover just a little about a coworker’s personal life, such as a hobby, number of kids, or favorite food, you start to see them as people.
You’ll want to support and help each other when these coworkers are humans that you care about. Creating an inclusive culture begins with taking the time to build relationships with your coworkers.
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