How to Foster Community in Remote Teams

Working remotely is becoming one of the biggest trends of modern organizations. Staff who work remotely have shown to be more productive and efficient, more trusting of their employer, save more money, and are less stressed than their office-working counterparts. So it's no wonder that more and more organizations are switching to telecommuting offices. But what about the downsides to remote work?

At Emergent, our team works remotely, spending 80% or more of our time working from our respective home offices (or favorite coffee shops). For the most part, our staff has seriously benefited from the arrangement. But there has been one major downside: community development.

Working remotely may be better overall for many teams, but it removes the sense of community often fostered in an office. It becomes harder to connect with team members on a personal level, which can end up affecting relationships at a business level. Even with a team of emotionally intelligent individuals, a lack of physical presence makes it harder to feel like you "belong" to something larger. So how have we grown community with our remote staff?

Create a Channel for Chit-chat: Since remote teams lack the proverbial water cooler, there is often no place for office chit-chat to occur naturally. However, personal conversations are vital to forming professional bonds that encourage trust and community. Consider implementing a chat platform (we use Slack, but Hangouts and Skype are other great free options) on which your teams can chat casually throughout the work day. Leaving an open chat room for your team is not giving the okay to waste time, but rather to build trust with one another through conversation.

Introduce Creative Conversation Topics: One of the best ways we have learned about our staff is by having a weekly set of interesting questions we ask each other. We invested in a box of Table Topics cards which have prompts like "what is your favorite way to spend time outdoors?" and "what is the happiest song you know?". These stimulate conversation around items that may come up naturally in-person, but can be a little more uncomfortable to ask out of the blue online. Learning small tidbits of information like this fosters relationships that build community, rather than just a group of strangers working for the same company.

Outfit them with Company Merchandise: Tangible reminders of being a part of a team are a great way to boost enthusiasm and make things seem a little less lonely. Since staff who work remotely may have a simple office setup, gifting them products with your company logo or team slogan are a friendly reminder of their relationship to the group. Office items like pens, notebooks, planners, and stickers along with branded clothing are great options.

Schedule Annual Team-Building Retreats: Even if your team is remote 100% of the time, meeting in person at least annually is very important. Plan retreats for your staff at least once a year (though bi-annually or quarterly is even better) to develop relationships and increase job-related skills. Making retreats dual-purpose by including professional training along with team-building exercises kills two birds with one stone. Since staff who work from home often don't get the same opportunities to attend trainings or conferences as those based in an office, having training included in your retreats will still feel like a fresh and exciting way to spend work while growing community. Depending on your location and flexibility, doing a team community service project on your retreat can help develop your local community as well!

Create Team Challenges: Finding a unique competition or challenge for your team is a great way to encourage frequent check-ins among members outside of project meetings. Forming a fitness club who compare their fitbit stats (especially helpful when sitting in a desk at home most of the day) or a book club to discuss recent reads are both fun options. Talk with your team to find out what some of their group interests are, and find a way to incorporate those into a group challenge or club. Consider awarding gifts or trophies to high-achievers in these "clubs" each month to buoy participation.

Finally, when in doubt as to what to do with your team, ask them! Building community is as much about providing spaces for your team to learn about each other as it is asking them for their ideas and input on how best to grow together. Working remotely can make it feel like it's on your shoulders to develop and plan group projects and activities, but the goal is to work more together and learn about each other in the process. Reach out to your remote team and see what activities or discussions would make them feel most involved and respected as virtual employees. 

About the Author

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Jennifer Stanford is a sought-after Trust Coach and the CEO of Emergent Performance Solutions, as well as an author and speaker. Her entrepreneurial spirit, combined with years of practical experience gives her specialized insight into business and psychology.

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