• Jenny Kosek

5 Ways to Team Build When Working from Home

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Now that the dust has settled and work from home has become a widespread necessity due to the pandemic, rather than a rare benefit seemingly reserved for those in the tech industry only, more and more data suggests that remote work is preferred by workers and beneficial to businesses. But as more and more employees seek this benefit, what happens to work cultures?


We need to start proactively answering this question now, because remote work will continue to be in high demand even after the coronavirus pandemic. A Gallup poll earlier this year discovered “three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions are lifted. In contrast, 41% would prefer to return to their workplace or office to work, as they did before the crisis.” Business Insider reports “full-time remote workers said they're happy in their job 22% more than people who never work remotely.”


There are more articles praising the benefits of remote work than bemoaning the downsides associated with it. Remote workers report higher productivity levels than their in-office peers, higher rates of work-life satisfaction, lower stress, and better health. Those positives translate into tangible cost savings and efficiency improvements for employers, who enjoy lower health insurance expenditures due to a less-stressed remote staff, lower overhead, and higher retention. Remote workforces also benefit employers struggling to fill open positions: By opening your recruitments to candidates who can work from anywhere, you’ll expand your talent pool, attract more diverse candidates, and be able to compete for top talent: Ziprecruiter reports 80% of jobseekers will favor remote work when the pandemic is over, making it an essential benefit to lure candidates in competitive job markets. Going back to fully onsite work post-pandemic just doesn’t make business sense.


As teams become dispersed, where does that leave organizational culture? Cultures are complex combinations of shared values, goals, and individual attitudes and actions, and many organizations are struggling to nurture their cultures in the work from home world. In the office, culture is built every day, through casual and formal interactions supported by employee recognition opportunities, structured team-building exercises, and by giving and receiving feedback. For many of us in government, we’ve been in emergency mode for seven months this year, so taking the time to focus on organizational cultures hasn’t really been top of mind. We’ve all been surviving, shuttled from one crisis to the next. But as leaders, we have to take time to nourish our teams. It doesn’t take a lot of time, just conscious effort to do the work. If we don’t, our teams will turn toxic, and healing toxic relationships takes a lot more time in the long run than steady, regular culture building does.


Here are some ways to strengthen your organizational culture, even if your team’s remote:


1. Chat better. You’re probably using Teams or Slack to chat with your team and work through projects. Chat is the new water cooler, so use it as such. If the only messages you’re sending your team are “Did you do this?,” you’re missing an opportunity to strengthen relationships. Chat does away with many of the formalities we find in email, but some are worth keeping. Say good morning, or wish your team a good night. Use gifs and emojis. Throw out a weekly ice breaker - while it seems like every topic is a landmine waiting to explode these days, there are some safe bets (unless someone on your team is surprisingly passionate about breakfast burritos, general getting-to-know-you things like “What’s your favorite breakfast food?” are likely good topics). Start a regular Friday Question of the Day or share a brain teaser as the Monday Morning Mystery. It's ok to make chat more human. And always think before you chat – chat is not the place to scold employees or tackle complex problems. Chat has its place. Keep it there.


2. Rethink team building. Last year, our team did an escape room together, and it was a ton of fun. We’re not going to get together in-person to do that this year, but there are plenty of shared games and activities you can do with your team online. I like the JackBox Party Pack, but there are others. Escape room-type games, trivia activities, and more are all available for virtual play. Gather your teams online and have some fun. You can also set up a team coffee break each week to just catch up. Make a “no work talk” rule and if your team’s not much for chitchat, bring those icebreakers. Even 15 minutes of this will remind your team of their humanity and pull them closer together.


In the Before Times, our staff also had a few friendly competitions, like departmental decorating for Halloween. That’s not happening this year, but you can still keep those fun, friendly competitions alive. Do a virtual costume contest for Halloween and get your remote team to vote for their favorite staffer online. With holiday cooking around the corner, do a food photo or food fail photo contest. Or join online step or fundraising challenges to keep the competitions going.


3. Ask how people are doing, and mean it. On nearly every Zoom call I’m on, as everyone joins, they’ll inevitably say “How’s everyone doing?”…while not even looking at the camera. They’ll be scrolling on their phones or staring off into whatever corner of their screen they’re doing another project on. If that’s how your team’s in-person meetings went, you had problems before remote work. I remember most of my in-person meetings starting jovially, with people chatting and laughing before settling down to the agenda. It’s ok to do that online. It’s also ok to take extra steps to check in with your staff, one on one, and really ask how they’re doing. Some folks might be reluctant to admit they’re frustrated or overwhelmed, either with work or the world at large, but if it’s clear the interest in their well-being is genuine, and that speaking up may result in resolutions to their headaches, they’ll open up. They’ll also stay: Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67% more engaged.


4. Send mail. Rumors of the post office’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It’s alive and well and you can still send cards through it. A personal card recognizing an employee’s birthday, work anniversary, or just saying thank you has tremendous impact. Ship a piece of city logo merchandise, or write a letter praising an employee’s contributions during this very difficult year. It’s the most personal connection you can make right now, and it has huge impact.


5. Give the gift of time. Emailing or chatting after hours is extremely damaging to your team. This isn’t new in the remote era, it’s always been true. There is no greater way to support your team than to respect their work time and their personal time – and stay out of the latter. You might have a brilliant idea at 10 p.m. or see something cool on social media while you’re eating dinner, but your employee doesn’t need to know about it until tomorrow. Save it, write it on a Post-It, or let it go. Unless Godzilla’s in your downtown or a sinkhole swallowed city hall, It. Can. Wait. Your employees need their downtime to work better tomorrow, and they don’t need an excuse to be unavailable during off-hours.


Hand in hand with this, remind your employees to use their PTO. With one emergency after another this year, and travel discouraged or restricted, many employees are foregoing use of their vacation time. Encourage them to take it. Remind them frequently of any deadlines for use it or lose it hours. And for heaven’s sake, don’t guilt trip anyone for asking for time off. They earned the time. Let them have it without hassle.


None of these efforts take exhaustive coordination or resources. They just take concerted effort from leaders to attempt and support.


Strong teams don’t just happen. Whether in the office or online, they take work to build, maintain, and strengthen. If you’ve been neglecting culture building this year, there’s still time to refocus on your people and get to work making your organization the best it can be.