A strong remote team culture matters much more than you might think. Positive work culture and good communication help a team do much more than just implement their projects; these concepts help team members to excel in their tasks and rise to new heights. Culture is “how we do things around here,” according to Gallup consultants. It is what makes your organization special and different from others. Teams with positive cultures have a greater sense of accountability. It’s one thing to slack off in a remote team when you don’t care about the culture, when the boss isn’t aware, and you aren’t particularly friendly with co-workers. It’s another thing entirely to do that when team members you care about are relying on you.
What’s more – workers who say they are on a team are 2.3 times more likely to be fully engaged than those who are not, according to a 2018 ADP Research survey of 19,000 employees. This finding held true within all 19 countries in the study – and in many countries the difference between non-team and team workers was even greater. Fully engaged employees are dedicated to an organization’s purpose, certain in their definition of excellence, confident in the support of their teammates, and excited by their organization’s future. “Developing highly engaged teams results in fewer negative outcomes, more positive outcomes and greater success for your organization,” were the conclusions from a Gallup meta-analysis report in 2020 of employee engagement and team performance of 2.7 million employees in 96 countries – the largest such study in the world.
In all countries and industries, virtual workers who are part of a team are more likely to be engaged. In the ADP study, 29% of virtual workers were fully engaged compared to 18% who worked in an office: “This suggests that physical proximity is not required to create a sense of team, and that the flexibility and ease inherent in working virtually is appealing to all workers.” COVID-19 has complicated this picture globally, but trend data show that WFH staff remain productive.
Good communication is essential to a strong remote team culture
Team members who communicate well with one another are:
- more likely to help each other – and therefore develop a supportive team culture
- more able to complete tasks on time
- more likely to work successfully together whether based in the office, working remotely or in a hybrid format.
Workers who communicate respectfully and more efficiently with one another do their work better and do it more happily. These two factors can’t be understated for any organization that strives for success, no matter the circumstances.
In this sense, effective communication for a remote team can dramatically impact its overall effectiveness, productivity, and long-term viability. So building effective communication across remote teams is necessary for long-term success.
Developing collective values
Getting team members to embrace collective values isn’t easy, whether they work in the same building or remotely. These people may come from many walks of life and may have been influenced by different organizational cultures, so obliging them to jointly adhere to a group approach is not likely to be easy. All the more if they’re geographically situated in different parts of the world. This can apply just as much to small-medium dispersed firms as to large international corporations.
Since the onset of the pandemic, remote work has become a popular topic. However, the conversation usually centers on being more productive in day-to-day functions. These include topics such as which etiquette should to be observed in external and internal virtual conferencing, what channels to use for remote meetings, and how to show an orderly and businesslike visual background in video conference calls. Various initiatives are outlined below to create better higher-level results from remote working during these difficult times during the pandemic.
Fixing failed realizations and struggles
Surveys by the Pew Research Center found that before the outbreak, only 20% of the workforce were working from home. However, as realization of the virus threat increased, the number of people working remotely rose to 71%, with 54% of them still wishing to continue to work remotely even after the pandemic ends.
Furthermore, the surveys revealed that around 87% of remote workers said that they prefer working at home because it’s easier for them to access the equipment and technology they needed to get their work done. Apart from that, 80% of them also said it was easier for them to meet their deadlines when they work from home instead of the office.
Most remote staff are working productively despite logistical complexities
Most WFH staff have reported stable or even increased productivity levels after they started working from home, despite complexities in functioning remotely. A massive two-year study of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies came to this conclusion, as reported by Great Place to Work in February 2021.
These results showed that the US workforce, regardless of the industry, is becoming more productive and comfortable working from home. Understanding these facts, employers are devising plans on how to keep or further their work-from-home arrangement.
Yet many organizations are still failing to realize the need to discuss and remedy remote-work issues like emotional disconnection, loss of interest and passive knowledge of downtimes, and disintegration of collective work cultures. All these issues, especially the last one, adversely affect employee motivation and morale, which could hamper their productivity.
Image opposite: Pew Research Center, 9 December 2021.
Experienced remote workers can confirm the increased extent of disconnection among team members who work from different time zones and virtually distanced desks. These remote workers already know this, but the pandemic has heightened the extent of disconnection even more.
Who is responsible for bridging remote discord?
Who has the responsibility of remedying remote misunderstandings and relational issues? These issues are primarily caused by the lack of face-to-face interactions and visual cues that could help enhance the communication between the remote and office staff.
If you’re a team leader, or even a senior team member, you should be proactive in resolving issues like this to avoid further demoralization and loss of productivity. As remote work becomes more prevalent and relevant, these issues are also gaining more ground and have become a reality for most businesses.
How to build a strong remote team culture
Here are some proven and tested ways to help build a better culture within remote teams:
1. Build team communication and working relationships
Even though everyone is separated, teams can build great communication cultures by bringing their office cultures to the virtual space. In fact, many of the best tools that remote teams are using these days – like Zoom or Slack – have functions built into their interfaces specifically for this purpose. Reminding everyone that they’re on the same team they were before the transition to remote work is a great way to keep a positive team culture going.
Reduce virtual distance
Virtual distance is a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow little by little and unconsciously when most encounters and experiences are conveyed by screens on electronic devices. There are three kinds of virtual distance in remote collaboration:
- physical (geographic – place and time)
- operational (lack of shared context – team size, bandwidth and skill levels)
- affinity (lack of meaningful relationships – values, trust, and interdependency).
The best way for managers to drive team performance is by focusing on reducing affinity distance, ie the personal connection, between them. Try switching most remote communication to regular video calls, which are a better vehicle for establishing rapport and creating empathy than emails or voice calls. And design virtual team-building rituals that give people the opportunity to interact regularly and experience their collaboration skills in action.
You don’t have to be a boss to remind colleagues that your virtual office door is always open. Show your supportive attitude to encourage colleagues to feel comfortable cold-calling you or asking for help, rather than being worried about ‘bothering you.’’
Dhawan & Chamorro-Premuzic also recommend:
Don’t misunderstand brief communication as clear communication
In their efforts to be efficient, people sometimes use fewer words to communicate. But such brevity can mean the rest of the team wastes time trying to interpret their messages. (And then may misinterpret the messages anyway.) Don’t assume that others understand your cues and shorthand. Spend the time to communicate with the intention of being ultra-clear, no matter the medium. Indeed, you can never be too clear, but it is too easy to be less clear than you should.
Don’t bombard your team with messages
Do you follow up on a task by email, text and phone? Do you tend to ask people if they got your previous message? Abusing those access points can be a form of digital dominance, a relentless and uncomfortable form of harassment. The medium you choose creates different demands on the time of the receiver. Using all of them for the same message is ineffective (as well as annoying). Choose your digital volume wisely.
People often tend to regard predictable behavior as a bit boring, but these qualities can be useful in the work environment, especially in virtual collaborations. We are all unique, but our consistent behaviors help others predict what we do, and in turn help them to understand us — and we all benefit from being understood. You can make that easier for others by establishing clear personal etiquette and routines – and sticking to them consistently.
See the hidden opportunities in written communication
Research shows that introverted workers feel less inhibited in online versus offline interactions. These team members may feel a bit uncomfortable when needing to speak out in face-to-face office interactions, so they may relax more when working remotely and communicating more via email and texts than previously in the office. Text-based communication requires less emphasis on interpersonal skills and physical appearance, offering an effective way for them to participate more in decision-making activities.
However, you need to watch out for virtual unconscious bias, where punctuation, grammar and word choice might reveal prejudiced attitudes towards certain groups. I noticed an example this morning. While out walking, I passed two tradesmen who had slowed down in front of me as one of them was texting a message. Then he stopped, and I heard him ask his mate, “How do you spell ‘discussion’?”…The encounter reminded me that we all have our individual strengths and virtues – and not to pass judgement too quickly.
2. Emphasize the importance of employee contribution to a strong team culture to business success
The problem with remote work is many frontline employees don’t get to interact with their team leader or someone in authority. For rank-and-file employees, this lack of interaction can easily cause them to lose self-esteem and make them think less of their role. Also, if they don’t get recognition from their boss for good work, they might become confused about whether or not they’re doing well in their job.
To strengthen the team culture, leaders should connect with every team member and make them realize that their output has a significant impact on the success of their business unit and therefore their organization. If they feel important, they’ll easily develop a deeper sense of responsibility towards the team. This feeling will lead them to do better and collaborate with the rest of the group.
You should remember the great importance of this recognition of employees for their good effort and results – not just as a boss, but as a colleague as well. I believe it is so important that I have written a Kindle book about it, called “Employee recognition: The secret to great team performance“.
Financial targets don’t motivate employees
It’s essential to keep in mind that financial targets don’t motivate employees. Financial performance is crucial, of course. But making numbers the centerpiece of your leadership narrative is a costly mistake. Financial results are an outcome, not a root driver of employee performance. As authors Lisa McLeod and Elizabeth Lotardo say in a February 2021 Harvard Business Review article: “Would you be excited if your boss started a meeting saying: “I want to remind you that you’re a cog in a machine whose primary purpose is to hit our financial targets?“
A growing body of evidence tells us that overemphasizing financial targets erodes morale and undermines long-term strategy. McLeod & Lotardo say leaders looking to motivate employees must instead use their time with their teams to build belief in the organizational purpose, the intrinsic value of the employees’ work, and the impact they have on customers, and each other.
Team leaders should give their staff the chance to improve their skills through training and development. This aspect is increasingly important as technology changes the nature of many jobs.
Show teams the positive impact of their work
The more clearly an employee understands the direct impact of their work, the more likely they are to be positively motivated, and to experience more fulfillment. Research has found that when employees realize their work matters to another individual, they lift their game. Discussing customers overall doesn’t create the same emotional response.
Instead, when you speak about customers, even if your team doesn’t interact with them directly, use their real names, talk about the businesses they have, and show your team that real people are counting on them. This approach has worked with fundraisers, hospital workers, travel guide producers, mail-order pharmacies, and sales teams, for example.
3. Encourage collaboration
When teammates freely collaborate in a platform that’s accessible to every member, they start forming a stronger and more cohesive bond. It’s like they’re all on the same boat, working on a similar problem that could benefit them equally when solved. This bond leads them to work collectively towards the collective goals. By allowing them to collaborate, the barriers and gaps created by physical distance get dissipated easily. Analysis has found people tend to care more about their team than about the firm they work for – it is the strength and cohesiveness of your team, not your company’s culture, that matter most.
Team culture is dynamic, evolving with new experiences. Lessons can be learned from the example of teams in highly successful business consulting firms. In a December 2020 Harvard Business Review article, Prof. Nicholas Lovegrove of Georgetown University, noted that in the project-based environment of a consulting firm like McKinsey & Co., employees participate directly and pragmatically in the creative task of building a micro-culture for their teams:
They do so at the outset of each project by developing their own team charters that specify how they will schedule and conduct team meetings, share the workload, make decisions, give each other feedback, blend virtual and in-person interactions, and respect individual styles and preferences — in other words, what their working culture will be. And they do this [collaboration] each time they form a new team in a self-perpetuating process.
4. Schedule regular catch-ups and informal meetings
Before you steer your team towards formal goals and activities, communicate with them on a personal level. They need to see that you have their best interests at heart and that they can trust you. Part of this is finding your own unique way to create team spaces for social connection. How you do it is less important than whether you do, but you should establish a regular schedule for catch-ups and meetings.
Research shows that all employees benefit from in-person [in-the-office] interaction with their colleagues, regardless of their job or personality. “The reality is that there’s incredible value in our casual office encounters, both from a mental health standpoint and a workplace productivity standpoint,” according to a Forbes article in July 2020:
We get these casual interactions all the time when we’re in the office — when we ride the elevator up to our office floor, when we refill our coffee, when we see someone in the hallway on our way to grab more staples. It’s impossible to duplicate these chance encounters when everyone is working from home.
These encounters shorten the affinity distance, which is the emotional separation between virtual team members who have no personal connection with each other.
There is no doubt that team leaders and team members have to do some work to overcome disadvantages of WFH. The prospect of discord doubles when employees work on-site as well as remotely. Remote staff are more adversely affected by this set-up, so you need to make them feel included.
The best way to create a better relationship between both groups is to provide an opportunity to interact and catch up. It could be as simple as a virtual catch-up once a week in which they could talk about anything other than work. You could start a ‘water cooler’ Slack channel to enable employees to ‘drop by’ when they need a little pick-me-up or 2-minute break. Use it to ask how your colleagues’ days are going, offer some relevant news or fun facts, make suggestions, or ask a question common to everyone so they all can answer.
Try starting a team ‘book club.’ This can be done over Slack or Zoom, where members can join a channel and vote to choose a suitable book. Then members can set a date for meetings to discuss the selected books monthly or on agreed dates.
Create intentional space for celebration
You should still maintain office traditions and rituals whenever possible to help keep a semblance of normal routines and team motivation. You should still celebrate birthdays (arrange for slices of birthday cake to be delivered to team members, if feasible – at least to those close by). Celebrate engagements, weddings, babies and accomplishments. And don’t forget work anniversaries! Everyone loves a good ‘congrats!’ GIF here and there.
Virtual lunch ideas
You could suggest a monthly virtual lunch activity with team members who would like to participate. On a more formal note, you could arrange a ‘lunch-and-learn’ session for team mates. These are a great opportunity for a team member – or even an outsider – with a relevant specialty to share their knowledge or skill with the rest of the team. Anyone can virtually ‘drop in’ while eating their lunch, and learn about this skill. Arrange a Q+A session at the end. You could also arrange video lunch or coffee dates with co-workers to keep in touch with them.
Becca Siegel suggests lots of good ideas about keeping in touch. Her article, “How to stay connected while working remotely,” is worth checking out.
Creating such virtual spaces and rituals for celebrations and socializing can strengthen relationships and lay the foundation for future collaboration, according to Dhawan & Chamorro-Premuzic in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article. As discussed, when you connect with people in these ways, they can become more open to you as they also feel a sense of pride that their employer values them apart from their work contribution.
5. Move people to create meeting content with clear agenda and context
When preparing an agenda, put yourself metaphorically in the shoes of your team members. They won’t know some of the reasons leading up to an agenda item being discussed, especially if they are working remotely. They don’t have the context that direct communication provides. For instance, they don’t see the body language, often they don’t know what colleagues have been doing recently, they don’t know what their mood is, etc. Context provides project background, additional information about other team members, strategic importance, and so on. Without it, virtual team members make assumptions and best guess more often because they can’t ‘pick up’ information when remote. Be intentional about providing context, answering questions, verifying understanding and clarifying meaning.
Provide context when you contact your teammates about something. Instead of emailing “Send me media coverage from the Blake campaign ASAP”, you should provide a little background to your request. Therefore, say something like “I’m meeting at short notice with Blake CEO at 2 pm. Can you send me the stats from the last campaign so I can update them?” More context = Fewer misunderstandings.
Some experienced communication professionals like Kristin Graham, former Principal of Culture & Communications at Amazon, recommend managers to “schedule (and stick to) shorter meetings (40 minutes max.) and to declare meeting-free days.”
The approach to team meetings has a marked impact on team culture. Poorly run meetings have a strongly negative impact on team success, innovation, creativity; and on individuals’ well-being and stress, according to Prof. Steven Rogelberg of the University of North Carolina Charlotte. In a 2020 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, he says the COVID-19 challenging time is marked by an increase in remote meetings.
The best meeting leaders appear to share a similar mindset: recognizing their role as a steward of others’ time. Leaders often adopt a stewardship mindset when meeting with important customers or stakeholders because they would never want these key individuals to feel the meeting was a waste of time. Stewardship is often disregarded, however, when meeting with one’s team and/or peers. Rogelberg says when you adopt a stewardship mindset, you become deliberate in your meeting decisions from start to finish: “These choices span how you set up beforehand, how you manage productivity and presence during the meeting, and how you conclude it.”
Setting the agenda
Let those who will attend think about what the agenda should be so that they’ll also feel ownership of what will be discussed. Meetings with a clear agenda and understandable context allow people from different locations to feel more engaged and in the loop. Try organizing the agenda – all or partly – as a set of questions to be answered rather than a set of topics to be discussed. By framing agenda items as questions, you have a better sense of who really has to be invited to the meeting.
More tips that lead to a strong remote team culture
Some of Rogelberg’s key points:
Remote meetings plummet in quality as size increases. Luckily, team members who don’t attend can arrange to access a recording. They can even play parts of live proceedings faster than normal speed to skip the parts not relevant to them. Let non-essential members off the hook and share the recording so they can listen at their convenience. However — and this is key — to avoid any feelings of marginalization by team members who weren’t invited to a particular meeting, give them the option to attend any future meetings on the topic if they wish. They typically won’t take you up on it, but they will appreciate being asked.
Set time properly
Given everyone’s shorter attention spans right now, avoid defaulting to the hour-long meeting. Don’t hesitate to schedule just 15, 20, or 25 minutes for a meeting. Reducing the meeting length creates positive pressure; research shows that groups operating under some level of time pressure actually perform better, with increased focus and stimulation.
Start and end on time
Nothing kills momentum like a 15-minute delay because people need to download software, can’t get the video or audio to work, or encounter other technical hiccups. Meeting presenters should log in five minutes early to ensure that all the technology is working smoothly. Ending meetings late is a tremendous source of stress for individuals, so don’t run over.
Start the meeting well
As the meeting leader, your mood matters. It sets the tone. Research even suggests it may produce a contagion effect on attendees in which their mood mirrors yours. Start the meeting with energy, appreciation and gratitude, especially during this stressful time. This increases the chances of a more positive meeting mood, which promotes more creativity, listening, and constructiveness.
Absolutely essential. Meeting leaders must embrace the role of facilitator. Draw in virtual attendees (for example, “Sasha, please share your thoughts”) to keep them engaged. You might even consider keeping a tally to be sure all are contributing and all voices are heard. Avoid the generic question, “Any comments?” Instead, call on people specifically. Lastly, don’t let people ramble or go off course; kindly interrupting, if necessary, is your job as a meeting leader.
Remote meetings are subject to a human tendency to reduce effort and motivation when working in a group. This can increase during remote meetings due to the virtual barrier between team members. Using video, along with inviting as few people as possible, helps counter that sense of anonymity.
Silence does not indicate understanding or agreement. Some great apps (such as Klaxoon, Mentimeter, and Poll Everywhere) allow participants to vote, and are an easy way to determine if the group has reached a consensus. This can be done in real time during the meeting, or immediately afterwards to separate deliberation from decision-making. You increase involvement and engagement when you use these types of technological tools.
One further thought from Kristin Graham about staying upbeat and sharp during the pandemic. She takes frequent breaks indoors and outdoors. She’s a stickler for the 20-20-20 rule – after 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Forming a team is one thing; making it function cohesively is another. To make people with different backgrounds, temperaments, and personalities work like one mind and body takes courage and effort. This may be a hard task but with the tips we share above, it’s never impossible.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.