7 Delightful Ways to Help Remote Employees Connect and Thrive
February 4, 2022
We’re in the midst of a genuine remote work revolution. Jobs that were considered impossible to do outside the office became remote-friendly overnight. Organizations that previously claimed a hard stance against remote work found themselves not only surviving, but thriving in this new connected workplace.
Despite that early success, many employees are being called back to the office regardless of whether or not their work could be managed remotely. But even as more employees return to the office, remote and hybrid work will almost certainly remain a constant fixture.
Organizations swimming against this current will find it harder and harder not only to attract new talent, but also to retain their best. It’s already happening. Savvy CEOs and recruiters are looking at remote work as a competitive advantage in the talent landscape and capitalizing on it.
So, teams are looking at remote work flexibility and digital employee experience as a way to attract and retain talent, but there are still a host of challenges.
While there have been enormous strides made in the way we work across the world, remote and hybrid work en masse are still in their infancy. There are numerous obstacles both organizations and individual employees struggle with—some of which we’ve convinced ourselves may never be possible to fully overcome in the context of remote work.
Of all those obstacles, building personal connections with coworkers is one of the most challenging. That’s exactly what we’re going to cover here.
Why is connecting employees so difficult?
Many remote workplace toolkits and methodologies are still optimized for connecting employees to their work; not to one another as individuals.
By optimizing things this way, we’re likely missing the forest for the trees, and the result is weaker connections between team members, which can lead to increased burnout, lower retention, and poor engagement. Research from Gallup shines some light on this effect:
“Our research has repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job. For example, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%).”
So we need to connect employees and build camaraderie. Great. Got it. Let’s go ahead and throw a bi-weekly online happy hour. Problem solved, right?
You’re on the right track, but don’t dust off your hands just yet.
As organizations increasingly hire across borders, something as simple as a Zoom or Teams happy hour becomes not only logistically challenging, but also culturally challenging. For example:
- Which team stays up late (or gets up early) to participate?
- Is it the overseas team each time, or do you trade off between the HQ and satellite offices?
- Is it fun to hang out at a virtual work event at 10pm, your time, or would you rather be doing something else at that hour, like sleeping?
This isn’t a call to end remote happy hours, but rather to reframe the activity and think creatively about the benefits and limitations of that medium as it relates to bringing employees together.
In other words, maybe it’s time to re-think connecting employees in the remote work era—to build less happy hours into workweeks, and more happy minutes into the workday.
Here are some ways to do that.
1. Prioritize employee connections during onboarding.
Onboarding is a challenging time for employees, even if they’re working from an office. That challenge is compounded for remote workers. For many, the onboarding process not only feels a bit disconnected, but also becomes protracted in a remote setting.
Access to information is important, but it can also become overwhelming without guidance. The key is gaining access to the right information at the right time. This is what great onboarding strategies accomplish—taking a new employee on a learning journey, and helping bring them not just into the organization’s payroll, but its culture.
There may be a point at which your formal onboarding program ends, but there’s not a clear line where onboarding itself is over. 30/60/90 day plans can be a great tool for setting expectations, but what about day 91?
The buddy system
Assigning a buddy to new employees can help them navigate numerous obstacles, especially important but often unspoken norms and expectations. This is a common approach in person, but it’s often missed for remote workers.
In the days of co-located offices, something as simple as “where is the bathroom?” can be a surprisingly important question a buddy can proactively answer. In a remote or hybrid setting, helping new colleagues understand expectations around Slack statuses can be helpful in a similar way. Those first few weeks are usually overwhelming, and having a trusted companion there to lighten the cognitive load can make an enormous difference.
Some organizations take the buddy system a step further, scheduling non-work-related activities between buddies, or even providing a small allowance for thoughtful gifts.
2. Promote authentic core values.
What are your stated core values, what values do you wish to see in your colleagues, and what values does your organization exhibit collectively? Those things may differ, or even be at odds. There are myriad examples of organizations that either fail to live up to, completely ignore, or operate counter to their stated core values.
Core values are often aspirational statements senior leaders craft, but it’s a rare and beautiful thing when an entire organization internalizes and embodies authentic core values.
As Denise Lee Yohn expertly states it in her recent HBR article, “The new job of the CEO and senior management team is not to hand company culture down from on high but to prioritize it and allocate the resources to ensure it.”
Here’s a good core value litmus test: set aside how many people embody and adhere to your organization’s core values and simply guess what percentage even knows what they are.
If that exercise left you questioning the authenticity of your organization’s core values, it might be time to re-evaluate (or at least distill) them.
There’s no right or wrong number of core values, but generally the fewer core values you need to memorize, internalize, and embody, the easier it is. After all, if you have 16 core values, are they really core values?
At Haystack, we have three core values. They’re easy to remember, easy to understand, and generally very easy to interpret in any given situation:
- Curiosity - We are explorers who strive to learn from different perspectives. Nothing is too far-fetched until it's tested. We embrace the learning curve.
- Creativity - Our culture is only as good as our ideas. Don't be afraid to challenge conventional thinking. Break boundaries.
- Kindness - We want you to remember what it felt like to work at Haystack. We choose respect, empathy, and kindness. Always.
If you’ve settled on sincere core values that not only help your organization achieve its mission, but make it a better place to work, the next step is to promote them. The more frequently people are exposed to examples of core values in action, the easier it is for them to contextualize and internalize them.
Calling out contributions that exemplify those values is one of the easiest ways to increase that exposure. If you value creativity, call out particularly creative solutions to problems. Find ways to contextualize creativity in daily actions, and make them visible.
We use Slack and our company intranet as canvases for these callouts because they’re easy ways to reach the entire team instantly, but the details are up to you.
3. Manufacture collisions across your remote campus.
This would be terrible advice for a city planner, but as Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay outline in their 2014 Harvard Business Review article “Workspaces That Move People,” collisions in the workplace are an essential component of the employee experience:
“Chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance. We’ve also learned that spaces can even be designed to produce specific performance outcomes—productivity in one space, say, and increased innovation in another, or both in the same space but at different times.”
That was printed back in 2014 when sprawling office campuses were the norm, but it’s just as important—perhaps more important—to manufacture chance encounters in a remote setting.
Consider the digital surfaces employees have access to, and which of them offer an opportunity for collisions.
Haystack Connect is a tool we built to help build those collisions into a digital campus. Lauren and I joined the team around the same time, and work on different sides of Haystack’s Go To Market function. Connect matched us up and made it easy to learn a bit about each other ahead of scheduling some time for a coffee.
If you don’t have Haystack Connect, there are other tools you can use to help bring employees together for a cross-functional coffee. Donut, for example, provides a suite of tools for Slack dedicated to helping employees get to know one another better.
4. Bring back the water cooler (and the lunch table).
The lunch table and the water cooler are more than places to sit down and eat or grab a refreshing drink; they’re places to commune.
But just like the water cooler, the lunch table is gone for many organizations, and may never return. So, how do you get the best parts of the lunch table back while everyone’s working remotely?
Make it a point to arrange lunch or a cup of coffee (or tea) between colleagues. It may not be exactly the same as sitting across the table from one another, but the informal setting still helps provide a space for good conversations.
There are also some unique benefits. The best part about sharing food as a remote team? You can eat with someone hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The second best thing? Nobody’s going to steal your leftovers out of the company fridge.
If your colleagues are so far away that catching up over a quick bite is challenging, don’t fret. There are a number of other really fun and interesting ways to share food with your colleagues. But don't limit these opportunities to food. There are a number of other "lunch tables" where your team can get together for informal chats.
The Random Channel
Activity in the random channel might feel frivolous, but there’s hidden value in those GIFs, articles, baking photos, and good-spirited debates on zero-stakes topics. Banter helps us relate to one another, share a common experience, and build bonds as a result.
These are just a few ways we’re bringing the lunch table and the water cooler back—we're really just scratching the surface here. Think about unique and creative opportunities your organization may have to bring people together on your digital campus.
5. Learn and build together.
Going on a learning journey or building something together can be just as engaging and rewarding as a physical journey. Whether or not the effort is specific to your functional area, learning and building are fantastic group activities.
We have a book club at Haystack, where we choose a new book each month or so, read it, and discuss key themes. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, we work together to learn from that month’s selection.
Even if you’re already working on something fulfilling and exciting, that doesn’t mean your team can’t still build and learn together in other areas.
Async Hackathons might sound like madness, but they’re another great way to include people from all across an organization in a fun, creative project. The team at Coda put together a great guide on how to organize and run one.
Who knows, the outcome of your hackathon might lead to a new feature or tool to help everyone stay even better connected.
Courses and classes attended as a team are another opportunity for building connections with coworkers. The number of courses available is truly massive. Whether it’s a new design framework, advanced security training, mindfulness, or sales methodologies, there’s an enriching, engaging opportunity waiting for your team.
There are countless ways to learn and build together—think creatively about something that members of your team might be especially interested in. Share your ideas for feedback before
6. Celebrate employees and their contributions.
As interactions between colleagues require more proactive behavior, they tend to drop off. As those interactions drop off, you’re left with “simply business.”
Whether they’re between a manager and their direct report, or between peers, interactions driven by simply business are neutral (“Do you have that report ready?”) at best, and negative (“The stats in that report were wrong, and it made us look bad”) at worst.
So what does it take to shift that bias toward positivity?
Call out big wins, call out little wins, call out all the wins. Point out the value of well-deployed efforts in the face of adversity, and make sure employees know their contributions are valued, whether they lead to wins or not.
Make milestones like work anniversaries and new employees joining the team a celebratory event visible to everyone.
Whether all this is done through a formal recognition program, or something as informal as a #shoutouts channel in Slack or Microsoft Teams, the key is to start building momentum on the positive side of the interaction scale.
7. Have fun together.
There’s a line of thinking that suggests that once you reach adulthood and become a professional that play is frivolity, or that it doesn’t belong in the workplace. That couldn't be further from the truth. Fun and play are just as important in adulthood, and they have the added benefit of stimulating our creative sides while building connections between individuals.
No matter how busy your team is, there's always time to step back for a second and recalibrate through a shared experience. The lighter weight the better. At Haystack, we've been known to kick off a simple impromptu game of trivia, and just started a new channel dedicated to riddles. It's good fun with low investment—just the kind of thing you can participate in without getting a whole team together for, or dedicating hours to.
You don't even need a group to connect with teammates over games. For example, we have a name game on the dashboard of our company intranet. Coworker photos flash up, and you have to guess their name. The more you get right, the higher your score. It's surprisingly captivating, and as a result, you get a great opportunity to learn about your colleagues and put names to faces of colleagues you might not have met yet.
A pet-friendly remote campus
Pet owners know the calming effect that just having their best friend beside them can have. But recent research is shining some light on the In a recent post for Forbes on the potential benefits of a pet friendly office, Naz Beheshti highlights a study by Virginia Commonwealth University that found pets to be a significant stress buffer for their owners, but perhaps more interesting, “the benefits may extend to co-workers as well…”
The study outlines this relationship and its potential for positive impact further:
“Stress is a major contributor to employee absenteeism, morale and burnout and results in significant loss of productivity and resources…dogs in the workplace may buffer the impact of stress during the workday for their owners and make the job more satisfying for those with whom they come into contact.”
Principal investigator Dr. Randolph Barker mentioned that the effect was “The differences in perceived stress between days the dog was present and absent were significant. The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms.”
That sounds promising, but if you don’t have a physical office space, can you reap the same benefits? Yep, of course!
This is my best friend, Artemis. She’s a certified good dog, and a fan favorite here at Haystack. It’s my sincere hope that she just helped buffer a little stress for you.