By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager
A low-key debate about the pros and cons of virtual work was filtering through the business world in 2019. At that point, around 16 percent of U.S. employees performed their jobs remotely, and the topic was largely academic to most employers.
One year later, that number took an unexpected high bounce when the pandemic forced most businesses to operate with at least a partially remote workforce. According to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of employees were doing their jobs virtually in 2020. The seismic increase that under normal circumstances would probably take years, happened virtually overnight.
Suddenly, the good and bad points of a remote workforce were no longer conjecture—almost everyone was experiencing them in real-time. For over a year, it was as though people were taking part in a controlled scientific experiment to test the viability of the virtual work model on a large scale.
The Upside of Virtual Work
By the end of 2020, enough research had been done about the “new normal” of remote staff to provide some good data. Studies revealed that once people adjusted to the suddenness of the change, most preferred working remotely at least part of the time—and employers are on board with that.
The drawbacks to working remotely were overshadowed by the positive aspects that became apparent to both employees and employers:
Positive Points for Employees:
- No commuting time or expense
- More flexibility with work hours
- Can work from anywhere—not just home
- Jobs aren’t limited to where you live
- Comfortable, personal environment
- Healthier lifestyle
Positive Points for Employers:
- Reduced workplace expenses
- Wider talent pool
- More productivity
- Scalability at lower cost
In a March 2020 Gartner survey of CFOs, 74 percent indicated that they plan to make some staff permanently remote after the pandemic has subsided. A quarter of the respondents will transition 20 percent of their workers to remote teams. Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, predicts that by 2025, about 70 percent of the workforce will work remotely at least five days a month.
It looks like remote working, or at least a hybrid workforce, is here to stay. Organizations are already finding ways to improve temporary systems put into place to cope with the pandemic and creating new best practices for the years ahead.
How Company Culture Affects Remote Team Building
Organizational culture plays a significant role in diffusing the downsides of remote jobs. In an earlier article, we explained how companies can use their culture to overcome aspects of the remote model that negatively impact the work product.
Along with the practical elements of a job, there’s another important benefit that culture can supply to businesses with remote workers: team building.
While people aren’t in the same kind of forced isolation they endured in the throes of the pandemic, remote workers still feel disconnected from their peers. The lighthearted atmosphere that often evolves naturally in a brick-and-mortar workplace can be challenging to maintain virtually.
But a strong and supportive corporate culture has the power to unite team members working in multiple locations. When leaders structure their organizational culture to include an element of socialization and fun, it becomes an excellent team-building vehicle. The right culture can create a close-knit group wherever people may be doing their jobs.
Putting the “Fun” in Culture
The essence of company culture is in the behavioral norms of an organization. How people interact and their attitudes about work form the cultural narrative. When leaders intentionally identify and define the behaviors that will drive success for their businesses, they’re creating the building blocks for a robust and exceptional culture.
Many of the behaviors attached to high-performing cultures are rooted in powerful work habits—and these are critical.
But for a business to achieve overarching goals, some of a culture’s foundational behaviors should focus on workplace happiness and well-being.
When author and CultureWise founder David Friedman advises clients about the behaviors they should stress within their organizations, he strongly recommends including this one: Keep Things Fun.
As a CEO for decades, he understands the importance of laughter and the enjoyment people take in working with others—whether they’re together in one building, in multiple company sites, or performing their jobs from home. And much of that joyful outlook is kindled by social bonds.
In the second edition of his book Culture by Design, Friedman addresses the challenge of maintaining bond-building connections with a remote team. He believes that leaders must make an effort to facilitate the kind of connections between remote employees that happen organically when people are working under one roof.
Friedman says that to be effective when working with remote staff, leaders need to be more intentional about nearly everything. They must:
- Schedule time for coaching and checking in on team members’ states of mind
- Plan ways for people to connect and get to know each other better
- Create routines or rituals around how co-workers stay in touch
“It can all be done well,” Friedman explains, “but only if we’re purposeful.” By intentionally forging and enabling these connections, leaders can help remote workers become part of the “work family” whose members are there for one another and can face challenges together better.
When leaders make an effort to “keep things fun,” they’ll have happier, healthier employees.
What Does Being Happy Have to Do with Work?
In his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, leadership expert Shawn Achor explains why finding ways to be happy at work makes people better at what they do.
“Cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upward. Happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement—giving us the competitive edge.”
Achor did extensive research on multiple organizations before writing his book, which has been embraced by leaders worldwide. One of the keys to achieving happiness on the job, he notes, is socialization:
“Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both as an antidote to depression and a prescription for higher performance.”
Encouraging employees to interact not only for work but for fun empowers them to build more happiness into their jobs. The idea is not to make staff members happy; as Achor points out, that’s up to individuals to do for themselves. Leaders should supply the tools, show support for, and take part in having fun at work—no matter where people are.
Injecting fun in work and promoting socialization not only improves performance; happy employees are more likely to remain engaged—and that strengthens retention.
When leaders help people maintain bright outlooks on the job, their efforts are anything but frivolous—it’s a very smart way to run a business.
A Room Without a Roof: Ideas to Build Social Ties with Remote Teams
As mentioned earlier, fun activities designed for remote employees aren’t supposed to detract from productive workdays. With good planning, they bring remote teams closer together and help people thrive personally and professionally. Part of taking care of business is taking care of each other.
Spring-boarding off Friedman’s concept to keep things fun, we’ve reviewed some innovative ideas to connect remote workers in a social way. Not every solution will work for all companies as each work team is unique. But here is a round-up of options for companies operating beyond four walls to consider.
Providing a video-conferencing platform for people to connect and discuss common interests is a great way to encourage meaningful social interaction.
These can be drop-in groups publicized to the whole team with shorter meetups scheduled during lunch hours or at the end of the workday and more extended activities promoted for evenings or weekends. One way to encourage staff to participate is to create a live document where people can suggest ideas.
Some discussion topics that people may bond over are:
- Home improvements
Longer after-hours activities could include:
- Netflix (or another provider) watch parties
- Ted Talk discussion groups
- Guided cooking demos, wine tastings, etc.
- Yoga or other fitness instruction
- Virtual happy hours with games like trivia or Pictionary
- Virtual tours to interesting and unusual places
- Game nights
- Virtual escape rooms
- House tours, virtual walking tours of co-workers’ homes
New Virtual Company Traditions
Many organizations establish traditions to mark anniversaries, note milestones, celebrate successes, or to just pull the team together for fun. When people take part in a company tradition, they are reminded that they’re part of something beyond just their jobs. It strengthens their sense of belonging and allegiance to the company.
Traditions are usually unique to a group, but here are a few that other companies use that may provide inspiration and are easy to conduct virtually.
- Set up a way to conduct a virtual “round of applause” for big sales
- Develop a method to keep track of and acknowledge everyone’s birthday
- Create a weekly newsletter that shares happenings, goals, and achievements
- Have monthly team-wide celebrations of company high points
- Hold virtual meet-and-greet sessions for new employees
An Online Chat Space Dedicated to Non-Work Topics
Remote workers often say they miss the opportunity for casual, spontaneous conversations. To remedy this, many companies designate spaces on communication platforms like Slack to create virtual “water-coolers.”
These are casual boards where people can jump on and engage in chats about non-work topics, post pictures, and get to know their co-workers better. Even online, quick conversations help people form ties:
- “Who watched the tournament finals?”
- “My first grandchild was born last week!”
- “Recommendations for the best leaf-blower brand, please.”
- “I need surprise birthday party ideas.”
- “Here’s a picture of my new puppy.”
Everyone usually “arrives” at the same time for virtual meetings, and it’s tempting for leaders to jump right into the agenda. By doing that, though, remote workers are missing out on the relaxed social atmosphere and conversations that usually precede in-person meetings.
A better idea is to dedicate a few minutes up-front for participants to have a chance to connect. This allows everyone to warm up, settle in, and feel more engaged with the group. A ritual of creating space at the beginning of meetings for casual connecting erases some of the “click-on, click-off” nature of online gatherings.
Learn More About Company Culture with CultureWise
Keeping things fun is just one of the many ways culture can strengthen and unite teams who work in different locations. When leaders build and continuously improve their organization’s culture, they have a powerful tool that will enhance every aspect of their operations—from team building to driving profit.
CultureWise offers several ways to increase awareness and knowledge about the impact of company culture.
- Stay in the loop about the most discussed topics about culture in today’s business world with a complimentary subscription to the CultureWise newsletter, “Culture Matters.”
- Read or listen to a preview chapter of David Friedman’s first book, Fundamentally Different, which details the critical role culture plays in organizational success.
- Listen and watch a video book trailer for Culture by Design. This new edition of Friedman’s second book offers a step-by-step process to create and sustain a high-performing culture. And it includes specific information about how to make a culture program work with remote employees. A free, two-chapter download of Culture by Design is also currently available.
- The CultureWise Academy offers dozens of free short videos that answer some of the most frequently asked questions about corporate culture.