The first wave of remote work from COVID-19 seemed to go great (relatively speaking). Teams thought they could meet their goals, move projects forward, and create value for their organizations. For the most part, they did! Using video conferencing solutions let teams communicate virtually like they were face to face and of course, email and team chat solutions helped bridge the gap as well.
That was 2020, and we’re now heading into the fall of 2021. The relationships and trust that teams had with each other pre-pandemic can only take us so far. People are now changing positions, teams, divisions, and even organizations. Employees are starting new jobs with new people that they’ve never met before.
How do you effectively work together with someone that you’ve never met in real life? As effective as virtual tools for communication are, there is still no replacement for catching up over lunch or sharing a coffee in the breakroom.
Organizations that figure out how to create a culture that builds trust and deepens community with remote teams will more effectively execute their goals and build a healthy culture in the months and years to come.
How teams built up trust and community in 2019
Building trust and community with your fellow employees before the pandemic isn’t something that most of us thought about. Sure, some people worked remotely, and others traveled frequently, but for the most part, everyone was in the office most of the time. Building relationships came naturally.
It was natural to speak to people on the way to meetings or to grab lunch. Naturally, those conversations led to discussions about family members, future goals, what you planned to do over your vacation, etc. You’d know if something personal was going on. You understood their strengths and weaknesses. The conversations that led to teams building trust and community happened without us even knowing.
Remote work – round 1
When those same teams had to switch to remote work, a lot of them thrived initially. We all remember the social media posts of people posting their makeshift remote offices with their kids off to the side. We were “all in the together,” as everyone would say. March led to April, April led to September, and here we are again, one year later. Many of us are still at home with no plans to return to the office anytime soon. We did the best in the heat of the moment, though. The projects that were in progress have been completed, and we all celebrated with each other. The trust that we had built up in person led to the initial success of many of our projects. We could trust each other because we’d worked together previously.
Remote work – round 2
The “newness” of remote work has worn off, though. Employees are changing jobs, and teams are changing. You’re welcoming new team members who you haven’t met and might not meet for some time. Likewise, the relationship you had with your team is changing as people come and go. With your pre-pandemic team, you had trust built up from your time in the office together. With your post-pandemic team, you’re starting from scratch. You’re now entirely reliant on video meetings, emails, voice messages, and some instant messages.
Here’s the truth no one wants to admit: remote work is hard. Are there a lot of benefits? Absolutely. But you lack the ability to build up trust and a deep sense of community with people you have not worked with previously. When someone comments on the team chat that you take the wrong way, there is no prior context to tell you whether to take offense. If someone is a bit more critical of your mock-up on a video call, you might lack the relationship to know if your pitch was that bad or if that person is critical to help you hone your messaging. Humans were made to be together. We were made to work together. Now, we’re alone in an empty room tapping on a computer.
We’re thankful for the technology, but just as video chatting with your spouse isn’t the same as going out to dinner, a video meeting isn’t as good as an in-person meeting.
How to build trust in remote work
We’ve established the problem: the trust we’ve built up prior to a sudden shift to remote work is gone as we start working with new team members. For teams to be happy and effective going forward, new trust has to be built up, and it’s the job of company leaders to build a culture to help bridge the gap.
Just as the culture for in-office employees is something to nurture, it’s even more important for remote teams. As leaders, we need to remember that this is a problem. Are you aware of the childcare challenges facing your team? Do you schedule 3:00 PM meetings not realizing that half of your team has to go pick up their kids from school during that time? When your entire team was in the office, you had a monopoly on their time from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Now, it’s a fluid situation. And we need to lead that way.
How do we build community when the community can’t meet in person? How do you begin to understand the personal challenges your team is facing? Building trust in remote work starts at the top of the organization. Here are some actionable ways that company leaders can start building community and establishing when in-person meetings and gatherings aren’t easily done.
Rethink your 1:1 meetings
Normal 1:1 meetings are typically about checking in on projects and discussing roadblocks. The 1:1 check-in meeting is the starting point for building trust and rapport. Managers need to take advantage of this time to get to know their team on a personal level. Ask questions about their family, what motivates them, what they do for fun, and break down the walls of the video meeting.
Find common ground with your team, so you have things to talk about other than work. Building relationships will take effort without in-person contexts and discussion as it won’t come as naturally as before. For example, if you’re both into reading, talk about the latest books. If you both play video games, maybe spend time playing them together.
Extend grace while measuring performance
In remote environments, measuring performance can often become very well-defined. It can become solely about the output of whatever an employee is tasked with creating. The problem is that employees are more than their output. Employees are not machines. They are people with feelings, families, and fears. By reducing their worth to whatever the outcome of their work is, you’re dehumanizing them.
If an employee is not meeting all of their goals, you should ask: what roadblocks have I put in their way, is there a situation at home that I should be concerned about, and what training they might need to be successful?
Also, don’t discount what else they bring to the table. Are they full of good ideas? Are they an encouragement to your other team members? Do they improve morale among your team? These qualities are ones that you’d notice if you were in the office, so take note of them outside of the office and recognize those contributions.
Take time for fun
Let’s face it; we’re all likely working more hours in 2021 than we did in 2019. Remote work has led to people feeling like they need to be “available” all the time. You’re always at work with remote work, so it’s hard to disconnect fully – especially if you have teammates in different time zones than you.
Leaders have to set the standard for having fun for their team. How can you do that? Obviously, a happy hour event would be fun, but that might not be possible. Why don’t you ship everyone on your team their favorite drink and enjoy an early virtual happy hour? One tip: don’t “force” the fun. Don’t try to do cheesy games that sound good on paper but then are awkward in practice. Do things that let your people “let their hair down” a bit and relax. Whatever you can do to get people talking with each other is fantastic. A company book club is also a simple idea that has a low barrier of entry for everyone. Here’s a link to some of my favorite books.
One final tip, because so much of our communication is now digital, keep it light and chatty. Use emojis, GIFs, or send people a funny video you watched. By lightening the mood, you’ll lower the tension and stress amongst your team.
Success with remote work isn’t guaranteed, nor easy. Some aspects are much more manageable when in the office, but the wind is blowing the way of remote work, so it’s essential for company leaders to recognize the shift and embrace it. The most successful leaders of the next decade will be the ones who learn how to manage and motivate effectively with in-person teams and remote ones. It’s no longer an option to be a good leader for in-person teams only.
Dvir Ben-Aroya is the co-founder and CEO of Spike, a conversational and collaborative email application that turns legacy email into a synchronous chat-like experience, adding tasks, collaborative notes, and video meetings to create a single feed for all of your work — all in one place. He has over 20 years of executive experience leading technology and internet companies.