Fostering a sense of connection with your team is probably the hardest part of working remotely. When you work in an office together, you can walk by someone’s desk and give them a friendly “hello,” ask if they want to grab coffee later, and even share a joke with another colleague when you realize you both oddly adore the same brand of Belgian Lambic.
When you’re working remotely, these serendipitous moments of social connection don’t happen as often. But don’t fret! With a little pixie dust (and a few tips and activities), any people leader can foster a welcoming virtual environment.
Ditch dull icebreakers for interactive ones
It’s certainly considerate to ask your colleagues how they’re doing, but sometimes — especially these days! — a generic “how are you” isn’t going to get you far. But what if you could kick off a lively, team-wide thread, just by sharing pictures of your recent progress on that 1000-piece Art Nouveau puzzle you’ve been doing? At the very least, you’ll get a couple of emoji reactions; a few other teammates may even feel encouraged to share something of their own. When teammates share their interests with one another —they’re going to start feeling more comfortable with each other. Engaging icebreakers can turn into genuine interest in one another, which can spark great commentary and conversation.
Icebreakers don’t always have to be interest-related or personal questions to your direct team either! I once found a dusty box of old riddles and thought it might be fun to share a light-hearted activity during a hectic workday, not only with my design team, but also with my engineering team. Everyone really enjoyed it, and no one lets me live it down that I thought cats have feet.
Set up virtual coffee chats and team check-ins
Group meetings don’t always catch everyone, though. Setting aside time for individual check-ins will give you extra facetime with even your quietest teammates. Often, these types of meetings get vaguely labeled in your work calendar as “1:1” or “Name/Name.” I don’t know about you, but these event subjects make a quick virtual hang feel an awful lot like more work!I It’s all about the branding! 😉 Instead, try giving the events a more casual label, like “☕️ C️offee Chat” or “Break Room” — this makes the informality explicit, not to mention expressly gives both parties permission for an actual coffee/tea/water break. Just be mindful of schedules, and try to limit these to 15 minutes.
If your whole team doesn’t already have a check-in at some point on the calendar, try creating one of those, too. It doesn’t have to be more than 15 minutes, and you can play some upbeat music to set an energized mood as folks start to trickle in. At Slack, we also use Huddles to “jam” together for an hour — just a creative outlet with some background music, as if you were white-boarding together in a conference room. This Chill Vibes playlist is a go-to, and our teammates are encouraged to share their favorites and introduce new beats!
Carve out a dedicated #non-work Slack channel
What’s work without a little fun? Creating dedicated areas for interdepartmental socializing can foster organic relationships that make for a thriving work culture. At Slack, #movies, #music, and #beer are probably our most active social channels. I’m also part of #cars, #legos, and #baking. In #cars, I discovered that a few of my colleagues also shared my specific love for Formula 1 racing. We ended up creating #f1-enthusiasts, which almost immediately grew three times the size of its original member count—now we even have our own draft league! Even though they’re not strictly work-related topics, these sorts of conversations help build community at work as everyone learns a bit more about one another.
Build a culture squad
One thing that many forget about building a strong team is that you need at least a few people who are consciously thinking up new ways to make the team stronger. Here at Slack, we have a Design Culture Squad (with Puffy the Duck as our fearless mascot!) a group of 18 people who expressed interest in helping to build, evolve and sustain our company culture. Some folks lead and organize quarterly events, while others plan monthly and in-channel activities. Here are a few of the ways they’ve brought us together:
- We had a Live Music and Aperol Spritz event, on Spatial Chat instead of Zoom. One of our designers gave a quick tutorial on how to make the refreshing drink, and we all gathered around the virtual stage to hear our talented teammates play instruments and sing.
- For our quarterly Designer Day, we sent everyone on the team a tie-dye kit. It was really neat to see all the different patterns everyone created—we even got to see their little ones getting creative!
- Every now and then, the Donut App in Slack reaches out to a random group of 5 designers and sets time up for a coffee chat. It’s a fun little surprise every time you get the message. We also have AMAs in-channel with a different teammate; both the questions and answers are hilariously witty.
- Last but not least, everyone—from leadership to the Culture Squad to fellow designers—celebrates birthdays, promotions, and holidays with the team. This is perhaps the biggest contributor of empathy and appreciation to our culture.
Culture Squad meetings are also a safe outlet to share how different teams are feeling overall. And after most events, we collect feedback to learn how we can be more engaging and inclusive. As new folks have joined the team with ideas and experiences of their own, we’ve continued to evolve in powerful and exciting ways.
Be mindful and know it’s okay if it takes time
In no way are any of these efforts an overnight solution, nor are they accomplished alone. But as you build better relationships throughout the organization, you’ll be able to act as a connector, bringing people and projects together in meaningful ways. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
Mina Chandler is a Sr. Product Designer at Slack working on our Foundations Pillar. When not designing, she’s cheering on Formula 1 racing and enjoying good eats in the ATL.
At Slack, we value courtesy, craftsmanship, and good humor. If you do too, learn more about what we do, or better yet, join us!
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