How to create connection and community in remote teams

Transparent, authentic and honest management can help set culture when we can’t all be in the same place

As we think about the role of the office in a COVID-19 world, people now want greater flexibility in where and how they work. For businesses, this might mean redistributing employees across a number of different locations, whether they’re in the same city, country or around the world. 

These approaches may be new for some. As a global company with employees in a number of locations, we at WeWork have learned some lessons on how to build highly connected, dispersed teams. In Australia, where I am general manager, WeWork has employees in four cities. We aim to foster a culture that is inclusive, diverse, collaborative and grounded in trust. 

Although the future of work is certainly going to look different, human beings will continue to seek ways to interact, learn and grow. Here are four key tips to help foster culture within a distributed team:

Communicate honestly 

At the top of the list is communication. For teams working across different locations, having a schedule of team meetings (and sticking to it!) so that you can communicate with one another is critical. A reliable, regular cadence of meetings (in real life when possible, and if not, virtual) allows you to share wins, celebrate successes and tackle any challenges. Creating a culture where employees have the opportunity to ask questions helps cultivate trust and interdependence.

For distributed teams, the lack of watercooler chat or serendipitous encounters in the corridor means we don’t always get to pick up on the non-verbal cues of our colleagues. So when proximity is not possible, technology should be leveraged as a tool to maintain cohesion and connectivity. If you’re in doubt about which channel to use and when, these quick pointers may help: 

  • Email: communication to large groups and critical updates 
  • Slack: active collaboration, digital banter (gifs, memes, the fun stuff) 
  • Zoom: video meetings, camera switched on! 

Tip: Host office hours via Zoom with no set agenda, just an open forum to ask questions or chat over a coffee. 

Show up

By this, I mean embody authentic, human leadership. While authenticity has become a buzzword, I’ve always been inspired by leaders who are transparent, grounded and committed to their teams. What stands out is the human element of management: a genuine interest in employees, and perhaps most challenging for leaders, getting comfortable with sharing your emotions. 

When we entered the pandemic, the team and I went into crisis-management mode. After a few weeks, and once things were under control, the world was still uncertain. I couldn’t stop thinking that if I was feeling this unsettled, the team must be sharing the same frustrations. So I decided to discuss my own emotional journey at an all-company town hall. This was followed by team leaders resetting expectations, goals and realigning cross-functional efforts. 

I believe that if we continue to engage employees and members by addressing the challenges quickly and with purpose, we can overcome highly difficult situations. As a leader, I’ve learned that demonstrating genuine curiosity about someone’s well-being and making myself available has a deep impact on our team’s cohesion. Even on Zoom, I challenge myself to have my emotional ‘spidey senses’ on high alert. When I sense frustration or worry about someone’s well-being, I will follow up via a call to check in. 

Tip: Be human, be kind. Knowing when and how to share your own emotions goes a long way in building a more personal rapport with those who are remote

Create a sense of stability

Amid continued uncertainty, anxiety levels have naturally increased, so providing clarity is key. With so many changes, aiming for internal stability helps provide reassurance in these uncertain times. I have tackled this by being as transparent as possible. This includes sharing our key business performance indicators and our future market forecasts at monthly meetings.

In an environment that is constantly changing, positivity is essential. We focus on team bonding to keep a positive team spirit. Getting to know one another and blending moments of fun throughout the working day increase morale and continue to build social capital. 

And we can’t forget the fun! When COVID-19 hit, we immediately set up a virtual happy hour on a Friday afternoon. The sole purpose of this moment was to come together and finish off the week with a casual, fun activity that every team member could be a part of.

WeWork 383 George St in Sydney, Australia.

We’ve rolled out many initiatives to prioritise the well-being of our people, regardless of their location. Listening circles offer opportunities to receive feedback and provide better outcomes for employees, to solve problems and to implement new initiatives with well-being at the centre. 

Another favourite: hosting gratitude circles to reinforce a positive sense of camaraderie and team spirit. The experience of COVID-19, which has pulled us (physically) apart, has reinforced my belief that as humans we need to be together. The number one goal is to keep our people safe, healthy and together during these strange times. 

Tip: Set (and, if necessary, reset) clear, actionable, achievable targets. Regularly checking in with teams with intention means that goals can stay on track and aligned with business priorities.

Put your people first

At WeWork, we’ve attracted talented professionals who are incredibly passionate, self motivated, high-achieving individuals. Leading a high-growth company and keeping high-performing employees engaged and fulfilled is key as we think about the future of the workplace. At the same time, we are deeply conscious that a culture of burnout is so pervasive, especially during a pandemic when the lines between work and life have become so blurred.

I believe I have the responsibility to first take care of our employees so they will feel supported, happy and motivated to do the right thing by our members. The bottom-line results will follow. It starts with the simple, yet often overlooked, impact of scheduling meetings during business hours in the time zones where your employees are based. Scheduling meetings outside their working hours will further blur the lines between home and work.

Tip: Be thoughtful of others and mindful of time zones when scheduling a virtual meeting. Flexibility is important, but so are boundaries.

Building a business is not a sprint but a marathon. So it’s important to pace yourself and take care of yourself first so that you can take care of your team. Be curious, collaborative and kind. Be considerate in how you communicate to your teams and the tools you use to do so. But most of all, don’t be afraid to challenge norms. We are in an incredibly exciting time where we get to define what the future of work is going to look like.

At the end of the day, we are all human and can empower one another to unleash our full potential. In the months ahead, people will be experimenting with different hybrid models to create connection and community among teams. While we won’t lose the need for the in-person experience at work, we can adapt our behaviour to maintain strong team bonds and a sense of community, even if teams are remote.

Balder Tol is Dutch and received a masters in management at the University of Sydney before becoming Airbnb Australia’s first employee in 2012. After establishing a strong presence for Airbnb in Oceania, Tol followed his passion of building communities as the general manager of Tank Stream Labs, a technology-focused coworking space located in the heart of Sydney. He joined WeWork as the company’s first Australian recruit in 2016, as director of community. In Australia, WeWork has over 12,000 members in 21 open locations across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

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