Three ways leaders can help their distributed teams thrive

How workplace leaders can foster connection and collaboration when employees can’t all be in the same place

As life slowly begins to reach a sense of normalcy thanks to declining COVID-19 transmission rates and increased vaccinations, it’s clear that the return to the workplace will be an evolution. Remote work will continue on a much larger scale than before the pandemic, and leaders will be required to innovate practices to accommodate it.

At the recent WeWork Innovation Summit, Anjie Zheng, WeWork’s managing editor of global content, led a discussion with four industry experts on how to foster connection and collaboration in meaningful ways when workers are convening virtually. Below are three trends that emerged from the session. Watch the conversation on demand here

Make our moments together count

Pandemic office closures got workers accustomed to the benefits of remote working, such as more time with family and no time commuting. As a result, the idea of returning to the old model of five days a week in an office has become less realistic. But for many, working fully remote isn’t likely either. Most professionals crave some in-office interaction, which is why companies are pursuing a hybrid model of working in the future.

In a landscape of workers who split their time between virtual and in-person working, panelists agreed that it’s crucial to do more planning so that their in-office time is meaningful—and worth the travel. “As we’re seeing people produce these models of three-two [days in the office versus days working remote], or two-three, or three-one-one, the days that you’re in the office have to be intentional,” said LJ Louis, vice president of global talent acquisition and Inclusion & Diversity at WeWork. 

In terms of the mostly remote worker who comes in occasionally, she added that “the last thing you want is for their experience in the office to be sitting on video calls all day that they could have actually done at home.” Louis suggests making sure that face-to-face meetings are scheduled on in-person days and conference rooms are booked.

Panelists agreed that in order for distributed teams to thrive, onboarding also needs to change, to accommodate new workers who aren’t physically meeting their coworkers and managers. 

“Especially now, you want to make sure that the onboarding process is well defined and structured,” said Boaz Inbal, general manager of innovation centers at Wix.com. He said that it’s important to have an organized process, which includes mentorship, so that “office-less” newcomers can access the help and advice they need as they build relationships virtually. 

Optimize connection in new ways

Connection looks different when working from home, but one thing helps bridge the gap above all others. Seeing colleagues’ faces via a video connection is crucial for a cohesive distributed team. 

“Every time we have a meeting, we want video,” said Alex Campos, founder and CEO of Vensure. He explained that “it makes a huge difference” and helps with engagement. Further, Campos noted that online meetings are often more efficient. “A five-minute call will dispense with a 30-minute email.”

When thinking about how we’re connecting with one another across different locations, inclusion is essential. In an Ideas by WeWork article, Louis outlined several ways to make offices with distributed teams more inclusive, including making sure that in-office presentations to mixed audiences of in-person and online attendees are done on laptops, rather than on a large screen. 

“Those who may be hard of hearing can more easily read lips, see facial expressions, access other nonverbal cues, and therefore can more fully participate,” she said.

Another big change will be more open lines of communication. “There are no more gatekeepers,” Louis said, encouraging people to reach out to more senior executives who may have been behind physical barriers pre-pandemic. Campos echoed that sentiment, suggesting that folks “take advantage of that new access.” 

It’s also a great time to connect with people on different teams, whether or not you’ve worked with them in the past. Inbal suggests forging new relationships and starting the conversations with offers of help. “Ask ‘What can I do for you?’” he said. “If you come to a person and offer something…they’ll reach out back, and you can do something together.”

Foster emotional engagement intentionally

When teams are in person, it’s easy for colleagues to bond organically. These links help workers feel a sense of belonging, which is crucial to team success. With distributed teams, spontaneous engagement is less likely; leaders have to provide fertile ground and cultivate it. The panelists had several ideas on how to do this.

Travis Carson, founder at Market Force, explained that building trust and emotional engagement means not sugarcoating the truth. “During this [pandemic], if you try to get too positive, it can actually come across as pretty unempathetic,” he said. He encouraged being real and resolute with employees, acknowledging the challenges of the times while affirming a commitment to deliver to the clients counting on them, regardless of the external challenges.

Carson also shared tactics to help keep team morale up and personal connections secure within a distributed team. His company set up a group chat called “fun,” where work talk was strictly prohibited. It’s a place to connect with colleagues over general life updates. 

Noting that distributed teams have fewer opportunities to recognize members’ contributions, Louis explained how WeWork’s company-wide gratitude Slack channel does exactly that. Colleagues now have an easy way to acknowledge when a colleague does something they appreciate—and to share that appreciation with 5,000 people.

In an Ideas by WeWork article, Balder Tol, general manager of WeWork Australia, shared how they use a similar approach. Their team hosts “gratitude circles” along with listening circles and online happy hours to foster connection. To offer unconstrained time and space for input, Tol suggests “office hours via Zoom with no set agenda, just an open forum to ask questions or chat over a coffee.” 

The concrete strategies and tools that Tol and the other panelists highlighted are helpful for connection and collaboration in distributed teams. But more important than their tactics are their attitudes. Themes of creativity, adaptability, and positivity emerged throughout the discussion. Even after a rough past year, these leaders were able to focus on the silver linings of the pandemic and their companies’ wins. This matters because leaders set the tone for their teams, even when they’re at the helm virtually. 

Watch the conversation on demand here

Colette Coleman is a writer and ed-tech strategist. She has been working at a startup with a globally distributed team for the past several years.

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