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Leadership and Shaping Company Culture in a Remote Team

Podcast: Leadership and Fostering Connection in Remote Teams

We’ve teamed up with Virtual Not Distant to produce a podcast series looking at disconnection and connection within remote teams. 

In the fifth episode of our collaboration series, we looked at some of the ways employers can cultivate connection within their remote teams. Make sure to catch up on our previous episodes if you haven’t already.

Isabel Collins started the conversation, defining what it actually means to belong to a group.

She painted a picture of a truly connected team being one that has a shared value system — which doesn’t just happen organically. 

“What really defines belonging is ethos — our shared belief, our purpose,” she says. 

Companies that spend the time to define and uphold their values often reap the rewards of a unified team for a few reasons. One, it affects the kinds of people they attract and ultimately hire. And, two, it provides common language, goals and purpose to work towards. 

One remote company that is often celebrated for having a good company culture is social media publishing platform, Buffer. 

“We’ve tried to be very specific about the values that guide us,” says their Director of People and Culture, Courtney Seiter

For Buffer and other companies that are intentionally chasing connectivity, open communication tends to be a prominent value. 

“The thing that has the greatest impact is acknowledging [isolation] as a potential issue and being able to talk about it,” Shield’s co-founder Tim Burgess says. 

“For me, that means modelling that behaviour, talking about my own personal experience and that we want to try and help.”

This sentiment was echoed throughout many of the guests I spoke to for the series. 

Author of ‘Working Remotely’ Teresa Douglas argues that risks associated with this kind of work model, such as feelings of isolation, should have a prominent place in a company’s internal dialogue. 

“It should be part of a remote company’s toolkit,” she says. “Just as you’d have a health insurance page, resources for a therapist, discounts for a gym, [you should also have] resources [that] consider issues such as loneliness or isolation.”

She says that normalising this issue makes everyone feel safer to talk about it if and when it becomes an issue for someone. 

“Managers of remote workers should be connecting with their employees and providing space so that if someone is struggling, they feel safe enough to say ‘I’m not as connected to my team as I’d like to be.'”

This culture of openness and safety is definitely the goal for a lot of companies — not even just remote ones. But it takes some creativity to make it work when teams aren’t sitting next to each other every single day. 

Laurel Farrer, founder and CEO of Distribute Consulting, sees this not as something to be feared but an opportunity for innovative solutions. 

“That’s where we see companies more casually using slack, virtual parties, mailing gifts to them once a month… there’s a lot of ways you can engage people and let them know you care about them and celebrate the unique personality of your company but just don’t have to be in a breakroom to do it,” she says. 

“It’s a great opportunity for managers to be more creative.”

By introducing innovative solutions — rather than merely continuing in the way we always have — it means we can safely enjoy all of the benefits of remote work, while also addressing the potential risks. 

“If we can be thoughtful about where the strengths and potential limitations lie, we can think about more creative solutions to maximise strengths and minimise limitations,” says psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad.

For remote companies, this might mean making specific rules around the frequency and method of communication. Which can not only protect us from becoming disconnected but can also act as a marker for manager’s to recognise when someone in their team may be struggling. 

“[This could look like] stand up calls once a week, or set the expectation that you are active on Slack or you attend these meetings, and there’s an expectation that you are vocal during the meetings,” Laurel says. 

“[That way if someone is not meeting the expectation] it gives me a prompt, to ask if everything’s ok.”

Implementing processes like this can help managers who may not intuitively recognise when there is something wrong. Technology can help too. 

Brian Rhea, a product engineer, is in the process of creating Headlamp — an app to help teams monitor feelings of loneliness and isolation by asking regular repetitive questions. 

“The first thing I want to try to do is to start with monitoring the feelings of loneliness and isolation among members of a remote team,” Brian says. 

“Can a tool regularly monitor those characteristics and make suggestions to the employee and manager to bring potential solutions? I think so.”

But while this solution obviously relies on technology — Brian is adamant it’s not meant to replace human connection, which is something that cannot truly be replicated. 

“The first thing I do is try and bring my humanity into my role and direct reports,” says Teresa of her initial contact with any new team members. 

She often shares about her family or hobbies in communication to intentionally create opportunities to connect around topics that are important to her in addition to work. 

“As managers, we have to do that. If they get the feeling that I’m in their corner, that I’m a friendly presence, then we have that relationship. As managers, we have to offer that first vulnerability.” 

In essence, managers can cultivate connection through establishing a thorough remote work policy. By defining values, creating a culture of open communication, formalising communication practices and outlining expectations around roles, there will be a safety net for both managers and employees if they start to feel disconnected at all. 

However, the specifics of these policies will differ from company to company, depending on what works for your group of people. 

Courtney shares some of the initiatives that Buffer implement, which might help you develop some ideas. 

“We do a video gathering every month, we use Donut, which is a nice way to stay in touch. We also have a mastermind program, you meet with that person once every two weeks and that person is your rock, someone you can go to with your achievements and successes, and maybe even your personal challenges. We also work for a tool called Modern Health, it’s digital online coaching,” Courtney says. 

“Some folks may be fine to be alone, but we really want to have options – we never want folks to look for those. We want them to be visible for that moment.”

And while all of these options are really helpful for Buffer’s community — we want to caution you from thinking that means it will automatically work for yours. 

Even with good intentions, some solutions just don’t work for everyone.

“We’re trying to give people a space to feel connected, but if they don’t need that or it’s not a way that resonates with them, it could have the opposite effect,” Tim says. 

One way around this outcome is simply to trial solutions and then follow up to see if they are working. 

“Not everyone is like you so what works for you won’t work for everyone in their team,” says workplace psychologist Richard Mackinnon

“Experiment, try things out, ask people what they would like and build that into the team’s way of working. Be sensitive to the context. It’s trial and error, and it’s considering who these people are – what are we open to trying?” 

With this evidence, you can begin to create a remote work policy that genuinely supports and uplifts the people in your company. 

It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to go through this process alone. Companies like Laurel’s Distribute Consulting are set up to support remote managers as they navigate policy development with experience and research-backed solutions. 

“Frankly, you don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. 

Through this work, Laurel’s seen the incredible effects of getting this right. 

“People are starting to think about their location as irrelevant. The workplace has been extended beyond the office,” she says. 

“When there are consistent engagement practices – people don’t notice they’re not in the office. They don’t notice that they’re not surrounded by people because they feel that they are surrounded by people.”

While remote workers are potentially more susceptible to going through periods of isolation, it by no means has to be our final form. There are absolutely solutions we can implement as employers or managers to help mitigate this potential issue of disconnection. 

With everything, the specific processes will look different company to company. Whether that be ritualised points of contact, through apps like Headlamp or bringing awareness to the issue by including online resources as Teresa mentioned or sharing your own experiences like Tim. 

Whatever you intend to try out — make sure it fits in with your company culture and value system and, make sure you evaluate its effectiveness. Just because it’s working for Buffer doesn’t mean it will for you — ask your employees, make a note of how many people are making use of the resource and adjust accordingly. 

If you have implemented some interesting solutions to ensure your remote teams remain connected and engaged, please reach out to us. We’d love to hear from you. Overall, we hope you feel empowered by the notion that while this is extremely common, it’s not debilitating, and there are so many opportunities to overcome this issue. 

– Bree Caggiati, April 2020

Looking for the next episode? You can listen or read about Episode 6 here!

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