In March 2016, I started a new role as a fully remote employee. I was joining a company that I highly respected to do something I loved, and I no longer had to get in a car every day. Not having to commute was a real sell, especially since it’s not uncommon to spend an hour each way to get to work in the DC area. Missing out on lunch with coworkers and free snacks in the office was worth the sacrifice. Plus, I had plenty of friends and family in the area, so I wouldn’t feel the impact of being alone for eight hours a day. I was convinced that I was going to live my dream life.
I quickly realized how wrong I was.
The impact of not having people around was more than just missing out on conversations about the latest "Game of Thrones" episode. When I first started my new job, I felt lost. I had no personal connections and no sense of belonging. In the past, I mitigated this by walking around the building introducing myself, knocking on my colleagues' doors to ask questions, and utilizing basic interpersonal skills. All of that helped build my knowledge, reputation, and level of comfort when it came to doing my job to the best of my ability. I rarely asked for help, but it was comforting to know who to go when I needed it.
Without an office to go to, I felt stuck and unsure of how to combat that feeling. In my remote role, I initially knew only my manager, which was problematic because I wanted to impress her. She hired me for a reason, and I needed to prove that it was the right decision. The good thing was that I had about 500 questions, and after a strict selection process, I asked about 20 of them—leaving 480 question marks to drown out the rest of my thoughts.
As in any other avenue of life, interpersonal relationships at work are critical for a variety of reasons, but the morphing definition of the workplace in the 21st century provides a unique challenge to building these key relationships. According to a 2017 Gallup study, 43% of the American workforce reports spending some time working remotely, and it is clear that in the tech industry, that number will only increase. I work at an organization where more than 40% of the workforce is remote, and I soon realized that I couldn’t be the only one who felt siloed and unsure of how to work remotely while being part of a successful team. Furthermore, part of my role as an Agile practitioner was to make sure everyone had a shared understanding of what work needed to be done and of good team dynamics. If my co-workers felt like I did, I needed to find a way to change it.
In my quest to feel more connected, I utilized the following techniques to help my colleagues, and myself, feel like part of a team while working remotely.
Find common ground
Not everyone enjoys the same things, but forming a connection with your colleagues is empowering and serves as the gateway to forging good team relationships. It doesn’t matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you like to ski, your kids are in the same grade, or you’re an amateur chef—knowing that someone shares a similar interest or lifestyle allows you to connect with them because you have walked in their metaphorical shoes at least once. It helps people forge their identity on the team beyond their title or role.
Encourage casual conversations
Actively solicit small talk when waiting for folks to join meetings. Starting two or three minutes after the hour will not ruin productivity, but it will give the team time to bond. Something as trivial as “How was your weekend?” shows that you value the person and not just the code they check in. It helps people feel respected as a person instead of being measured by their contributions to a project.
Give away control
Empower the team by giving away control. This applies to all situations, but in a remote environment, people often feel like they are told what to do. Remember, outside of meetings, it’s just them and their computer.
All organizations come with high-level expectations and processes, but the day-to-day workings of the team should not be dictated. As stated in the 11th principle of the Agile Manifesto, “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” While this requires facilitation, give the team a chance to decide how they want to work and measure their success. It motivates them to feel like they are part of something and encourages them to give their opinions and consistently try to improve their environment.
Engage in team-building exercises
Overlooking team-building for distributed teams is too easy—after all, they can’t meet in the parking lot and fall into each other’s arms for trust exercises. As an essential tenet of the professional workplace, team-building activities are not only good for team morale, but they can also boost productivity. There are plenty of creative ways to partake in team building while working remotely:
Step fitness challenges around the world
Team hack days based on topics chosen by the team
Team building is a game-changer because people are sharing experiences while their endorphins and serotonin are being released. I recommend having an activity at least every three months.
As more companies move towards distributed environments, it is important to invest in providing a comfortable environment and to integrate your remotes just as you would for your employees who go to an office. The end goal is to support your team members and facilitate working together towards success even while remote. Focus on providing opportunities for bonding both during the workday and outside of it. Empower your team members to have a voice, and don’t underestimate the power a sense of belonging brings.