Despite the current debate over the productivity of remote work, there’s an elephant in the room that we don’t talk about enough: the lack of social connection among remote workers.
Awkward but true: We do miss our colleagues when working remotely
36% of remote managers say the lack of face-to-face interactions is one of the main challenges in their work. According to a recent report from McKinsey Global Institute, the number one reason why hybrid employees come to the office is “to work with my team.” Interestingly, this finding is consistent all over the world, from America and Europe to Asia.
Social connection is a basic human need
After all, we are humans, and humans need humans. Being lonely is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And you may be surprised, but even the introverts in your team long for social interactions. 75% of self-described introverts don’t want a fully remote job.
“At the end of the day, I want to be home by myself, but it doesn’t mean you can’t crave other people’s company.” - An introvert
Social connection in the “traditional workplace” and…
When you work with your colleagues in an office, you can easily tap them on the shoulder and ask for something you need, have lunch together, or even a spontaneous Friday night hangout after work. It’s not only the fun part of it that matters but, more importantly, the casual collaboration and information sharing we often miss in remote work.
Team lunches and nights out are more than opportunities to connect with your coworkers on a personal level, as oftentimes, more subtle and hard-to-talk-about work topics are also discussed in such gatherings.
… How we have lost it in the shift to remote and hybrid work
As we switch to more flexible work arrangements, we rely more on virtual communication tools, send more emails, have more meetings, and yet, feel more isolated. When a company works remotely, employees tend to bond in smaller groups. There are fewer whole team chats and more private messages. The remote company may end up a divided organization.
Why remote managers can’t afford to lose face-to-face connection in their teams
Bad things happen when people are lonely (If you’ve watched The Shining, you probably know). Remote employees who experience loneliness are more likely to be depressed, burnt out, have sleep problems, and have substance abuse. On a lighter note, they may dislike their job. A lot.
For the younger new hires in your team, the lack of social interactions means that it takes longer (and also harder) for them to feel a sense of belonging to the company and learn effective ways of working by observing others.
Is it really possible to have a connected remote team?
By now, you may think a disconnected workforce is just the nature of remote work, and we have to accept it, but that’s not true. Buffer, GitLab, Zapier, and so many other fully remote companies have proved that one can cultivate social connections in a remote team and build a great culture.
“It’s some of the strongest culture I’ve seen, and we’re not in an office.” - Julia Cummings from Buffer
There are best practices that these companies have in common when it comes to connecting their employees. We have gathered them below, together with other advice from remote work experts. If you’re a remote manager, take this chance and read on to create a happier and more productive team!
Alternatives to Face-to-Face Interactions: 10 Ways to Boost Social Connection for Remote Teams
1. Be intentional with your meetings
According to Harvard Business Review, when we work remotely, we can have lots of meetings but still feel isolated. Why? Because, more often than not, we are not intentional about how we hold our meetings.
In remote work, we have to intentionally make building social connections a priority. It means you may want to have a dedicated amount of time before every meeting or every week to check in with your team members and talk about things outside work.
Try using AI to generate Icebreaker Questions and quickly grab a question to break the ice with your team before any conversation.
As a manager, you should clearly communicate to your staff that they can put work aside for this social connection time aka. bonding meetings. Only when employees are not stressed out about their deadlines can they think about connecting with one another.
Moreover, come on, it’s 2023, let’s have more great virtual meetings. Lengthy and pointless meetings are the fastest force to push remote employees away from the company and from each other. At GitLab, they have a “No agenda, no attenda” rule. It means that if someone invites you to a meeting with no agenda, you have all the right not to join.
2. Be creative with your meetings
If you’re only holding your team meetings on Zoom, you’re missing out. Although Zoom clearly has its own fantastic features, there are meeting platforms that are more purposefully designed to engage and connect.
Online meeting platforms, like Butter.ai, Whereby, or Tandem, are developed to transform how we work and connect remotely. So it's no wonder that they have features to assist you in staying on track with your meeting agenda and, most importantly, ensuring every call is interactive and fun.
Check out ten other video conferencing options you have besides Zoom in our latest blog.
3. Be present when you connect
We know it’s easy to be distracted during an online meeting. There are simply too many distractions in the virtual world. Despite all that, especially as a manager, try your best to be present in all of your interactions with your employees.
Talking to someone when your mind wanders off may make the person they are not worth your attention, which is pretty demotivating, to be honest. Building connections with your employees starts with making them feel appreciated in every interaction.
“Communication is merely an exchange of information, but connection is an exchange of our humanity.” - Sean Stephenson, Get Off Your “But”
4. Be supportive with each other
Our relationship with a colleague usually deepens after they have helped us with something. It’s the feeling of “If I fall, you’ve got my back” that makes a true team.
However, in remote work, employees tend to keep problems to themselves. Should I bring this up in the team chat, or it’s too minor? If I ask Alex about this, will I bother him? Will my coworkers think that I’m inadequate? All sorts of questions pop up in the mind of a remote worker when they hit a blocker. While in an office, they can just tap on the shoulder of a nearby colleague to get help.
Chris Dyer, a thought leader in company culture and remote work, has shared a tactic to replicate this tap on the shoulder, and it’s called Cockroach meetings. To have a Cockroach meeting policy means that when an employee has a problem, they can immediately put five to seven people on a call to help them sort things out. The meeting goes like this:
- Caller: Here's my problem.
- Supporters: This is how you solve it, or this is who you need to talk to.
- Caller: Great, thanks, everyone! Bye!
Joining a Cockroach meeting is optional, and no Cockroach meetings should be longer than 15 minutes.
5. Be together (virtually)
Having a virtual office is a fun way to connect your employees. Although no one would literally move around this space whenever they want to talk to someone, a virtual workspace will be useful when you want a organize a whole-team activity that requires everyone to talk or collaborate in smaller groups.
Read our virtual workspace review – five best options to bring your face-to-face experience to the remote world.
6. Be together (physically)
Nothing beats face-to-face interactions. That’s why the most successful remote teams always have a budget for in-person gatherings. GitLab is famous for sponsoring their remote employees to travel and meet one another from time to time, even for non-work purposes, like attending a wedding. The company also holds annual (or regular) conferences, summits, and retreats, for which they often fly hundreds of employees together. It stems from the belief that such social interactions help their team to enjoy the job more and perform better.
Some more inspirations from remote-first leaders:
- Automatics (the company behind WordPress) is well-known for its remote-first approach, with employees distributed across the globe. They take all employees on a seven-day trip once a year so that Automatticians can bond with each other, in addition to a team-level strategy meeting in locales.
- Doist is a 100% remote company with team members located in 35 different countries. They always have two types of retreats on schedule: full-team get-togethers and mini-retreats for focused teams.
- Holding all-company team retreats twice a year is stated a pillar of Help Scout's remote culture. It's a chance for their team to meet face-to-face, build new connections, strengthen existing relationships, and encourage collaboration.
Check out our Guide & Ideas for Your Remote Team Retreats. Otherwise, Midstay is a reliable vendor that help you plan and organize memorable team retreats from A to Z.
7. Be kind to each other and beyond
Research shows that when we do kind things together, we significantly feel less lonely. Kindness can be as little as encouraging your team to express gratitude towards one another more frequently. As a manager, you can:
- Congratulate an employees in front of the whole team
- Send a thank you email or even better, a handwritten thank you note
- Endorse an employee on LinkedIn
- Highlight an employee on social media
- Offer them a gift card from their favorite brand
If you want to take it a step further, how about suggesting a virtual charity activity you can do together? For example, Great Place to Work employees volunteer digitally at Smithsonian and Salesforce workers once hosted an online talent show for Latina SafeHouse.
According to Forbes’ Expert Panel, there are certain things to keep in mind when you engage your remote team in charitable efforts. Some notable ones are: make sure your employees have a say in which cause to support, keep it genuine, and align with your business.
8. Be disconnected (unapologetically)
When people work remotely, online communication channels are their only way to connect with their colleagues, so they may feel the need to check them all the time. Being always on will not do good for your employees’ peace of mind. By officially letting your team know that they have the right to disconnect, you help reduce their communication overload and, hence, make it more enjoyable for them whenever they speak to one another.
9. Be personal with each team member
As a manager, having one-on-one meetings with your team members is essential to keep them socially connected to the team and committed to their work. The power of those private meetings is that your employees can bring up topics they are afraid to talk about in a larger group, which are usually things that really concern them. It’s also a great chance for you to get to know your team members on a personal level and develop a genuine connection.
10. Be nurturing with your remote new hires
Last but not least, let’s talk about the newcomers to a remote team. As it’s often hard for them to onboard smoothly and feel a sense of belonging to the team, a mentorship program may be just what you need.
Some companies call this a buddy program. A buddy is someone who answers all the questions a new hire may have when starting at a new company. From how to do ABC to who to talk to about XYZ. This buddy will often also become the new employee’s closest work friend later on.
Building social connections starts with the right mindset
20 Tips for a Healthy and Connected Remote Working Experience
Looking for more ways to thrive in your remote work journey? Here are 20 more tips to beat any isolation blues and keep those virtual watercooler moments flowing. From virtual team game sessions to becoming a regular at a local lunch spot, these practical tips will excite your work-from-home routine.
- Create a Cozy Workspace: Personalize your workspace with items that make you happy and comfortable.
- Take Regular Breaks: Step away from your desk, take short breaks, and engage in physical activities.
- Stay Active: Incorporate regular exercise into your routine to boost mood and well-being.
- Wake up Early and Establish Commute Rituals: Create a morning routine and return-home routine to demarcate work and personal time.
- Utilize Breaks for Snacks and Social Media: Use short breaks for eating and socializing on social media.
- Connect with Peers: Schedule monthly meetings with colleagues in similar roles to share experiences and challenges.
- Get a Coach: Consider getting a coach for guidance and support in navigating remote work.
- Daily 20-Minute Team Meetings: Start the day with a quick team meeting to share plans and build camaraderie.
- Weekly Game Session: Organize fun weekly activities like online games or virtual yoga sessions with the team.
- Volunteer: Engage in volunteer activities, which can be social and beneficial for mental health.
- Pursue Hobbies and Team Sports: Join social hobbies or team sports to interact with others outside of work.
- Have Lunch Dates with Remote Working Friends: Meet up with friends who also work remotely for social interaction.
- Attend Webinars and Online Courses: Participate in webinars and online courses to interact with others in your field.
- Consider Coworking Spaces: Work in local coworking spaces to see familiar faces and network.
- Use LinkedIn and Meetup: Connect with relevant professionals on LinkedIn and find remote work-related meetups on Meetup.com.
- Be a Regular at Local Lunch Spots: Frequent local lunch spots to break away from work and interact with non-work-related people.
- Join Neighborhood Walks: Join neighbors for walks to foster connections and get to know the community.
- Travel: Consider remote work travel experiences to mix work with new social environments.
- Engage in Outside Activities: Work in libraries, coffee shops, or attend mid-day yoga classes to be around other people.
- Invest in Comfortable Workspace: Ensure you have a comfortable chair and any necessary equipment for a productive and pleasant remote work environment.
What a good Work From Home Routine Could Look Like
Ready to embrace your new socially connected work from home routine? Below are a few sample schedules for a:
Remote worker, no kids, 9-to-5 schedule
Here's a best-in-class daily work-from-home routine, tailored to someone without kids, working from 9 AM to 5 PM:
Remote worker, no kids, early riser
Here's a best-in-class daily work-from-home routine for an early riser, starting at 6 AM and aiming to finish early, with no kids:
Remote worker with kids
For a remote worker with kids, juggling work and family responsibilities is key. Here's a best-in-class daily work-from-home routine, considering the school drop-off and pick-up times, and a 15-minute commute both ways:
All in all, let’s be real, the lack of social connection is not a problem of remote work only. If companies and managers don’t put in the effort to cultivate the right culture and environment, people can still feel disconnected when they sit in the same office together.
When we rethink the problem this way, we see that it’s not about the working locations but about the right mindset and approaches. We hope that with a little intention, creativity, mindfulness, kindness, personalization, mentorship, and yes, of course, budget, as we suggest above, you will be able to foster meaningful social connections within your remote team.