If you’re reading this article, you understand why it’s important to nurture your remote culture differently from in office culture and how to adapt your hiring and onboarding processes for remote environments . Now it’s time for the fun stuff! This post is full of suggestions and best practices that keep employees engaged, happy, and productive in a remote or hybrid work environment. In this post I’ll be discussing three key areas: benefits & day to day practices, shifting management styles & maximizing employee happiness.
Benefits & Practices
State by State Differences in Worker Protections
When you’re developing or adapting company policies to fit your new remote teams, there are legal considerations when policies need to travel across new state lines. In a previous role with an international marketing agency, our US presence was quickly growing and we had employees in Washington DC, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco. At the time the state of California had much stronger worker protection laws than the rest of the country, guaranteeing paid time off for family leave. Rather than handling this on a state by state, employee by employee basis, the agency decided to level up the US family leave policy to comply with the California requirements, delierving equal benefits to all US employees.
Providing “perks” to maintain office morale is often one of the biggest challenges of companies shifting to remote or hybrid models. Maybe it used to be free coffee in the breakroom or bagels every Friday morning. Maybe you were one of those fun companies with a ping pong table in the conference room. Now that everyone is making their own coffee and that ping pong table is gathering dust, what is important to remote workers and what is practical for companies to provide? There is not a one sizes fits all solution to this.
I see the biggest chasm form when the workforce is split. I was once part of a small remote team linked to a much larger in person office on the other side of the globe. In the office they had bake sales, fitness classes, and end of the week happy hours where the CEO walked around handing out cold beers at 4:00 on Fridays. I learned about all of these activities through the company’s instagram account, where they bragged about being a fun and connected team. Those pictures felt like a direct assault to myself and the other remote workers who didn’t have any alternative to those social situations to form closer bonds with our colleagues.
Depending on the budget for employee perks like this, there’s some obvious ideas like sending small gift cards for nationwide restaurant chains as a replacement for catered lunches. Or an afternoon off once a month could be a replacement for the more spontaneous fun that used to happen around the ping pong table. While these ideas may keep morale up, they don’t go very far in keeping your team connected.
Informal Virtual Gatherings are the New “Organized Fun”
After 2020 and the Year of Zoom calls, we’re all pretty maxed out on the idea of virtual happy hours. In a group call with more than a handful of people, it can just feel like you’re waiting around for your turn to talk rather than having a genuine connection with someone. Rather than trying to get everyone into one virtual room to engage at the same time, I recommend smaller, shorter but more frequent methods of gathering. Reaching beyond your siloed department meetings, getting people together who have less practical day to day interaction will help form a tighter web across your whole organization.
One idea is similar to the themed clubs from our school days. Maybe you have a group of avid bakers who can gather and talk about their lockdown sourdough starters. At Hum we have a large contingent of cyclists and Peloton users, so we often share ride suggestions or talk about our workouts.
Guidance for these types of virtual gatherings:
- keep it to a concise time frame and headcount
- no more than 45 min for a group of 5-9 people
- lead by example
- If your leadership teams don’t stay engaged in groups like this, you’ll quickly see it fall off the radar for everyone.
While everyone in an organization is responsible for nurturing remote culture, it’s the responsibility of the leadership to model it outwardly.
If you use instant messaging apps to communicate, consider adding channels or group chats around topics of common interests. At Hum we have two channels for non-work banter. This can be a less invasive way to connect that won’t eat up time on people’s calendars.
What to do About Larger “All Hands” Meetings
At Hum, we use part of our weekly All Hands meeting to all share an answer to our “Arbitrary Stupid Goal,” not a term we coined, but the general idea is each week a different person is responsible for the prompt and everyone comes ready with their answer. It opens people up to talking about non-work things in a safe environment, where everyone is off task, and even the silliest questions can reveal the most interesting things about your coworkers. This format works for us now, because we’re still a small but growing company.
There are times at larger organizations where a 200 person virtual meeting is a necessary evil. Information must be shared, transparency must be established. But you cannot lean on those large meetings to form and sustain your culture. I’ve recently seen culture defined as “the personality of a group”. There is no personality of a 200 person virtual meeting. It has to be a grass roots efforts, practiced consistently and in small groups across the entire organizational ladder.
Shifting Management Styles
What can you do at a personal level, on a day to day basis, to build stronger remote teams?
If you’re leading a large organization with a diverse workforce, establishing trust equally across the teams is essential to your success as a manager and their success as a remote employee. I mean trust in the most basic sense. You need to trust that they will do their work to the best of their ability within the agreed upon time frame. If you had a collocated office in the past and took great care in monitoring who took a long lunch or who sneaked out at 3:30 to pick up their kids, the remote work life is not for you. This is not an environment where big brother can thrive. There are obvious safeguards you can put in place, like quarterly reviews and even more regular reviews of projects or performance, but ultimately trusting your employees to do the job they signed on to do will make your day as a manager much, much easier.
Clear Expectations + Open Communication
That trust is earned both ways, and for me the most important part of building my employees trust in me is with 100% transparency. When I’m onboarding a new team member, I very clearly lay out my expectations for the position. Both in the immediate onboarding time frame and long term as they grow into the role. I’m clear about my expectations for day to day communication and about the level of independence and ownership I expect of them in a remote role. In addition to the Onboarding Guide I spoke about earlier, I elaborate on the company policies and personal user manuals, delivering to them more information on how we live our virtues and practices on a day to day basis, to establish clear expectations from day one.
What you would have called an “open door policy” in the past remains firm in concept, but making yourself available virtually for conversations in equal measure to the folks you are able to see in person. For some that may mean blocking off time on your calendar with each employee or in small groups by role. It may be as simple as changing some settings on your instant message platform. For example in Slack, you can align it with your Google or Outlook calendar to change your status while you’re in a meeting. This sets a clear visual clue for anyone wishing to get instant communication back from you.
Aiming for Fairness
Don’t just offer remote work opportunities to senior level team members. There are obvious differences in job functions, perhaps you have a research and development team who needs to be on site to handle products or samples. Consider accommodations that can be made if long term remote work is of interest to them and you. Through the right technology, most other roles can be pivoted to remote same day.
The second struggle towards fairness is for those of you with remote and collocated teams. It is imperative that you try to avoid in person watercooler conversations where impactful decisions are being made without the remote members of the team. Remove the f “golf course” mentality of “you had to be there when we were talking about it, but it was designed that you couldn’t be there.” The allure of gathering in person is to take advantage of those situations where you can spontaneously brainstorm and collaborate with your colleagues. But I can tell you that nothing feels worse to a remote employee than being caught up to speed later, rather than brought in at the essential point of the decision.
This takes vigilance across the organization. If a hallway/watercooler conversation takes a turn into impactful organizational change, respectfully halt the conversation until all parties can be brought onboard, not just recapped later. If this is modeled across the leadership team, other team members will begin to pick up on it too.
Maximizing Remote Employee Happiness
Maximizing remote work happiness is something that each employee, including managers and senior leaders, need to take ownership of for themselves. What do you need to be happy at home as opposed to in an office? I know some people would scoff at the idea of helping manage their employees' happiness. But do you think an unhappy employee is a productive employee? That an unhappy employee is a collaborative coworker?
This list is going to be different for everyone. Your job as a manager and as a leader is to support everyone in developing and staying true to their own needs.
- Flexibility with start time depending on kids’ schedules
- Proper ergonomics at their home workstation
- High speed + reliable internet
- Clear boundaries for your working hours
- Occasional team gatherings
- Broad participation in company wide planning
- ...and more
For my team, I like to again emphasize communication as the backbone of these items. Challenges and obstacles are easier to sweep under the rug in a remote environment, and that goes for personal satisfaction in your job as well. I like to empower my team to speak up and I pave the way where I can, but ultimately you are responsible for your own happiness. As a manager and a leader, we can’t help fix what we can’t see.
If you liked this post and what to explore more remote work best practices, be sure to check out the full series.