In the last 2 years, more companies have discovered that they can be successful as a remote team. In fact, according to the 2021 State of Remote Work Report by Owl Labs, globally 16% of companies have decided to go fully remote. That same study showed that after COVID-19, 80% of the people surveyed expected to work from home at least 3 days per week.
Personally, when COVID started I had my doubts that I would be successful at continuing to build community and a sense of belonging in a remote environment. Like many other HR folks at the beginning of COVID, I had only worked in an in-person office environment, maybe working from home a day here and there, but I had never supported a fully remote team.
I knew that evolving our company's culture to a remote model was going to be a challenge. I needed to figure out how to navigate this new world and develop the digital infrastructure needed to support our remote team in the same ways as we had when the team was in the office.
What are the building blocks of a remote team?
So to do this I went back to the basics. This involved things like how to develop effective communication strategies, how to drive genuine connection with our team, and how to foster positive career growth with an emphasis on productivity and purpose.
One interesting learning I had when I first joined Smile was that email is 99.99% for external use. Pretty much every internal communication, even company-wide announcements, happen on Slack. The thought behind this was to provide greater transparency and avoid any confusion between the two systems.
Communication is the crux of any company’s success. Effective communication leads to stronger decision making and problem solving skills. However, in this digital age we have many different forms of communication–both verbal and non-verbal, written and visual, and these can be synchronous and asynchronous.
Synchronous communication is something that happens in real time and asynchronous communication doesn’t happen in real time.
So with all of these different ways to communicate, teams may struggle to know what is the best format for them. That’s why you need to define or redefine your company norms around communication.
Over the last year, Smile added over 10 new countries where our employees work, adding new timezones and complexities with each new hire. Because of this, and the fact that some of our teams would have little to no overlapping working hours, our communication norms have been evolving to an asynchronous-first mindset.
To help communicate this, we have a “Working with a Global Team'' page in Notion that outlines how we like to collaborate, recognizes the various communication styles, and cultural norms of our team. We even have a visual flowchart to help individuals answer the question “should this be a meeting?”. We leverage tools like Volley and Loom (asynchronous video messaging apps) quite a bit to cut down on the amount of meetings our team has on a weekly basis.
We try to foster a strong culture of trust and documentation to make asynchronous communication possible and effective. The great thing about asynchronous communication is that employees have fewer interruptions and have more time to focus on important tasks which increases productivity. Having a place like Slack or Notion where people can work transparently is great. This allows a team to have one person start something, document where they left off, and then have another member of their team pick it up when they sign on without having to have a synchronous meeting to catch up.
We try to have a thoughtful approach to all of our synchronous meetings, the goal of which is to have high participation, good energy, constructive collaboration, and above all meaningful conversation and connection.
In an office, you can go up to someone at their desk, go out with them for lunch, or grab a coffee to build a relationship with them. But being remote, it can be easy to put your head down and become absent or disconnected from the culture and people on your team. So you need to find new ways to engage the team to interact with one another.
This is why we started using synchronous meetings for social engagement and team bonding activities. We are avid fans of the Slack app Donut, which randomly pairs people together to have virtually coffee chats. We also plan one virtual team event every month through platforms like Confetti and Luna Park. I personally love a trivia night or mixology class, but it is also good to remember that virtual events might not be for everyone so you should talk with folks to understand how they like to build connections. This way you will be able to provide other ways to support and connect your team.
Because of Zoom fatigue, we have created ways to build connections with the team that are asynchronous. We do questions and fun photos of the week on Slack, water cooler trivia apps, and virtual scavenger hunts. We have also found gestures of recognition like signing digital cards for birthdays or anniversaries can go a long way. We also have a Smile values channel where people can give shoutouts to a team or an individual that brings us all together in praising that person. I love seeing the amount of cool emojis and gifs on the threads.
Oftentimes as a HR leader for a remote team, it can be challenging to understand if the things that you are doing are working. In an office environment, I could casually walk around the office to see how teams are doing and have conversations. Being remote, I try to schedule listening sessions throughout the quarter with members of our team to check in but I also leverage the metrics that we get from our employee engagement surveys a bit more.
We use OfficeVibe to send out a weekly poll via Slack that asks about things like happiness, engagement, culture and other topics, including compensation and burnout. I go through every week and respond to each feedback response that comes in and I share relevant feedback with members of the leadership team.
I also take great pleasure in sharing positive feedback about an individual with them and their manager to form a connection and give them recognition. This also helps the manager when it comes to their career growth conversations.
Another way to build community and trust with your remote team is to promote a feedback driven culture. Oftentimes in a remote environment people can feel like their work might go unnoticed, so feedback and recognition are great ways to signal that you are paying attention to their work.In a manager training we had early this year, one of our trainers reminded us that feedback is a gift. Feedback ensures that employees are on the same page with their manager and teams, and are not surprised when it is time for formal performance reviews.
It is good for managers to first create a safe environment built on trust, making them more open to feedback.
One of Smile’s core values is “Be Human”, which to us means that we value and prioritize that we are all humans first.
In a remote environment, it can be a challenge to establish a deeper connection with someone who you have not met. So, we all try to start out any meetings by checking in on how the person is doing and how things are going in their life. With any of our feedback, we try to give context and refer back to expectations in their team or department's career ladder.
In a remote environment, it can be hard to digitally read the room so body language plays a huge role when giving feedback. Whenever you are giving critical feedback or having a serious conversation, try to always use video. It is good to remember to make eye contact, feel free to use gestures as needed, and stay in tune with any emotional cues that you see. Thanks to technology, there are numerous video conferencing platforms, like Zoom which we can use to communicate with our employees in real time.
It’s also a good idea to send a follow up note recapping your meeting so that you and the person you met have a record of the conversation. It also cuts down on anything that might have been misinterpreted and ensures you are on the same page. You should strive to ensure any check-ins with your team members are efficient and productive. They should also help your team reconnect and maintain that “human connection.”
Your evolve or dissolve moment
Building an inclusive remote culture can be a fun new challenge for HR teams, but also takes a good amount of focus. Going back to the basics around how to develop effective communication strategies, how to drive genuine connection, and how to foster positive career growth has helped me build community and trust within our team (and hopefully this can help you too)!
It is increasingly clear that employees are happiest and do their best work when they have the flexibility to determine where and when they will work. The future of work is fluid and companies need to evolve the ways they support employees or they run the risk of losing them. At the end of the day, my job is to keep Smile’s employees smiling :)
Jen heads up all things People at Smile. Over the past 10 years, she has developed a passion for building and scaling startups; giving employees the structure and support they need to flourish and grow. She loves coaching managers, fostering a culture of feedback, and building out programs that will help build a sense of belonging. Jen is a mom of two girls, loves being outdoors, eating tacos, and drinking her weight in loose teas.