6 things remote teams do to increase the sense of flow and belonging to the group

On remote working and asynchronous communication

Don’t you hate those post titles with numbers? I’m just checking if it drives more reads; no matter the results I’ll never do it again, I promise.

A day in the Happyforce office

When we started Happyforce as a fully distributed company (no offices, nowhere), I thought this new way of organising work would be great to avoid the constant interruptions you find in a regular office space.

I was shocked by the famous “Why you can’t work at work” video of Jason Fired, from Basecamp.

I bought it right away, both the idea of avoiding interruptions and their product.

I indeed closed our Slack account to reduce the number of interruptions and synchronous communication that we had at the beginning. It was a nightmare for the people that weren’t connected online during the whole day.

When to go asynchronous

Encouraging asynchronous communication had three primary objectives:

  1. Reduce the number of interruptions to foster concentration, flow, creativity, reduce stress, and allow people to work faster.
  2. Contribute to employees autonomy in the company. At Happyforce we enjoy an open schedule, no fixed working hours and unlimited vacation days. We thought asynchronous work would make it easier to combine work and family hours. This asynchronism makes no longer necessary to share working hours with your peers to get things done.
  3. Make people write more. I have recently been discussing this with Sergi Hernando, and I agree with him it is essential to take the habit of writing more. There’s a recent post from Steve Snkifosky that explains this perfectly.

What we have learned from this experience is that:

When you work sharing the same physical space with your peers, you should encourage asynchronous communication.
Too much sync communication at the office leads to unnecesary interruptions and lack of focus. Photo from OfficeSpace movie.

As humans, we are social animals. That means that our natural tendency is to socialise. When you bring people together, some form of socialisation happens: around the water cooler, with people seating by the desk, in the time before and after a meeting; there are plenty of chances for socialisation to happen and you cannot avoid it because it is wired to our brains.

However, when working in a remote environment, the social dynamics are different. We have not been wired to socialise over a video conference or a chat app.

In this case, what we have experienced is that people tend to isolate. Think about how lazy we are to turn on the camera on regular video conference meetings.

Shared office space + asynchronous communication = good for productivity, more job is done, fewer interruptions

Working remotely + asynchronous communication = loss of human touch, increased sense of disconnection from the group, and the conversation gets more difficult because you are not aware of small social dynamics and emotional factors from your peers.

How to increase human touch and sense of belonging when working remotely

The socialization that happens naturally in a physical environment does not occur while working in a virtual office. Over time we have identified some practices and small rules that helped us build a distributed company while keeping a high sense of team and belonging.

1. Virtual Coffees

Twice a day we have a 15 minute window to connect with others and talk about nothing in particular.

These video calls help to establish rapport with other team members you may not work directly with and build a strong sense of belonging to a community.

We talk about the things we care about; no matter if it is sports, health, nutrition, cooking, cryptocurrency or work-related issues.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

These coffee breaks are also great to bring other people in to meet the team informally: clients, partners, journalists, family, friends or pets.

These coffee breaks are not mandatory. However, almost everyone show up to say hello.

At the same time, when you see that someone is missing from “The Coffees” a few days in a row, it is an indicator that something is not going well; coffee’s assistance acts as an employee engagement gauge.

2. Let’s have lunch!

“You should never have lunch alone.”

This practice started happening naturally. When I am going to have lunch, and I am alone at home, I always ask the rest of the team if they want to join me.

I have virtual-lunch with people from the team at least twice a week. Following cardiologists advice we also started sharing a glass of wine during lunch, it is also an excellent Mediterranean costume I heartily recommend.

These lunches are an excellent opportunity to talk 1–1 with others and build a healthy relationship.

Moreover, we never have to argue about who is paying for lunch :)

3. Open videoconference room

Keeping open a video call while working on something that we are building together.

Although most of the time you do not have to interact with the other person, this form of peer pressure helps me out to concentrate on what I am doing: “This is the third time you go to the kitchen to grab some food, Alex.”

4. Pre and post-meeting time

When you start getting used to working remotely is that work becomes fast-paced and very productive.

Sometimes so productive you even feel it de-humanising.

You can be demoing a client over video conference at 9 am, then jumping to a demo session at 9.30am, then a sales call at 10 followed by a sprint planning meeting until noon. And when you’re done, you suddenly realise you have not moved from your place during the last 4 hours.

When working remotely, you do not have to walk to another room; you no longer have to wait because there are people in the room running late; you don’t have time to grab a coffee while going to another floor in the office.

So add some spare time before or after the meeting to talk again about nothing in particular. You don’t want to de-humanise the company in exchange for a highly productive meetings rate.

5. Use the phone

Yes, that thing they used in the past to talk with people that are far away.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

I am learning this from my fellow co-founder Sergio Cancelo . He always finds time to give you a quick phone call, just to ask how things are going. I’m terrible at doing this by myself, but I have to say that I appreciate these calls. They mean that someone is thinking about you, that they care. You may not solve any problem with these calls; however, they always make you feel better.

We can afford to make these calls because we are still a small team, with fewer than 20 people. But if you work in a larger organisation, we recommend you give a Happyforce a try. We built this platform to make it possible to have this 1–1 daily check in with thousands of people. Effortless.

6. Jump over a video call at the 2nd WTF!?

When discussing a topic in a chat room, a message thread or a Trello card, sometimes you feel like you are not connecting with the others. When you start hearing things that you feel wrong or out of place, it is time to jump over a video call and talk face to face. Five minutes of videoconference are worth a hundred of chat messages.

Final advice

When working remotely, you have to encourage people to talk directly and connect with each other. Things that naturally happen in an office environment do not occur remotely.

With few rules and practices, you can create a habit that helps people to connect and bring all the good things of sharing a physical space with none of the drawbacks.

Disclaimer

We have also learnt that this way of working is not suitable for everyone. It has nothing to do with your age; it has to do with how you are and how you like things. Some people really need to be in an office and share a physical space.

Good news is that unless you want to employ the whole World’s population, you only have to select the ones that enjoy the goodness of remote-working.