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Crowdsourced Hacks For Bonding With Remote Teams During COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has brought with it a new reality of remote working. Over the past weeks, millions of people have adapted to working from home, repurposing dining room tables, bedrooms and even ironing boards as temporary offices.

Finding the right technology has been a big part of this adjustment: video tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts for meetings; file sharing services like Google Drive and Dropbox; messaging platforms like Slack and Facebook Workplace.

But aside from the technology, there’s another new challenge we’re confronting: how to keep culture and connectedness alive at a distance. It’s one thing to be able to work from home, but how do you recreate the energy, camaraderie and bonding that happen when working together in an office?

I’ve thought about this a lot. Hootsuite has long had a distributed team, with a dozen offices around the world. Building team spirit with distributed teams and remote workers on different continents is no small task, and we’re always looking for ways to get better.

Several months ago, I polled my nearly 2 million social media followers for their top hacks for building real connection at a distance and compiled some of the input they gave. While this wasn’t specifically in the context of COVID-19, I wanted to share some of the relevant tips below, in the hopes that this is useful for other people out there adapting to remote working and looking for ways to strengthen culture right now:

First, smile for the camera. “Video meetings. It’s amazing how much it transforms the interaction between colleagues when it starts to feel like you’re in the same room. Once video becomes almost standard, it makes remote offices feel far more connected.” — Tyler Davey, Business Development Manager at Amazon Web Services

Obvious one here, but probably the single most commonly mentioned hack. Whether you’re using Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts or another platform, being able to see real human faces instantly creates a level of connection that’s hard to replicate via chat or phone.

Virtual happy hours. “Create virtual happy hours and virtual parties that don’t simply mimic stationary events, but actually take advantage of what can be done differently and more effectively on camera.” — Ben Bisbee, Author of The Unashamed Guide to Virtual Management

This tip gets at one of the paradoxes of office life — some of the most important team building happens when work stops. But how do you replicate that remotely? One answer is to “schedule” happy hours, coffees, parties, etc. via video and keep work talk off limits.

Overlapping hours. “Depending how spread out the team is geographically, set some core hours during the day where everyone is online together for a few hours. Similarly, have a commitment to be quickly available as much as possible over a bit of a wider set of hours.” — Michael Miner, Software Engineer at Hootsuite

This can be tricky if you’re on opposite time zones, but making sure everyone is online and reachable for part of the day can save endless back and forths on email and lots of confusion. I also like the point here about being open to a reach-out at other times — even if it’s just a quick text — if unexpected needs arise. BTW: Michael is a 10-year Hootsuite veteran and a remote working ninja if I ever met one.

Karma points. “I would suggest having an appreciation platform where employees can send an ecard or nominate their coworkers. We have a program for both co-located and remote folks to use and sending a little note or thank you points goes a long way towards inclusion.” — Megan MacFadyen Sullivan, Manager of Product Management at Thomson Reuters

In its simplest form, this could simply be a dedicated channel on Slack or another platform for recognizing and praising coworkers who go above and beyond. (At Hootsuite, we have a Facebook Workplace group called Shout Outs.) The key isn’t really about prizes or gifts here, as much as just taking the time to stop and acknowledge people who may not physically be in your office.

Friendly competition. “We sponsor contests like “cutest four-legged officemates.” Of course, you need a social platform to support it and passionate moderators. But it helps bridge the miles and builds real connections.” — Suzanne Hopkins, Director of Product Management at Harris Computer

Nothing like a little friendly competition to cultivate team spirit. What I like about this suggestion is that it’s not about sales totals, customers or anything to do with work. Pets, reality TV, etc. all make for great, low-pressure contests that can transcend borders and time zones. Plus, this is easy to do with voting tools inside platforms like Facebook.

Standing office hours. “One of my favorite hacks as a leader working remotely is having “open door” time slots for team members to jump online for quick counsel. It’s meant to be like “swinging by my desk” for a quick chat or to ask a burning question, no appointment needed — just as you would in a physical office.” Henk Campher, VP of Corporate Marketing and Head of Impact at Hootsuite

In the office, so much knowledge transfer between leaders and teams happens outside all the formal meetings and presentations, with colleagues crossing paths, asking questions, chatting at the watercooler, etc. It’s important to allow for that spontaneity to happen remotely, as well. (Disclaimer: Henk recently joined Hootsuite.)

Random (virtual) coffee. “Can’t go wrong with Random Coffee. Create pairings once a month with those participating across the company, and they meet up for coffee/drink/chat. It gets people who would otherwise not chat to one another to connect and learn about different parts of the company.” — Tara-Lee Houkamau, Senior Business Analyst at Oranga Tamariki

This one is close to my heart. In fact, we created a little application a few years ago that allows people at any company to randomly pair up for a coffee (or beverage of choice). The power of cross-pollination — getting passionate team members together who don’t normally connect — is not to be underestimated. Incorporating Zoom, Skype or another video platform makes it easy to take this idea “virtual.”

Thanks so much to everyone who shared their brilliant ideas. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. And as we continue to adapt to remote working, new issues are emerging — including the stress of juggling family and work life in the same space and even burnout from being “always on” and not being able to leave work at the office.

I’d love to keep the dialogue going if you’ve got your own hacks for building culture remotely or handling these new challenges. Please feel free to share ideas below.

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Business leadership advice, from real business leaders. The Helm is a carefully curated collection of insightful content from the business frontlines.

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Ryan Holmes

Ryan Holmes

Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

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