Fostering Community Amongst Remote Teams in a Crisis

Jul 22, 2020 · 5 min read

Leading remote teams during a crisis present unique challenges for staying connected and productive. Here’s how to boost morale and collaboration amongst stressed-out employees.

by FK Funderburke

How are you really? Building a supportive remote culture for your team

Remote is the new normal. Companies have had to make a hard turn towards an entirely different way of working. As COVID-19 continues to dominate the news, people are anxious about the future — making it tough to push forward with their day-to-day jobs. Human connection is vital in the midst of a crisis. Luckily, we have a host of tools and technologies that help. But how do you foster community amongst distributed teams? And as a leader what can you do to keep morale high during uncertain times?

Image for post

Almost overnight, everything changed. We’re all home, we’re caring for older relatives, we’re homeschooling. Many of us have been quarantined alone for weeks. Sitting in meetings and chatting with colleagues over lunch seem like long-distant memories. While technology is smoothing our transition to a distributed work-style, periods of prolonged uncertainty are causing acute distress. Plagued by fears about health and finances employees are stressed and worried.

Extended remote work is challenging. Even under normal conditions, remote coworkers are 2.5 times more likely to pick up on mistrust, incompetence, and poor decision-making with distant colleagues over co-located ones. During a crisis, leaders set the tone for embracing change and ensuring everyone feels connected.

Redefining leadership

COVID-19 is challenging ‘business as usual’. Right now, collaboration and compassion trump top-down control. Since followers mirror leaders, calm, empathetic, and clear-headed techniques are key to building trust and keeping employees safe and productive:

  • Stay in touch: Reach out regularly and begin each conversation by asking team members how they’re holding up. Simple questions can provide deeper insight into what’s going on at home — and reveal issues that might affect morale. Providing an attentive ear often makes the difference between someone feeling reassured versus feeling lost.
  • Share resources and ideas: Be authentic. Share your own experience of life in quarantine. Share any new tools, routines, or devices that you’ve found that have helped you and your family stay sane. Chances are you’ll transform someone’s experience of remote work. Overcoming obstacles as a team helps everyone feel connected — even though we’re remote we’re not going through this alone.
  • Be adaptable: Many people have taken on new caring roles. Maybe they’re looking after older relatives or helping high schoolers with homework. Flexibility is vital to good mental health — as such, communicating to your team that we’re all operating outside of the norm is important. Let your team know they can move standing meetings to accommodate new demands at home. It’s also critical to provide meeting summaries and encourage feedback.
  • Look out for changes in behavior: Are people still joining calls promptly? Are they as fast to react as they were pre-crisis? If you spot someone struggling, find out what they need to make life more tolerable. Watch for subtle signs and ask questions to ensure employees have the support they need.
  • Address reluctance to use tools: Not everyone is comfortable turning on their camera during video calls. They may simply feel awkward, in which case don’t force the issue. However, it might indicate a deeper issue. Is their home in turmoil? Maybe they’re not looking after themselves. A lack of self-care may be down to living alone — but it’s also a red flag for depression. If you’re concerned, check-in 1:1 to make sure they’re okay.
  • Extend empathy to clients: We know business is changing. The economy will rebound and productivity will rise. We just don’t know what normal will look like. How will remote work stick once we’re given the all-clear is a question everyone is trying to answer. Ask clients what’s happening in their business and how they’re coping. Share what you’ve learned along the way and consider how you can help.
  • Have fun: From happy hours to scavenger hunts and Netflix parties, companies are getting serious about virtual fun, including Theorem. Finding moments of lightness in this difficult time are immensely valuable and stave off feelings of isolation.
Image for post

Virtual fun: The power of connection

Theorem is a global team so time differences can be a challenge, but a few of us got together on a virtual happy hour — cameras on — and laughed for an entire hour. Someone commented on a captain’s hat (straight from a 70s disco) hanging in the background of one home office. Another said, “Oh, you want to see an interesting hat?” and went off to find their own. Before long, everyone had found the craziest hat in their house. It was a fantastic pressure release. We posted screenshots of the antics to the company’s Slack channel.

Help employees build confidence and stay positive

While uncertainty prevails, good habits help to keep us grounded and feeling safe. While working from home, help your employees stay resilient by encouraging them to:

  • Embrace change: No question, some routines will be upended. If you’re working from home for the first time you’ll likely be dodging a spouse and kids, all navigating their own issues. As a leader, be flexible. And encourage employees to be flexible too.
  • Stick to routines: Take care of the bookends: the morning ablutions and nighttime routines. Get up and shower, for example — yes, even if you don’t have video calls. These are the details that provide a purpose.
  • Be considerate, not perfect: Every time we video call, we invite our colleagues and clients into our homes. Video conferences from home are seldom flawless. Accept that the dog will bark and that kids might interrupt meetings.
  • Nurture a culture of gratitude: Encourage a mindset of thinking that the glass is half full, not half empty. Lead by example and express your gratitude when people accomplish a task or support teammates.

Read: Crisis-driven change: how to prepare your team for remote work, fast.

The heart of the matter

Theorem has been fully remote for over 13 years — we’ve had time to iron out kinks and instill a healthy remote culture. We’re continuing to work as we always have — what’s changed is having to stay home and not being able to run errands. As leaders, it’s our job to remain calm, ensure everyone feels heard and understood, and model the flexible team behaviors we’re going to need to thrive on the other side of this.


We are an engineering and innovation firm.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store