Remote Work Is Lonely. Here’s What Companies Can Do to Foster Community.

December 9, 2020

Remote work and distributed teams were fast-growing trends in the tech world well before the pandemic. But in March, many fully on-site teams found themselves suddenly forced to join the work-from-home crowd.

That was nine months ago. Some organizations have transitioned to hybrid models since then, but many teams are still completely virtual.

A lot of people have adapted to the “new normal,” and many love the flexibility it affords. Others struggle with imperfect at-home working conditions and keeping themselves motivated and on task without the structure of a normal day or office environment.

We’re all doing the best we can.

One challenge that’s universal—especially for teams new to working remotely—is how hard it can be to form strong relationships with colleagues when you’re not inhabiting the same real-world space. The organic connections and conversations that happen around water coolers and lunchrooms aren’t as easy to come by when the only available modes of communication are email, Zoom and Slack.

Related read: 23 Lessons We’ve Learned from 8 Months of Working Remotely

We recently got some insights into this dilemma from Jennifer Raines-Loring, Head of People at Postscript, an SMS/MMS marketing platform for Shopify stores. Postscript has been a distributed company since day one, so their team has hands-on experience building and maintaining a solid remote culture.

Jennifer shared her thoughts about the importance of being intentional when creating team connection and camaraderie, and she offered three succinct tips to help newcomers to the world of remote work.

Tip 1: Put someone in charge

You can’t just flip the switch to remote and expect everyone to figure things out—there needs to be someone tasked with leading the way. “Going remote is heavily operational,” Jennifer explained. “It’s an entirely different working model that requires an entirely different strategy.”

Jennifer cautioned against trying to outsource this particular role. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of support from the executive team. This is in part because the shift to remote really does affect every aspect of an organization’s working model.

“Company leaders need to actively encourage their people to invest time in strengthening community.”

It’s also because permission to take the extra time to build peer-to-peer relationships needs to come from the top down. Company leaders need to actively encourage their people to invest time in strengthening community.

Whoever is in charge of the transition effort—maybe your Head of People or Head of Operations—needs to meet two key criteria:

  1. They need to be willing to be accountable for the outcomes of the effort
  2. They need to be a great communicator

Communication is critical in any large-scale initiative, but it’s even more crucial when you’re dealing with a remote situation. The right leader will have excellent communication skills (including via remote-friendly channels!) and the willingness and bandwidth to provide a consistent cadence of clear and thorough updates.

Tip 2: Define what you really mean by “remote”

To quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Definitions matter when you’re talking about taking your team into the virtual realm. There’s a broad spectrum of “remote work” that covers a range of options for location, time and general behavior. If you want things to go smoothly, you need to define your expectations and codify your norms.

To help illustrate the issue, Jennifer provided examples of the kinds of variations that come into play:

  • Location: What is an acceptable remote office workspace? Can someone log into a Zoom from a noisy coffee shop, or is everyone expected to secure a dedicated space that’s quiet and private?
  • Time: Will everyone on your team be expected to be “at work” during specific hours in a given time zone, or will it be okay for remote work to be done asynchronously?

Within the broad categories of location and time, there are many sub-questions that can make a big difference. Will everyone be required to have high-speed WiFi? Are team members expected to be able to extract themselves fully from the distractions of a home environment (usually kids and dogs)? How will you handle security concerns?

In addition to all these logistical issues, you also need to look closely at a number of process-related and behavioral considerations. Again, these might seem like relatively small decisions, but the consequences of getting them wrong can be substantial.

For example, you’ll want to set some expectations about which kinds of situations call for which types of conversations on which platforms. It’s not unlike an organization’s cultural preference for (or abhorrence of) Reply All. At some companies, it’s considered bad manners if you don’t CC everyone. In other spaces, hitting Reply All is seriously frowned upon.

“You have to be intentional and very clear about communicating your remote work norms.”

There are many examples of this kind of cultural rule. Will team members be encouraged to launch impromptu video calls with colleagues or stick to a more calendar-driven scheduling practice? Will employees be encouraged to multitask during Zoom meetings?

“The norms can be totally different from company to company,” Jennifer said. “At my last company, multitasking while on screen was definitely not acceptable. But at Postscript, the Zoom chat is super lively during every meeting. There’s no right or wrong here—you just need to get everyone on the same page.”

Once you’ve got a handle on how you want things to run, Jennifer suggests putting a label on it and creating some documentation. There are so many terms to describe “remote”—remote first, remote flexible, remote forward, fully remote, distributed. Pick the one that most accurately describes the approach you’ve defined.

And then put together some guidelines to share with everyone in the company. This might be an addendum to the employee handbook, or a simple poster or one-pager of codified norms.

“It doesn’t have to be an accountability document that requires a signature,” Jennifer said. “You just have to be intentional and very clear about communicating your remote work norms. So much of making remote models work is over-communicating about expectations on how people should conduct themselves.”

Tip 3: Get serious about having fun

Creating a strong remote culture doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a little counterintuitive, but creating a sense of fun and camaraderie requires intention and planning.

While you want to be structured about your approach, Jennifer recommended being flexible enough to iterate on your strategy. When it comes to social programming and team building, she sticks closely to a quarterly cadence, and she always has an agenda. However, she’s also committed to soliciting regular feedback to see what people like and don’t like.

“Try a variety of things,” Jennifer explained. “Maybe your team will like small groups with prompted topics. Maybe they’ll prefer larger groups. A thematic event might be a hit, or maybe something that blends work and social elements.” Jennifer also suggested trying different kinds of software to facilitate your virtual get togethers. While Zoom is the ubiquitous choice, there are other tools that can help you create unique experiences. Hopin and Confetti, for instance, are both designed specifically for networking and virtual team building.

“Each individual owes it to their teammates—and ultimately themselves—to make the effort.”

Apart from being willing to experiment with different formats, Jennifer had two additional bits of advice. The first is simple: plan ahead. Everyone is busy, so the more advance notice you provide, the better chance you have of getting on people’s calendars.

The second thing is to emphasize to everyone that although what you’re doing is meant to be fun, it’s also really important. You don’t want to make any of this mandatory. (Mandatory is the opposite of fun.) But there’s no community if you don’t have a critical mass of people willing to invest in creating that community.

Each individual owes it to their teammates—and ultimately themselves—to make the effort.

Remote work: Not just for emergencies

Remote relationship building is not a one-and-done thing. It’s not simply about facilitating 1:1s with new hires. It’s about creating a cadence of conversations and activities that provide support over the long term. And it’s about refining your approach as you go based on input from the team.

Whether you’re creating and strengthening culture in person or across the globe, the goal is to build teams that trust each other. And that trust needs to be built in cooperation with team leaders and other high-functioning team members who can set the tone and the example.

“Whether you’re creating and strengthening culture in person or across the globe, the goal is to build teams that trust each other.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was acceptable to ad-lib a remote strategy. But companies that want to transform that initial emergency response into a sustainable model need to put in the effort to make it so.

While some teams will eventually return to their pre-COVID model, many others have experienced the benefits remote working has to offer both employees and companies. Organizations can expand those benefits by being really intentional about building community within remote teams.

And, who knows? They just might have some fun along the way.

More remote work resources


Jamie is a writer, mom, and nature lover based in Ipswich, MA.