5 Fun Strategies Companies Are Using to Make Remote Workers Feel Included

March 7, 2019

The freedom to work when and where they choose is a huge draw for today’s workforce. In fact, LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2019 report found that 36% of women and 29% of men consider flexible work arrangements to be a very important consideration when choosing a job.

But flexible work arrangements by themselves aren’t enough. A 2017 study found that remote employees are more likely to feel left out or isolated than their onsite peers. And when employees work remotely most or all of the time, they can find it hard to mesh with the company culture, which will hold back collaboration and hurt engagement and morale.

But, remote work doesn’t have to be isolating. Here’s how these five companies have made remote employees feel part of a close-knit team — no matter how far apart they may be.

1. GitLab encourages remote team members to take virtual coffee breaks and even pairs them up for randomized video calls

Meet-ups don’t have to take place in person. GitLab, a web-based repository manager, aims to replicate the fun and camaraderie of office culture for its remote-only team by using video calls.

One tactic GitLab uses is the virtual coffee break, where team members can take a break and chat with one another via video call. Employees are encouraged to spend a few hours every week taking these calls, with the goal, the company website says, of creating “a more comfortable, well-rounded environment” to work in.

Virtual coffee breaks don’t just take place between friends. GitLab uses Slack to help employees connect, and in the #donut_be_strangers channel, team members have the option to be randomly paired up by a bot called Donut. They can also join the “Random Room,” a chat on Google Hangouts that’s always open for anyone to pop into.

These strategies have helped GitLab’s employees socialize more, even though they span 39 countries. Many have even met up in person outside the office.

Communication and video conferencing tools like Slack, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams make it easier for employees to stay in touch, no matter where in the world they are. The technology also enables opportunities for fun, from sharing GIFs to discussing mutual hobbies, which can help prevent isolation and burnout and create a closer-knit culture.

Many companies, like Revelry and Groove, dedicate a specific Slack channel to virtual #watercooler conversations. The LinkedIn Talent Blog team has one, too — it’s called the Story Squad thread!

2. Help Scout holds monthly themed “troop talks” and encourages employees to make video tours of their workspace at home

Customer support service Help Scout believes that planning and effort are key to building a strong remote culture. One strategy it uses is the monthly “Troop Talk,” which brings together groups of 10 or more employees using Zoom.

Help Scout first experimented with Troop Talks in 2014, but found these calls were plagued by awkward silences or people accidentally talking over one another. To make sure things ran smoothly, they introduced more structure and planning.

Today, the company’s people ops leader chooses a theme, like recipe party (sharing your favorite recipes) and bon-app-etite (discussing the phone app you can’t live without), for each conversation. Then a date is set, giving employees time to think about what they want to say. During the call itself, everyone takes turns talking and sharing.

Help Scout says each Troop Talk tends to include about 25% of its team, though the number will fluctuate with the topic and the time. To accommodate employees in varied time zones, calls are recorded and held at different times each month.

While video calls provide a small glimpse into a remote employee’s life, Help Scout also encourages team members to create fun little videos of their workspaces. Inspired by the television show MTV Cribs, these “At Home with Help Scout” video home tours allow employees to share more of their personality and day-to-day life with their coworkers. In the past, employees have discovered, among other things, that some colleagues raise chickens and others have lie-down desks.

Shared practices like these can make cultures strong, whether or not your employees share them in person. What’s more, they can help employees discover connections with each other (like a mutual love of chickens) that can spark more conversations in the future.

3. Workswell recommends making video calls more playful to create a shared vibe for all participants

Workswell, a corporate consulting group that aims to help companies create healthier cultures, recommends building playful elements into meetings to create a shared vibe for remote and onsite staff.

One tactic the company uses is telling employees at the start of a meeting that they have to give “an aha, an apology, or an appreciation” at the end. This means they can share something they liked, talk about a lightbulb moment the meeting sparked, or apologize for something they did, like overreacting to someone else’s comment.

“It changes the way employees engage with the meeting, since they may pay closer attention knowing they’ll be asked to give feedback at the end,” explains Jill Vialet, founder and CEO of Playworks, the company which launched Workswell.

A simple stratagem like this can serve an important purpose: reminding onsite staff that remote employees are on the call, and encouraging remote workers to fully engage in the conversation. This can prevent remote employees from feeling isolated, and may help build more connections between distant team members who wouldn’t otherwise chat.

4. CleverTech’s workforce comes together through online video game sessions

Kuty Shalev, founder and CEO of software development firm Clevertech, didn’t meet his CTO in person for the first three years they worked together. That’s because Clevertech is a 100% remote company and has been for over a decade. But managing a workforce dispersed across the globe hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“Our turnover had been significantly higher than the already high average in the software industry,” Kuty writes in the Harvard Business Review. To combat this, he began experimenting with different strategies to address the culture problems and to build cohesion and trust.

So his workforce started playing video games.

Kuty figured that playing online video games together would force employees who’d never met in person to collaborate to solve problems. Initially, Clevertech tried mission-based multiplayer games like Fortnite and League of Legends, but these proved too easy. Teams needed to face failure to truly band together and coordinate properly. So the company upped the ante by incorporating more complex games such as Factorio, which is known to trip up even experienced gamers.

“It’s essential to create the equivalent amount of stress and the possibility of failure that exist at work,” Kuty writes in HBR. “Adding this complexity provided a place where the team could learn from failures. . . . That alone has had a huge impact on interpersonal and work relationships within our own company.”

This isn’t the only strategy Clevertech has found useful for bringing its culture together. The company also uses shared content — like TED talks, books, or online learning courses that everyone participates in — to encourage deeper conversations between employees.

“Our retention rate has since improved,” Kuty writes in HBR. “These tactics were a critical part of driving [turnover] down. We’ve also seen a marked increase in progress on ongoing projects — even those that had been sitting on the back burner for a long time — and greater employee engagement.”

With so many multiplayer games available online, this is something any company can do. The key is letting employees play during work hours (like Clevertech did) so it doesn’t feel like an obligation. Make it fun but challenging and it will quickly become a shared part of your culture.

5. Automattic hosts an annual Grand Meetup for its 100% remote workforce

Software company Automattic, which owns WordPress.com, lets its 700+ employees work anywhere they want. It has global offices that they’re welcome to use (though its San Francisco space closed down in 2017 because not enough people used it) and offers every team member a $250 monthly stipend to work in coworking offices (or Starbucks).

But that doesn’t mean they never meet.

Every year, Automattic flies all its employees in for an event it calls the Grand Meetup. Throughout the year, smaller group meetings also take place, but the Grand Meetup is a chance to get every single employee together in the same location. In 2018, the meeting was held in Orlando, Florida, and previous event locations have included Whistler, British Columbia, and Park City, Utah.

Over the course of one week, employees collaborate on projects together, teach and learn new skills, and generally get to know each other. But it’s not all work, with activities ranging from silent discos to theme park trips.

The Grand Meetup is strategically designed to welcome new hires into the fold and build more connections between employees. Seating arrangements are carefully organized to prevent the same coworkers from sitting together more than once. By the end of the week, everyone has made dozens of new connections.

“You may think that such an arrangement would be emotionally exhausting,” writes data scientist Boris Gorelik on the company’s blog. “You are absolutely right. However, in the long run, this exhaustion pays. . . . Despite working in a distributed environment, and despite meeting some of my colleagues only once a year, I feel a part of a vibrant, fun, and creative group of people.”

This kind of arrangement may not be possible for every company. But giving remote employees the opportunity to meet their coworkers and take part in team-building activities can go a long way toward immersing them in the culture — and making them feel like part of the team.

Whether you meet face-to-face monthly, quarterly, or annually, these gatherings can make a big difference. Companies like GitHub and Dmanna bring remote employees on-site at various times throughout the year, while Glitch (formerly Fog Creek Software) invites all remote employees to spend their first week in the office while they onboard.

Build a bridge between remote and onsite staff, and they will use it

Remote work doesn’t have to be isolating. Whether your company is 100% remote or has just a handful of remote coworkers, showing your company’s commitment to building a shared culture can encourage disparate team members to dive right in.

Give employees the tools they need to build and share their culture. This can include a dedicated channel in your communication platform, a structured meeting, or a gaming session on company time.

However you choose to do it, let staff know why you’re doing it and give them the option to express their own ideas about growing the shared culture. People want to feel connected and part of something at work, so if you make the effort, they’ll meet you halfway.

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