How To Use Virtual Tools to Help Your Remote Team Feel More Connected
Numerous resources talk about how to keep remote employees engaged — and that’s hundreds more than there were before much of the global workforce went remote in 2020.
In 2018, I shared a few of our People team initiatives focused on internal community-building, but a lot has changed in four years, and we have new activities on the horizon for 2022.
In addition to the ever-evolving landscape of remote work in a time of a pandemic, we instituted a four-day workweek in 2020, which had an impact on the amount non-work things we wanted to ask of our team. We just switched from quarterly to monthly All Hands, which are recorded for anyone who cannot attend.
Our team engagement scores, which I measure with a survey every six months, have decreased from the beginning of 2021. Decreasing engagement scores is something tied to many factors including team turnover, product direction, and external influences. One thing that has been highlighted in our surveys is the reduction in team-building events like casual Zoom hangouts, guest speakers, and in-person events.
And we’re not alone. In our 2022 State of Remote Work, a small majority (52%) of folks who started working remotely due to COVID-19 say they feel less connected to their coworkers
In 2022, we’re diving back into more intentional team-building both asynchronously, synchronously, plus we’re planning the occasional in-person meetup where available. Here’s how we’re approaching all of these events and all of our current initiatives.
Culture is a continual evolution at any company. While every team and individual contributes to the broader culture, the People team at Buffer is responsible for helping facilitate the processes and events for connection and engagement to thrive.
Many other pieces feed into the larger, nebulous thing that is culture: values, company goals, events, internal communication, managers and so much more. That said, events and teammate connection are two of the main areas of focus for me going into 2022.
Last year, the important but never-as-urgent work of team-building easily fell to the bottom of the list in the scheme of other projects. Now, we’ve intentionally re-shifted a few of the larger roles within the People-Finance team to have more clear ownership. We hired a new teammate to focus completely on recruitment and hiring (hi, Janet!) and have optimized the existing strengths of our broader People-Finance team, to make my singular focus on culture and engagement.
This was the first strategic decision we made to address our overall team engagement: someone has to be the designated “driver” of a more values-based culture of connection and engagement. Without clear ownership and burden on one or more individuals, the team can flounder.
In 2022, we’re moving forward with initiatives of all categories: synchronous, asynchronous, in-person, and remote, plus, we’re getting more creative with how we hold those events and are looking to be as inclusive as possible of all timezones and personalities.
We tend to approach projects with a mentality that there is no one-size-fits-all. Some of the things we try will work for some and not for others. Here’s how we break down event categories along with expectations are for attendance. Note: Our required events and timezone guidance are in flux as we experiment with different approaches.
Being explicit about the attendance expectations helps to alleviate confusion and ensures we don’t ask too much of teammates — especially with a four-day workweek.
Most of the initiatives we’re going to do in 2022 fall into the “extracurricular” category, as we have heard that most people can get their work done in four days, but that for about a quarter of the company, they regularly have to work a bit over the four days to get their work accomplished. We want to provide the opportunity to engage with the rest of the team, without adding additional work to their plates.
I’m the broken record when it comes to this: Pair calls and masterminds are invaluable. If teammates can make it work, we ask them to first give these a chance.
Pair calls (casual, one-on-one chats)
We love Donut for automating our rotating weekly one-on-one chats with a different teammate.
Donut artificially creates those moments that would happen naturally if we were all located in the same office: You’d see someone in the hall, stop for 10-20 minutes, and catch up about life. Those moments don’t happen in a remote environment. You have to make them happen, and you have to create an expectation of team-wide participation.
In the past few years, usage of this program has ebbed and flowed — and the general sentiment is that teammates love it but sometimes opt-out during busier periods of work expectations. We ask all new teammates to participate in this program, especially for the first 90 days of their onboarding.
For 2022, we put all teammates into our #people-pairs channel and allowed them to opt-out individually. Pair calls take 20 to 30 minutes and are meant to be very light-weight and yet, they add up over time in a really powerful way.
Masterminds (deeper connections)
Masterminds are meant to create a deep bond with a teammate you don’t work with directly, but hopefully have some things in common — it’s a space to share successes, failures, life events. Some matches work great, others might take some time. Some partnerships last well past tenure at Buffer!
Teammates are welcome to opt-out any time of masterminds for any reason, but we’ve seen clear data to show that when mastermind pairings work, it works very well. Here’s some of the feedback we’ve received in the past:
- “I’ve found that opening up with my buddy has helped me open up with my managers.”
- “Talking to someone outside of my team is really valuable for me.”
- “I think it’s been really helpful to have a designated space to share and grow with another Bufferoo who isn’t my manager or someone on my team.”
- “A great opportunity to connect with teammates and dive deeper into conversations that might not happen in a typical pair call.”
Buffer TED talks
One of our first experiments for 2022 is monthly TED-style/lunch-and-learn talks from amongst our teammates! These will be 20-minutes long and then we’ll have 10-20 minutes of optional hanging out after. We might also bring in external speakers for these. Each talk will then be shared with a recording and a space for comments for the conversation to continue asynchronously. We hope to build out a huge library of teammate talks.
Some of our most successful team initiatives have been around specific, special-interest groups with a clear topic. Whereas whenever we have broad, open-invitation events, we see a very poor turnout. Book clubs and side-project discussions are two groups that we’ll encourage even more this year. These are two of the most active Slack channels we have, so it’s clear where the most passionate teammate conversations are happening, and beneficial to move those to a Zoom call.
We’re moving to monthly All-Hands (compared to our quarterly cadence last year), which allows for more frequent touch-points and chances to see teammates on Zoom. Some of the most popular features of All-Hands meetings include small-group breakouts and unique teammate speakers.
We’re planning to invite more external speakers, especially to support our DEI goals and initiatives. We’ll share a lot more on this approach in future posts.
Slack as our team water cooler
Slack continues to be our virtual water cooler and we have seen great success with recurring prompts to spark conversation in that channel.
Weekly Slack prompts (that we’ve tried before and will do again!)
- In our water cooler channel, we use Donut’s feature to send out regular questions
- In our gratitude channel, we might ask What are you grateful for today?
- In our books channel, we might ask What are you currently reading? What book has made the most impact on your life?
- In a self-improvement channel, we might ask What are you working on about yourself lately?
For November 2021, we tried out a daily gratitude prompt (inspired by Passion Planner’s 21-day gratitude challenge) and ended up with really great discussions over the days we posted this in November.
Internal podcast episodes
Another asynchronous initiative we are leveraging this year: regular, internal podcast episodes. We’re launching this in a lightweight, quick way, simply recording some of the existing conversations that already happen every week. We might iterate on a more polished version in the future, but for now, we want to share the latest thoughts on our exec’s team’s mind or share a profile of a teammate.
Quick questions with teammates
In the same theme as using audio and other asynchronous formats, we’ve done weekly “Quick Question” video interviews with new teammates (and some longer-tenured teammates!) in our weekly company newsletter.
Here’s a sample with Dave and Lexi from our Advocacy team!
While this is very much in the early stages, we are exploring the model of regionally-based meetups and encouraging local gatherings for our company in 2022. This is in place of a company-wide, one-location meetup, which we feel is still a bit too difficult and unpredictable given international travel considerations.
We’ll share a lot more coming up as this takes shape, but it’s a piece of the larger engagement puzzle as we look ahead.
When it comes to keeping a team of nearly 90 teammates spread out across the globe connected and engaged, there isn’t one solution or one easy approach. It takes time, intentionality, and team accountability. What have you tried with your team, or which of these would you like to learn more about? Send us a tweet!