Staying in Touch: Tips For Staying Connected in the Distributed Workplace

Azra Saric

The most obvious (and important) difference between onsite and remote work is how people communicate. Compared to online mode, office-based work provides considerably more opportunities for direct (and most of the time, spontaneous) face to face interactions. These two factors – direct, spontaneous contact and high frequency of communication – are crucial for keeping the company vibe alive and staying tuned to changes in employee engagement and having a sense of connection. 

Obviously, this means that the longer an organization is devoid of such opportunities, the greater the risk of that sense of connection growing weaker and changes in how employees feel going unnoticed. Business implications of a disengaged, disconnected team probably require no detailed elaboration – they’re an obvious and serious risk, one companies cannot afford to leave unaddressed. 

Colleagues giving a fist bump

To keep our relationships alive and vibrant in distributed work settings (particularly in times, such as the current pandemic, in which other modes of work are not available), we need to make sure we have ways of maintaining the same quality and frequency of contact. From the perspective of these two variables, we could argue that there are three types of communication within a company:

  1. Communication that is necessarily, or preferably, conducted online. This includes company newsletters, official notifications (delivered via email, website or internal comms tools), communication with different time zones etc. The quality and frequency of this communication should not be adversely affected with the transition to remote work, and it can continue without any adjustments to protocol.
  2. Communication that is preferably conducted “live” but is not difficult to replicate online. This includes most of the regular, structured interactive events such as stand-ups, team retrospectives, “town hall” gatherings, 1:1s, and other types of meetings that would most likely be conducted face to face in a co-located work mode. The quality and frequency of this communication does not have to be affected when working remotely, provided that important elements of direct interactions (attendance, visibility, giving everyone a chance to speak, informal chit chat, etc) are preserved online.
  3. Communication that is preferably conducted “live” and can be very difficult to replicate online. This category includes most informal communication. So-called watercooler chats, hallway encounters, coffee and lunch breaks, coming to and from work together – these and similar interactions often happen without planning, don’t have a predefined structure, include face to face contact and happen “on the move”. All of that is less typical of conversations in a distributed, online setting.

Considering that Type 1 communication requires little or no change in the transition from onsite to online work, let’s focus on what organizations can do to maintain the necessary quality and frequency of communication in the other two cases.

Type 2 – Live is Better, But Online Can be Good Too

Interactions which are, by their very nature, mandatory (i.e. part of an established process or protocol) are easier to replicate online because the motivation for continuing them is already there. For that reason, the frequency of this type of communication will likely not be affected by remote work, but its quality could be if comms practices are not adjusted to the new environment. Here are some tips on how to make the regular, formal online encounters more authentic and effective.

Rethink your team’s regular meeting schedule

You shouldn’t assume that an onsite schedule can be simply copied when working remotely for longer periods of time. Consider other people’s preferences, agree on the way forward, and stay open to adjustments along the way.

Set reminders

When we don’t have to walk to a meeting and change physical spaces, we tend to be less vigilant of our schedule and risk being late. Make sure meeting invites with reminders are on everyone’s calendar, so everyone tunes in on time. Extra tip – do not forget to add the meeting link!

Define rules of interaction

Set some ground rules to keep the conversations going smoothly. Here are a few:

  • Keep the video on. Insist that people you interact with turn on their cameras; there may be some resistance initially, as people will feel they need to “prepare” for being on video. But, the hassle of being camera ready is relatively small compared to the benefits of having visual contact with people that make up your social network and shape your identity. 
  • Stay focused. No web browsing or doing other work during online meetings!
  • Wait your turn. Don’t allow interruptions. Participants who want to speak should raise their hand or use some other signal to indicate so. 
  • Cancel the noise. Advise everyone to mute their microphones when not speaking, and use earphones to prevent echo.
  • Communicate your status. When you need to leave the meeting, or do something that will shift your focus, leave a message and tag the facilitator.

Bring warmth into the conversation

Lack of direct contact makes remote interactions less personal; even when we see a person we’re talking to on video, the emotional response tends to be weaker. To bring emotions back to life

  • address your colleagues by name frequently
  • use emojis and reactions to communicate encouragement
  • be more deliberate in the way you use your facial expressions 
  • add more nuance to the tone of your voice.

Type 3 – Live is Way Better, But Online Doesn’t Have to be Bad

Let’s face it – mingling, chitchatting, hanging-out, bumping into each other – these and other forms of informal, spontaneous contacts can never be reenacted online to full satisfaction, both from the quantity and quality standpoint. And let’s be frank, these interactions have proven to create long-lasting firm relationships based on trust. But, we can do a lot to keep them sufficiently frequent, realistic and enjoyable. Here are some ways online spaces can be turned into virtual hangout spots.

Create inclusive forums for water-cooler conversations

Informal chat groups probably already exist, but tend to be exclusive by nature (i.e. bring together pre-existing social groups). You need virtual space where people who wouldn’t normally strike a conversation get a chance to do so. For example, we at Maestral introduced Camera Obscura – a channel where we post various photos, ranging from meeting a colleague in a physical space, to throwback photos of our brunches and team-buildings. People love photos, and there is always a conversation that develops around them. 

Create channels dedicated to specific, brighter aspects of daily life

These may include book reading, cooking, sports and similar activities, aimed to help people who don’t typically converse with each other establish contact. Such chat groups may also have existed before, but were underutilized, because a lot of these conversations happened live. For example, we have a channel Buying & Selling which certainly brings together colleagues to interact on more informal topics. 

Create designated virtual safe spaces

The purpose of these forums is to allow people to ask tough questions and share their concerns. Again, shared concerns may help people who don’t typically interact realize they have something in common and bond. Since it’s company leadership that is expected to handle these questions, it’s also an opportunity for crossing the hierarchical divide by fostering direct interactions between them and their teammates. For example, we set up a channel Ask the Founders where no question remains unanswered. Typically, more senior colleagues post a question but others add thumbs up to signal the agreement. 

Recreate regular company team-building events

Happy hours, lunch and learn sessions, birthday celebrations – these and similar get-togethers can be recreated in virtual settings with a lot of success. We have long established Virtual Hangouts for formal “Watch & Learn” sessions or more informal “Break the Week” sessions, where we either host external guests or have internal sessions ranging from breathing exercises to history lessons. Do not shy away from hosting a gym session too!

Take entertainment online

Organize quizzes, coffee catch-ups, movie screenings and other types of entertainment that can take place online, even after working hours. You would be surprised how many people support this type of virtual social gatherings!

Finally, it’s crucial for leaders to stay adaptable and open minded. Not all communication needs can be predicted and planned in advance. Leaders need to make it clear, and keep reminding everyone at company level and individually, that they’re welcome to reach out whenever they need to discuss something, regardless of the format. Such an organic, ad-hoc approach to communication prepares them for any future changes that may affect how their team operates.

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