Research consistently shows that remote employees tend to feel excluded from the company culture. Remote workers report feeling as if they are not treated equally and often fear that their colleagues are working against them. When a problem arises, nearly half of remote workers let it fester for weeks or more.
To improve workplace integration, my company experimented with several ways to bring our distributed workers together, including virtual coffees, book clubs, and executive-led webinars focused on values. Some of these efforts revved up the team temporarily, but they didn’t solve the culture problems that are inherent to having a large remote workforce.
We realized that we needed to create a “beyond remote” workforce by coming together and creating an environment of bona fide cohesion and trust through meaningful relationships and conversations. Of all the methods we tried to bring scattered workers together, here are the two strategies that brought us the most success in terms of increasing engagement:
Generate structured conversations around shared content. We set out to generate deeper conversations among coworkers through virtual meetings structured loosely like a book club, but with a wider variety of content and platforms. For example, we had everybody watch the same TED talk, read the same book or article, or take the same online learning course. Then, we met via video conference and asked everybody to share a reaction, with one person speaking and then choosing the next contributor to speak for about the same length of time. This selection process had the additional benefit of showing where social bonds are strongly developed or where they might need further development.
We found success in encouraging discussion and openness by starting with icebreaker questions as simple as “How did you take your coffee this morning?” If two people use oat milk, they might infer that they both value health, promoting further sharing and bonding. If we discuss an article’s advice and ask, “Have you used these skills in your personal life?” we hear stories that reveal much more of the whole person and provide a greater glimpse into that person’s character. Gathering this kind of direct knowledge about coworkers creates the kind of trust that’s especially important in global teams.
Use online games to help build trust. While this may sound unconventional, playing a video game — one chosen for its ability to force collaboration and to place the team in scenarios that are destined to fail — helps to build trust and reveal how the team will handle negative pressures. In her book, Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Moods: The Meta-Skill for the Acquisition of Skills, Gloria Flores discusses how the negative emotions that crop up when learning something new can block skill development. She stresses the importance of tools and prompts to help us push through. The gaming framework does just that: It allows team members to work through and even utilize the negative emotions that can arise during the learning process.
Deliberately choose a game that forces as many of your team members as possible to get out of their comfort zones. It’s essential to create the equivalent amount of stress and the possibility of failure that exist at work. Imagine that the team is trying to get into a dungeon, but is failing, and I’m yelling, “Your cannon wasn’t in the right spot, and we’re not coordinating. If you would only listen to me, maybe we’d get there!” Suddenly, that’s an interesting conversation point: You think you’re always right? Are you coordinating well? Are you giving good instructions and requests? Are people responding to you? Failures, and people’s reactions to them, inspire much better conversations, as the team dynamics involved in game challenges often mimic the dynamics of work challenges.
Initially, we tried multiplayer games that included a mission for the team — think Fortnite or League of Legends — but our workers weren’t failing enough. To heighten the situation, we switched to more complex games like Factorio that can stump even software developers who are more used to gaming. Adding this complexity provided a place where the team could safely learn from failures. In these heightened environments, people learned that they needed to speak up the moment they foresaw trouble, so they could renegotiate and form new goals or forge new paths. That alone has had a huge impact on interpersonal and work relationships within our own company.
While book clubs and gaming together may feel like they don’t belong on company time, they have given our company a sense of cohesion and retention that had been missing. Our turnover had been significantly higher than the already high average in the software industry, and our retention rate has since improved. These tactics were a critical part of driving that number down. We’ve also seen a marked increase in progress on ongoing projects — even those had been sitting on the back burner for a long time — and greater employee engagement. With these improvements, we’ve been able to set, and meet, new standards for ourselves. Coming together for non-work activities enhanced our ability to coalesce around our common goals as a company.