It’s easy to get caught up in the manic pace of the startup world.
Managers can get so focused on hitting deadlines in order to keep the company alive that they forget to step back and connect with the people working with them. But even when your team is on the other side of the world — and it’s hard to high-five your computer or tablet — you should still be able to have personal as well as professional relationships with them.
Here is how to get to know those employees better.
The Benefits of Forming Relationships with Remote Employees
You might not see the value of setting aside personal time if your employees already work well together. This is because remote employees tend to be self-motivated and notorious for their independence. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to form a personal bond with you.
“More than half of people who leave their jobs do so because of their relationship with their boss,” says Dr. Travis Bradberry, president of TalentSmart. “Bosses who fail to really care will always have high turnover rates. It’s impossible to work for someone eight-plus hours a day when they aren’t personally involved and don’t care about anything other than your production yield.”
Furthermore, building emotional connections can move your team off their islands and increase collaboration. If all of the pieces are good on their own, they might be amazing when you put them together.
“If all individual members of your team are productive, does that mean the team itself is as productive as can be?” asks Tim Macchi at Teamgantt.
“While it certainly won’t hurt things, unless they all work in a literal vacuum and don’t need anything from anyone ever, then personal productivity does not directly translate to team productivity. [Communication] is a major aspect involved with making sure your team is operating like a well-oiled machine.”
With personal bonds, employees can get questions answered faster and won’t rely on you — the CEO or manager — to solve all of their problems.
“Being able to form emotional ties among remote team members also is critical to establishing trust,” says author Anita Bruzzese, writing for QuickBase’s The Fast Track blog. “Beginning or ending meetings with some informal conversation or offering ‘small gives’ such as interesting links to videos or articles can also help members form closer personal bonds.”
This article will start with these “small gives” and easy steps you can take for personal engagement, then work up to more complex team-building opportunities.
Make Small Changes to Build Bonds in Your Company
The first step toward improving internal relationships within your team is to analyze how your company works and make small changes toward growth.
“If you’re the sort of manager who only deals with her inbox once a day, you may be unwittingly alienating virtual teammates in a different time zone,” says former Inc. senior writer Ilan Mochari. “The habit that makes your day more efficient could make an employee across the sea feel as if she always has to wait 24 hours for answers.”
In the name of long-term employee retention, you may have to open new communication channels or change your behavior to become more available. This also includes increasing transparency.
“If you’re a founder, owner, or team-lead, you should hold an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session and be as transparent and honest with your team as possible,” explains Jonathan Rhyne at PSPDFKit.
“The more open and transparent you are with your team, the more likely they are to follow you into battle and buy into the company. No one wants to work somewhere when they don’t know the person behind the curtain nor his/her thought process into decisions.”
Again, this doesn’t have to be a major production. You can either create an anonymous Google Form or a specific folder for “Ask Me” questions.
“Employees must feel safe when they take the initiative to try something new, whether or not the idea works,” writes Peter Economy, The Leadership Guy, at Inc. “It’s your job to provide your people with a safe haven to bring forward their ideas, and to tell the truth — no matter how hard it may be for you to hear.”
Even if these steps seems trivial, they can boost morale and reduce overall turnover rate.
“Most employees at large organizations feel little or no loyalty to their current employer,” explains Jennifer Bergen, director of content marketing at Rapt Media. “One in three employees feel like their employers don’t care about them, and a staggering 69 percent are open to other opportunities or already seeking their next job.”
Set Up Icebreakers Before Conference Calls
While digital communication has certainly made it easier to chat online, many companies still rely on conference calls to check in. This is a great opportunity for icebreaker questions to help people get to know each other.
“If you’re hosting a meeting, keep it quick,” says collaboration specialist Lisette Sutherland, writing for Poll Everywhere. “You are meeting because there are things that need to be discussed as a team. These icebreaker questions should not get in the way of what needs to get done.”
The same statement can be made about planning personal social hours and company retreats. You don’t want the fun committee to co-opt the whole meeting.
“When virtual teams are starting out, in fact when any new team gets together, there is always a period of ‘getting to know each other’ and learning team values and culture,” explains Louise Brace at Happy Melly.
“Another big plus that virtual icebreakers bring to an organization is the ability to extend the tool up and down the hierarchy. … The benefits extend up and down, something that wouldn’t normally happen in a traditional coaching or icebreaker session. Every employee receives the same level of respect and collaboration.”
What seems like a fun five minutes of distractions is actually a productivity tool. Once your teams know this, they can jump on board with their own ideas.
“Icebreakers fit into a larger strategy of team-building and establishing team culture.” Chris Higgins writes for Lucid Meetings. “Everything that happens in any collaborative meeting should serve the purpose of the meeting. The icebreaker functions to get the team connected enough that they can begin working together in a collaborative way.”
Think of your ice-breaking session as an opportunity for your employees to learn how to communicate with each other and understand their personalities and humor. They can pick up on subtle clues and lower barriers of communication.
“Meeting someone new can be overwhelming when you have no time constraint on your conversation,” Belle Beth Cooper writes for Zapier. “Because we’re wired to look for threats in any new situation, our first reaction to meeting someone is to be wary of them until we start building up some rapport.”
All it takes is five minutes before a meeting to build report, which can lead to years of collaboration.
Find Bonding Activities That Work for Your Team
While icebreakers are commonplace in remote conference calls, additional activities are up to you. These will depend on your resources, commitment level, and creativity.
“It may sound trivial, but having a movie night will get people’s guards down. It provides a space to talk about things unrelated to work,” Niraj Ranjan Rout, founder of Hiver, writes for Remote.co.
“Choose a popular movie that everyone can watch on their laptops, and have a live chat running so you can have everyone’s opinion about every scene. After the movie is done, you can have a short discussion on how they liked it.”
You can also harness major events like the Super Bowl or World Cup and create a chat thread to engage employees who would normally be watching it anyway.
“Each year, we’ve had a company Christmas party via Skype,” Allan Branch, co-founder at Less Everything, writes, for Tech.co. “We each take a turn being the gift recipient, which means muting your mic. Then the rest of the team will search the web for gift ideas. The recipient sits silently as the team will discuss their possible tastes in gifts. Finally, together a gift is chosen by the team and purchased by the company.”
Hosting a holiday party, even if it’s just a conference call, is a great way to bring a physical office tradition to remote teams.
“Place-based volunteering ideas include things like volunteering at a local soup kitchen, helping build a Habitat for Humanity house, or delivering gifts to children’s hospitals during the holidays,” writes Lindsay Kolowich at HubSpot.
She created a list of 17 fun corporate outings, many of which can be tweaked for remote teams. “Skill-based volunteering is a cool way to stretch your employees’ expertise: It’s when your team volunteers their time and uses their professional skills — anything from marketing to app development to writing — to help a nonprofit.”
Your team could even consider hosting a “digital 5K,” where individuals run for a cause in their own areas and share their experiences online.
There is no set guide to how your company can form personal bonds. Take an idea that your employees are excited about and run with it.
Consider Hosting A Company-Wide Retreat
Once your team becomes more established, you can even consider hosting a company retreat where everyone who is able to travels to one location for a few days.
“Research strongly suggests that an initial face-to-face meeting, or an annual one at minimum for long-term virtual teams, is vital to team success,” Wayne Turmel, co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute, writes for Management Issues.
“Organizations often view this as an unnecessary expense, but their investment will be repaid several times over in efficiency and effectiveness. … The data shows that team members who are friends, and not just work colleagues, are more likely to share strong social capital ties.”
Buffer is one remote-success story that many companies try to emulate. They’ve created guides for successfully conducting remote team retreats.
“Monday-Friday, teammates tend to work together on a 9-to-5(ish) schedule,” explains Buffer’s Courtney Seiter. “The actual ‘work time’ is often more centered on conversations, sessions, and ad-hoc syncs than a normal week might be — we like to take advantage of the time in person to have lots of chats. (I always come with my notebook filled with specific conversations I want to have with specific teammates.)”
While all this is exciting for virtual companies, traditional teams can also take advantage of icebreakers and corporate retreats to form strong internal bonds.
“Teams no longer have to endure a faceless, beige conference room with boring cold sandwiches and uninspiring corporate culture exercises,” Kavi Guppta writes for Forbes. “These resources aren’t just for shiny new startups looking to standout. Your teams need to be inspired, and what better way to get them motivated than by shuttling them to an experience like no other?”
Improving morale through personal relationships doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes a week, but your teams might enjoy it enough to extend it on their own time to multiple hours. Employees who are happy with what they’re doing and who they work for are two crucial keys to long-term business success.