Improving the sense of belonging in remote teams

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Do you know what's one of the biggest challenges of remote work? Hint: it's also one of the major reasons people switch jobs.

When talking with my clients and employees, I often find that it's the lack of connectedness, the lesser sense of belonging, or - to put it differently - team relationship-building issues.

Unsurprisingly, it's related to a couple of other work-from-home struggles: loneliness and isolation.

The same was observed in Slack's report.

Despite the fact remote workstyle outperforms working in the office in most categories (productivity, handling stress & anxiety, satisfaction, work-life balance), it lags behind when it comes to belonging.

There are, however, ways to improve on this, and what I usually suggest to clients is the following guidelines:

  • Solid vision - it’s natural that people feel their work is more relatable when they work on something they believe in and feel a sense of purpose in it. It's the role of the company leaders to inspire its employees and lay out the vision, and mission clearly. The best motivation comes from within vs being triggered by external factors.

  • First-class citizens - remote engineers I interview, frequently tell me that what makes them feel ostracised is when a company does not include them in culture-related meetings, socializing events, and benefits. Many remote employees are, on paper, B2B contractors. Yet, a fair number of companies still treat those employees as “external” and “not really part of the team”. The reality is that most of those remote employees must be (on paper) external contractors (because of visa issues, for instance). Modern companies realize, though, that the legal form of employment does not matter that much. What matters is how we treat our employees and whether we are genuinely inclusive to all our staff. Whether someone is an actual employee or a contractor, I suggest they are treated as close to in-house employees.

  • #Leaders as mentors - one can’t simply take managing practices that worked in the office and try to replicate them in a remote setup. With challenges like loneliness, focus management, and potential anxiety related to feeling outside the loop, leaders must become more mentors than managers. Emotional intelligence, empathy, and sympathy should now become managers’ primary tools.

  • Transparency - feeling disconnected is intertwined with a lesser sense of belonging. It’s pretty easy to get FOMO or simply feel out of touch with the team if decisions are made “behind closed doors” and then rarely announced in advance. Hybrid is particularly prone to this sort of problem. Especially if part of the team is always in the office and the remote becomes an afterthought. Defaulting to Slack, recording meetings, opening meetings to all members are just several ways to solve this problem.

  • Trust - introducing process changes that measure employees one way or another is always tricky and might be a source of stress and frustration to some. And while collecting data on, for example, team’s wellbeing, milestone progress, performance is an essential part of #managing any team, the key is to start with trust and always take one’s time to explain the purpose and good intentions of collecting such data.

Slack reports offer some interesting insight as well:

  • Reduce the number of status meetings. “Workers who attend status meetings report a lower sense of belonging (-3) compared with those who receive status updates in writing (+6). Moving updates out of meetings and into asynchronous digital channels can help free up time for more meaningful team conversations and rapport building.”

  • Organize team-building activities. “Workers who participate in dedicated monthly team-building activities like retros, brainstorms or even games feel their sense of belonging improve significantly (+10).”

  • Remember to say thanks and give honest praise for the job done. “Feeling valued and dedicating time to recognizing the contributions of others at least once every two weeks had the largest effect on workers’ sense of belonging (+10).”

The conclusion is that organizations will need to find ways to improve their culture to create a sense of connection and relationship. Optimistically, though, there are many simple and deeply humanistic means to solve this particular problem.

If we learn how to give kudos more, how to socialize better and more authentically, and how to be more empathic towards others, we won’t only solve the problem of building better remote teams, but we’ll become better leaders and humans in general.

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