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Let’s Talk: Post-pandemic team building – how to make remote workers feel included

Buying collaboration software isn’t all there is to engaging remote workers. Not by a long shot. 

As employees grapple with uncertainly about the course of the pandemic, building cohesive remote teams has never been more critical.

But managers and leaders are in uncharted waters as well, so how can we find ways to provide empathy, inclusion, motivation, and authentic leadership?

Let’s Talk…

Asanga Wanigatunga, Regional Vice President ANZ, Snyk 

“Overcommunication and complete transparency is integral to maintaining engagement and inclusion of employees while working remotely. However, there is a delicate balance of achieving this sense of inclusion without over-subscribing to virtual meetings.  

“Encouraging employees to make spontaneous phone calls is one way to help teams feel connected when they’re working remotely. As the calls are candid in nature, and don’t require a calendar invite, it helps foster the ‘water cooler’ conversation effect that many organisations don’t get to experience while working remotely.  

“Over-amplifying cross-departmental highlights is also essential to provide visibility and ensure everyone understands how all the moving parts in an organisation operate while working in isolation. At Snyk we have an over-communication policy, ensuring everyone has access to the same information which we communicate and share through a multitude of channels from emails to Zoom calls and Slack channels.  We’ve found this not only helps foster inclusion but also drives collaboration when working remotely.”  

Rob Gaunt, director and co-founder, EPiC Agile

‘In these trying times, it’s important to be authentic.  Share the good, the bad and why you think there is light at the end of the tunnel.   Remember, it’s okay to not be okay!  

‘Some of your team may be handling things better than others. Lean into this by suggesting those who are okay help those who aren’t. By inviting your colleagues to help each other, you can develop a culture of internal support and understanding where motivation comes from everyone in your business, not just your senior leaders.

‘It’s important to try and treat your colleagues like you would your family and friends.  Checking in with your workforce goes a long way to fostering trust and understanding.  

Leon Adato, Head Geek, SolarWinds

“As a manager, ensuring employees are ‘happy’ at work—whether it’s in an office or a remote setting—is morally good and good for business. Remote work isn’t a natural fit for everyone (though many appreciate the ability to focus without common office distractions, some might miss the hustle and bustle of the office), so managers should be creative to make sure they include everyone. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use collaboration software to schedule “Watercooler Chats” to talk about everyday stuff—what you’re watching, playing, etc.
  • Affinity groups—from parenting to pets and hobbies, allowing/encouraging non-work centric discussion groups allows folks to connect and share.
  • Making interpersonal communication personal—a common pre-pandemic gripe involved meetings that could have been emails. Now we have phone calls, chats, or texts—interruptions with a sense of immediacy—that could have been asked and answered asynchronously. Managers need to think carefully about how, when, and why staff should be interrupted and use the best method. This will make live discussions feel both thoughtful and personal.

“Lastly, never assume how other people are coping. Empathy is our greatest strength here. Put yourself in other people’s shoes and take the opportunity to reach out.”

Sam Kothari, Director of Growth, Airwallex

“The digital age has seen building and managing remote teams become commonplace. With this shift, however, comes a new challenge; keeping remote teams engaged. Having built a number of satellite teams at Airwallex globally, here are my top tips for keeping engagement high. 

“First, every remote employee has a different working style (as with your in-person workforce). Therefore, managers must flex their approach to get the most from remote teams. For example, we created ‘always on’ Zoom rooms, allowing people to drift in and out and connect while working. 

“Second, the ‘watercooler moments’ remain critical to strong team connections. We’ve found starting meetings with a roundtable allows people to connect and check-in with each other in a casual way. Don’t forget to schedule time for fun activities also – our teams are a big fan of Among Us

“Finally, working remotely makes it easy for people to feel disconnected from both team objectives and the broader company vision. Virtual Offsites or Kick-Offs are great tools to ensure everyone understands the role they play in making the business successful.” 

Andy Hardy, Strategic Director – Employee Engagement, Genesys

“The pandemic has made organisations realise that the way in which they need to engage with their employees has changed forever. It is also becoming very clear that engagement is not the same as satisfaction. Employee satisfaction only indicates how happy or content employees are, but does not address their level of motivation, involvement, or emotional commitment to go the extra mile. The outright leaders in building an engaged workforce are those who are combining the power of employee engagement technology to drive collaboration and innovation, while fostering a culture of empathy and inclusion.

“There isn’t a single switch that will engage your workforce, it is more an overarching approach to transform your organisation’s culture through open dialogue, robust feedback, and fostering a growth mindset. This can be by introducing reward and recognition through gamification, targeted development and coaching with analytics, or providing additional work-life flexibility through workforce management. Providing your employees with a way to feel connected with their peers, developed and coached, ultimately showcasing their well-being is at the heart of the organisation’s goals, is critical to success.”

Monica Vecchiotti, Vice President of Growth Ops, Go1.com

“The world of work has been forever changed by COVID-19, with knowledge workers embracing a more flexible approach to when and where they work. As a leader, it’s important to set the energy at your team meetings, as your staff will respond to your cues. Try and hold meetings via video, so that you can pick up on the body language of the group and create a feeling of connection among participants.

“At Go1, our growing, global workforce stays connected through virtual events, including team lunches and end of week wind downs. Just before Father’s Day, we held a “Dad joke lunch” where the team told their best Dad joke and we’ve held end of week drinks where we played online games like Drawasaurus – people are still talking about it months later. Setting aside time to come together informally is important for building team morale, helps extend the organisation’s culture into the home-office, and provides team members with regular activities to look forward to.’

Jay Munro, Head of Career Insights, Indeed

“To ensure all team members feel included regardless of their working location, employers need to over-deliver on communication and create space for social downtime.

‘Communicate clearly and more often than you would if you were all in the office and make sure that all employees have equal access to information. Schedule regular catch-ups with your whole team, as well as one-on-ones with individual employees so that everyone has an opportunity to discuss objectives, challenges, and to share their successes.

“When working remotely, many of us miss the small incidental interactions that occur when grabbing a coffee or walking to a meeting. To help compensate for these, encourage time for personal chat before and after team meetings. Also, offering multiple channels for communication – email, phone, video conference and instant messenger – provides more opportunities for team members to connect.

‘Shared experiences are a great way to boost morale and create connection. If possible, surprise employees with small gestures like a mailed goody bag, gift vouchers, access to an online service or the option of a reduced working day. Some teams may be open to scheduled social time – think group exercise, trivia or coffee breaks – but it’s not for everyone.  Ask your team for their thoughts on how they would feel more included and regularly check back to see if new ideas or desires arise.’ 

Daniel Ng, APAC Senior Director of Marketing, Neo4j

“With PwC research showing almost 75 percent of Australians hoping to continue working remotely due to the pandemic, any team-building plans must be agile, flexible, sensitive and responsible.

“To keep our remote workers feel connected and engaged at Neo4j, we strive to: 

  • Delivering sensible and relevant information through appropriate communication channels, not just for formal meetings but for fun, casual social activities such as e-lunches where the only rule is not to talk business.
  • Embracing a ‘self-service’ mentality – where we make sure all data and information are organised well so the need to ask ‘where is’ would be minimised – with established channels for help and support.
  • Fostering an informal buddy system – selecting the right ‘buddy’ is key in onboarding our new hires and helps boost morale and camaraderie amongst employees and establish better collaboration and remote work experiences for everyone.

Andy Hurt, ANZ MD,  Poly

“It’s very important that remote employees don’t end up feeling like “second class citizens” when they’re working as part of a distributed team and/or remotely. Providing them with the right technology and devices is critical. With many people now spending hours each day teleconferencing and videoconferencing, they need equipment that’s fit for purpose. Poor audio and video worsens “Zoom fatigue” and hurts engagement and collaboration.

“Creating a virtual “water cooler” can also help foster teamship and encourage communication between office-based and remote staff. Chat channels, virtual catch-ups, incentives and online team-building can all help people feel more like part of a team.

‘Above all, remote workers need “technology parity” – secure access to the resources needed for their jobs, on any device, in any location. By using the best technology and tools available, it should be possible to create seamless collaboration that includes everyone.’

Hadi Haddad, Chief Operations Officer, Till Payments  

“‘One team, one family’ is one of our core values and it’s something we hold close to our hearts. It means we work hard on creating an inclusive environment where people feel free to bring their whole selves to work – remote or otherwise – and are, more importantly, embraced for it.  

“As a leader, I’ve found that injecting some lightness into the work week is the best way to instil a strong sense of community and we have some great traditions, like Friday Fun Day, where teams can come together and bond through some out-of-the-box, virtual activities.  

‘Equally, we’re relentlessly caring of one another. We know things aren’t always easy and we proactively encourage openness and dialogue around the topic of mental health. This is supported by our EAP initiative, which we actively promote and, which provides critical and confidential mental health support and resources for anyone who might need it. ‘  

 Bree Gaffney, People and Culture Business Partner, Gallagher Bassett 

“Team building in the virtual age is a hot topic and no wonder, as it is critical that we engage our teams, no matter their location.

“Supporting employees in a virtual world starts well before day one of employment, we need them to feel supported at the very start of the recruitment process. Managers are key to this success and companies need to review their onboarding model to ensure it stays relevant in both office-based and hybrid roles.

“Reward and recognition are also a huge part of culture, no longer is a morning tea in the office the key to keeping your staff engaged. Whether it’s thanking someone in a public forum such as LinkedIn, offering virtual experiences or gifts, surprise meal delivery, a day off or hosting virtual parties with your team, there are plenty of ways to stay connected. It’s easy for us to lose the non-work social component of work when teams are remote, so keep asking yourself when the last time was that you and your team spoke about something other than work.

“At the end of the day, supporting and engaging employees is so different for each business and each team. Companies are going to need to continually think out of the box to stay progressive in this area and ensure communication, career development and true flexibility remain front and centre. Have a conversation with your team, see how they are feeling, ask them what they would like to introduce and ultimately, just try to have some fun.”

Helen Rutherford, Director of People & Culture, Soprano Design

“The world of work has changed forever for many people. While COVID-19 is far from over, remote work appears set to stay.

“Businesses must remember that every employee is human and should be placed at the centre of policies and procedures to retain talent and safeguard mental health whether working from an office or remotely from home. Frequent, personalised, just-in-time communications help foster connectivity and inclusion. 

“When managing global teams, it’s rarely possible to speak with every employee, so, we’ve used regular surveys to share insights into how far-flung teams are managing their workloads and remote working. This technique can be applied to teams anywhere and provides a pulse check on important workplace issues, such as changing priorities, work life balance, team effectiveness, and morale—allowing emerging issues to be addressed with targeted actions.”

Lara Owen, Senior Director, Global Workplace Experience, GitHub

“Many organisations have been ‘building the plane while it’s flying’ when it comes to their remote workplace culture, during the pandemic. With the value of a distributed workforce being realised, companies are also understanding that creating an inclusive environment for remote workers requires more than just good collaboration tools and best practices. 

“Creating an inclusive, distributed company necessitates empathetic leadership, and demands deliberate changes in the way companies train, empower and support their workforce. More than ever employees are looking for companies that balance individual needs with an inclusive experience. 

“Employees want the choice in how and where they work, but they also want opportunities to come together socially, either virtually or in person (when it’s safe to do so). They want managers and learning & development opportunities that help them reach their professional goals while feeling inspired by the company’s mission and connected to its values. They want wellness benefits that demonstrate their company’s commitment to their physical and mental health, in addition to the opportunity to weigh in before such benefits are rolled out. 

“This new reality of remote work requires a growth mindset to successfully navigate these organisational and cultural shifts. Whether you have been doing hybrid work for years or you are new to the game, you won’t always get things right the first time, so keep looking for ways to improve experiences and interaction. Iterate and iterate again. Think: what could we do differently? Build on what you learn and don’t be afraid to test new ideas.”

Danny Lessem, CEO and Co-Founder, ELMO Software 

‘It doesn’t matter whether an employee is based in the office or at home, they need to feel connected to the organisation if they are going to do their best work.

‘A critical part of establishing a connection with employees is being there to support them in the pivotal moments of their careers and their lives. It’s important to have the systems and solutions in place to understand what is coming up in an employee’s journey with the company and ensure they receive the right communications at the right time.

“It’s not just the big moments that matter so it’s important that the day-to-day activity is inclusive as well. This can be as simple as ensuring that every meeting has a video-call link so remote workers feel included.” 

Nick Bell, owner of 12 digital agencies including his latest business global mentoring platform, Lisnic 

“With the future workplace set to be a hybrid of in-office and remote workers, organisations need to go the extra mile to ensure everyone feels a part of the team and we all work collaboratively – no matter where they are physically. 

“Part of this is building a great culture. Across my 12 businesses, we have initiatives such as a buddy system to help people build and maintain bonds with team members that also facilitate work-related and social chats. This can be challenging for many if they aren’t working in the same space. Our virtual Friday afternoon drinks also allow people to connect socially and unwind. 

“In saying that, a great culture goes beyond this. To build a strong team, everyone needs to be working towards the same goal – so make sure people know their value and how they make a difference. At my newest company, First Page, we do daily huddles where everyone gets to speak openly and make suggestions on how we can improve things in the business. We also organise peer-led training via Zoom across the global agencies to establish an active learning culture. Even before the pandemic, this method proved to us that physical borders weren’t a hindrance to team building and culture.”

Simon Davies, founder and CEO, Bastion Brands

“Remote team members need to feel like there is a plan, as when left to their own devices they can quickly become demotivated. At Bastion Brands we have a regular flow of meetings, so each team member has their week mapped out. We encourage our team to stretch their legs or exercise throughout their workday, some are even teaching each other yoga. It’s also important to provide them overall clarity on what your company is trying to achieve and how each person fits into that larger goal. 

“As a business owner or manager, it’s key to understand that people might need time if they’ve got other commitments or are home schooling, having flexibility will be more beneficial in the long run. Not every day is going to be a good day for some people, and by accepting it or talking about it we can get through as a team and help people feel a part of something.”

Mads Frederiksen, Managing Director APAC, Templafy

The new age of hybrid working is leading to greater flexibility and autonomy within the workplace. However, with snap lockdowns continuing or being extended across the country, there is the rising concern of our remote workers being ‘left out’ as the usual face-to-face, water cooler conversations are no longer part of the workday. 

“To combat this company-wide, we’ve prioritized the concept of belongingness as it promotes the psychological safety of our employees, enabling them to be their true selves and perform their best work. We encourage an environment where everyone is heard and we incorporate healthy initiatives within our teams to actively focus on self-awareness and understanding of team dynamics. 

“The hybrid workplace has forced organisations to undergo major digital transformations, so as business leaders, it is important we focus on the quality of the transformation to sustain employee efficiency and productivity. By implementing practical belongingness initiatives and hybrid working strategies, employee satisfaction and productivity increases and allows us as an organisation to deliver the best possible results.”

Andy Mellor, Regional Vice President ANZ, Kofax

“Collaboration is critical for success and it’s no secret the pandemic and subsequent rise in remote work has disrupted traditional teambuilding practices.

“Technology has helped plug some gaps, ensuring workers feel critical to the broader team and part of a positive culture. At Kofax, we’ve used Microsoft Teams for work collaboration as well as non-work-related chat around different interests, which helps strengthen culture.

“Since last May, we’ve hosted Friday virtual drinks and during the recent lockdown, we’ve used Kahoot for fortnightly trivia.

“Making workers feel included remotely doesn’t stop with technology. We know lockdowns have serious impacts on mental health. I make a point to spend the first 5-10 minutes of a 1:1 meeting checking in on the team member, asking how they’re travelling, about their family, and most importantly, listening. While technology has been praised as the key to post-pandemic teambuilding, we can’t lose sight of genuine human connection.”

Brian Fenty, Co-Founder and CEO, TodayTix Group

“As a global business with employees on three continents, TodayTix Group is always looking for ways to optimise camaraderie and connectedness across different geographies. It’s been productive to source suggestions from around the organisation to make sure we’re hearing from different voices, and we’re also mindful of not favouring certain time zones. 

“From regular town halls, weekly newsletters from our People team, to virtual wellness weeks, talkbacks, or even drag bingo, we’ve invested in programming that encourages participation and commingling regardless of what corner of the world you’re in.”

Kris Grant, CEO, ASPL Group

“Collaboration is imperative to personal and professional development, yet it happens far less in a remote work setting. To create opportunities for collaboration and team building for your remote team, encourage teams within your organisation to schedule dedicated social time throughout the working week. 

“This might take the form of a recurring weekly trivia quiz, a lunchtime exercise class or a group lunch and learn. Whatever it is, providing an opportunity for staff to meet will increase team bonding, making them feel like part of a team even when they can’t share the same physical space.”

Stuart Taylor, CEO & Co-founder, Springfox 

“With more employees working from home than ever before, leaders must be mindful of the increased risk of social isolation, disengagement, and withdrawal. Many employees working remotely will feel the absence of everyday office interactions with their colleagues keenly, and this has the potential to have a long-term negative impact on resilience and well-being.

“When it comes to maintaining inclusion in a hybrid workforce, it’s important to first ensure staff are not disadvantaged by working remotely, as this can lead to (or exacerbate) feelings of exclusion. Ensure they remain involved in decision-making processes, are considered for promotions and raises, and are kept up to date with important company developments and information.

“Of course, it should go without saying that regular communication and check-ins are also vital. Through understanding your employees’ needs, you can implement tailored solutions. Encourage and maintain regular communication, whether through phone calls, Zoom, or – where possible – face-to-face conversation, but be mindful that this isn’t received by staff as micro-management. Ultimately, remote work is here to stay, and staff need to feel supported and included regardless of where they’ve set up office.”

Drew Haupt, co-founder,  WLTH

“Coming in and out of lockdowns has really put pressure on our team, especially when it comes to building and maintaining our strong work culture, so we’ve basically had to reinvent the wheel.

“As a business, we have team members across Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne, which means we’ve had to make the extra effort to ensure weekly team meetings are prioritised for everyone in order to have an open conversation as a team. We find that these meetings are a great opportunity for everyone to hear what is going on in the business and to drive team comradery.

“We’ve recently completed our first online team night out, where we took part in an online pub-style quiz via Zoom. It was great! The host was able to split everyone up into groups, so we were able to work together to answer the questions while having a few casual drinks online.”

Jason Toshack, General Manager ANZ, Oracle NetSuite

“Staying connected is vital when trying to bring together remote teams. Schedule regular check-ins with employees to ensure everyone feels involved. I personally find that one-to-one chats are a great way to truly stay connected. My team and I have also set up fortnightly all-hands Zoom meetings to act as virtual ‘in person’ catch ups.

‘When working in the office, it’s easy to naturally interact with colleagues from different parts of the business, which promotes collaboration. Leaders should look for ways to encourage cross-departmental pollination virtually. For example, organise cross-team ‘training’ sessions to help staff understand how their role adds value to the company’s overall goals.

“It’s also important to ensure remote staff avoid burnout, as the lines between home and work are often blurred. Encourage your staff to take time to recharge, whether it’s going for a walk or just enjoying some quiet time. The main purpose is to take some time away from the workstation to clear one’s head.  Most importantly, make sure that your staff know that you have their back and are available to talk when times are tough.”

Nikki Bonus, CEO & Founder, Life Skills Group

“During times of uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to stay connected to support the wellbeing of staff and promote inclusion. Encouraging regular, honest and open conversations with employees, not only humanises the lockdown experience but brings people together. Creating an online buddy system, like the one we have recently introduced at Life Skills Group, is a great way to ensure lines of communication are kept open and every member of staff has support. 

“Socialising in a non-work environment is also equally important to create a team bonding experience remotely. From virtual movie nights to group cooking classes and even virtual dance-offs, doing things aside from work with colleagues helps foster a team environment in a remote setting.” 

Lindsay Brown, Vice President of APAC and Japan, LogMeIn

“There is a clear physical separation between those who work remotely and those who work in the office, but it’s important that the employer prevents any “us vs them” mentality through providing equal opportunities for all employees. Employers must ensure sufficient technology is provided to everyone to unlock the full potential of working from anywhere and staying connected with one another. 

‘The ability to collaborate with colleagues through appropriate channels, both live and asynchronously, is crucial in maintaining or improving the employee experience. Our report shows that satisfaction with team messaging and voice over internet protocol (VoIP), or cloud telephony, are the most highly correlated with flexible-work satisfaction, yet it’s an area where many businesses fall short. 

“Implementing the right collaboration and communication tools provides opportunities for all employees to strengthen their bonds between remote and in-office workers and level the playing field whether an employee chooses to work in the office, at home, or a combination of the two. 

“Organisations that prioritise employee engagement and happiness and offer the right tools to facilitate productive communication will set a strong foundation for a healthy work culture.”


Read more: Tips for sales teams in the COVID-19 crisis

Read more: Let’s Talk: Staff motivation – how to keep teams driven


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