How to Create and Maintain a Relaxed, Water Cooler Culture for Remote Teams

remote teams

Hiring remote teams has many advantages. Some of these awesome benefits include the savings on cost of overhead, a larger pool of applicants to choose from, and great flexibility. It allows you to build a virtual team that you could not put together in-person.

There are, however, negatives that may arise with leading distributed teams. Since you are not interacting face-to-face with the team on a daily basis, it can be easy to just do your work, and not focus on team-building. Creating a relaxed, water cooler culture with your remote employees is essential to your success. In one of our previous posts, we gave you “10 Quick Tips on Leading A Remote Team”.

Now let’s look at what you can do to create that water cooler culture among all of your remote team members.

On-Boarding New Employees

In order to ensure every employee is on the same page, you must provide everyone with a similar starting point. When a new employee is brought on board in an office, HR leads her around, introducing her to her coworkers. She is often taken to lunch by her boss, where they chat, and get to know one another. Her boss is then able to take her personality, and assist her in forging relationships that suit all parties well.

Since remote teams do not have the aforementioned in-person luxuries, it is imperative to have all current employees reach out personally, to introduce themselves to new hires. This not only provides a more welcome feeling, it fosters a sense of “fitting in”. As silly as it sounds, people still have a need to fit in with a group socially, even though it is a work setting. Do not simply tell your new employee, “hey, this is the team, reach out with any questions.” Encourage your current team to make her feel welcome.  At her first meeting, have her give a quick recap of who she is as a person outside of work. Whatever her interests are provide a great way for coworkers to spark up a conversation.

At Mailbird, we have a month of on-boarding to make the new team mate feel as welcomed as possible. Usually our CEO has a meeting with her/him every day of the first week to introduce them to the tools, our company culture and set up. The second week will be used for small introduction meetings with every team member (depending on the size of your company this might not be possible). And the last 2 weeks of the month will be an intense on-boarding to all their tasks, sprint, roadmap and backlog within the team.

remote teams
On Boarding sessions are very important to introduce new team members to the team culture

Get to Know Each Other

Getting to know one another goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip. From the beginning, you should always provide ways for employees to connect with each other. When employees have more of a working-friendship, it is easy to reach out with questions or when they are in need of guidance. Nervousness does not arise, and productivity goes up when people feel like they can interact freely.

Prior to getting down to business before a meeting, ask everyone a question about their personal preferences. What is your favorite fast food restaurant? If you could take a vacation today, where would it be? What is your dream car? What is your favorite sport? These types of questions loosen up the mood, and provide topics of conversation for later. Phil may reach out to Hassan about their mutual love for restoring old Mustangs. You never know what may spark an interaction!

remote teams

Keep a running list of all employees’ skills and post it in an easily navigable place. Encourage people to reach out to those with a background in a subject where they need help. Not only will this mitigate confusion as to who can do what, it saves time because nobody even has to ask who the expert is in the first place!

Encourage the Use of Non-Work-Related Apps

Communications between employees needs to go outside of the typical messaging programs, such as Skype and Jabber. If you really want to foster a relaxed culture for distributed teams, it is important to set up collaboration channels, such as Slack and Zoom. These applications essentially act as a virtual water cooler, by allowing employees to chat about anything, instead of just work-related topics. Plus, it records all of your conversations, and you can go back and reference them.

Setting weekly or bi-weekly themes on these chat applications is a super fun way for people to interact. Around Halloween, encourage people to post pictures of a time they dressed up in a costume. Perhaps you are running a company-wide animal appreciation week. Ask everyone to post a pic or story about their pet. Your employees will love sharing small pieces of their lives, and seeing a bit more into those of their coworkers.

By no means do these conversations need to be strictly text-based. In fact, you would be remiss not to share your favorite GIF keyboard with everyone. There is always a GIF for any situation, so why not get into an occasional GIF war? Share funny YouTube videos, amusing Imgur pics, or a ridiculous post you found on Reddit. Humor is a great way to connect with people.

Music is a another phenomenal way for your employees to connect. An easy, awesome benefit would be to offer a company-wide paid music subscription service, such as Pandora or Spotify. Many remote employees already listen to music throughout the day. By providing this perk, your employees will feel like you care about their work-life quality. Moreover, a shared service allows people to view what others are listening to. Music is universal, and an easy way to get to know one another.

Humor is a plays a very big roll in Mailbird. Not only during our Hackathons, when most of the team meets up and works side by side together. Also, when we are spread out over 5 continents we send each other fun messages and memes to make each other smile and motivated for the next day and week.

remote teams
Just an example of Mailbird’s Team memes that are being send around

Coordinate How You Work

While creating this relaxed water culture, you must remember to focus on the reason you hired employees: to work. In order to have a basis for that relaxed feeling, it is necessary to make sure everyone is on the same page. As mentioned with on-boarding employees, provide guidelines for everyone.

Would you prefer to give customers a quick response or quality one? What is the best way to communicate in a deadline situation? What timezone are you using? How many hours should an employee realistically put in each week? While these are simple questions, they can be very easy to overlook. Consider other easily-missed details you expect your employees to know, and compile a list. Bring this list to your next meeting, allowing questions to ensure everyone understands.

When you see someone beginning to deviate greatly from these general guidelines, have a conversation with him or her. By maintaining an open line of communication and providing clear company guidelines, it will reduce the amount of stress surrounding this type of conversation. You have built a company on trust, responsibility, and respect, and it is reflected in these interactions.

We use different apps in Mailbird to maintain good communication and productivity and with that great work ethics. We have listed a great choice (in our opinion) of apps in our post “The Challenges Of Remote Working: “Maintaining Productivity With A Distributed Team”.

remote teams
Productivity never stops – Late Night Brainstorming Session

Meet In-Person

You can only get so much done as a remote team. In-person meetings clearly are not necessary all the time, but they are a phenomenal tool to boost creativity and team-building. Set up a retreat at least once-a-year so your distributed teams can interact face-to-face. This absolutely encourages your employees to really get to know one another–instead of with a screen between them.

These marathon sessions, or Hackathons, are a springboard for tons of brainstorming and ideas to improve the company as a whole. In addition to finding improvements for the team and communications, it provides a great way to refresh everyone on the company guidelines. This allows everyone to reset their expectations and interactions, in terms of their role as remote employees.

Mailbird is running a Hackthon at leat once a year. During that time we get to work side by side and get some things done faster than we would have via chat apps or email. Our Hackathons are a great mix of day trips for team building, “Learnathons” to understand the tasks and responsibilities of each “department” better and of course to get s#$%* done. We would recommend any distributed team to host these kind of get together on an annual basis to keep the team spirit and team bonding at its peak.

remote teams
Mailbird Hackathon 2016

Make Things Happen

It may seem obvious, but once your expectations are set, things need to happen. Your team needs to be productive. To have a successful company, your team must be able to coordinate and work as cohesive unit to meet deadlines. Without this type of dynamic, you will run into constant road blocks. This is certainly an all encompassing tip, and it is the most important, by far.

You have built your team with trust and communication. At some point, you may have to constantly check in on someone to hit a deadline. It can be tough, but in order to satisfy customers and grow business, sometimes you have to push harder than you usually do. Since you have such great rapport with your remote teams, it makes it far easier to have these tough, sometimes pushy conversations.

Building a relaxed, water cooler culture with remote teams ultimately comes down to communication. Disseminate information in a timely, agreed-upon manner. Encourage banter or silly back-and-forth between coworkers. The environment of any distributed teams relies on its leader focusing for fostering this sense of relaxation. You are the driver behind the water cooler culture. Start with the on-boarding of new employees, and see your company flourish!

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