Across many businesses, from Fortune 500s to SMBs, a growing volume of work is being done by teams that rarely meet in person. Yahoo’s ban on work from home arrangements aside, remote teams and virtual collaboration likely represent the future of work.
There’s no doubt that businesses can be run with remote teams working together using today’s wealth of cloud-based collaborative tools, but what about the social glue that brings a team together? When colleagues can't talk over lunch or run into each other in the hallway, how can they develop that personal chemistry that’s required to foster strong working relationships?
Running a boutique agency with employees in San Francisco and Vancouver, I’m always looking for creative ways to build our own sense of community and culture. The bulk of our "work" interactions center around tools like Google Docs, Skype, and Dropbox, but building a personal rapport is critical. After all, when you pick up the phone to discuss a client or deadline issue with a colleague, you don’t want to feel as though you’re talking with a stranger.
The latest tool we’ve adopted in our team-building arsenal is Snapchat. While the app is often painted as a service for sexting, our business has found it invaluable for sparking those lighthearted personal moments that geographically dispersed teams miss out on.
For example, I can send a quick photo of the view from a lunch meeting or an after-work happy hour. I’ve "met" my colleague’s mother and grandma via video, and I knew she had ice cream last night along the seawall in Vancouver. Likewise, I’ve shared snaps from walks around Alamo Square, the scene at a local conference, and a wave from my husband over dinner.
The ephemeral nature of Snapchat is ideal for this casual sharing and stands in stark contrast to the more permanent sharing done on Facebook. It’s easy to give each other a glimpse into the small things we do every day, whether in or out of work.
The current conversation around Snapchat reminds me of how people discussed Twitter four to five years ago. It’s a social lubricant: It lets you dive right into a conversation because you already know that your colleague spent Saturday afternoon at a concert or BBQ.
A ton of critical relationship building and information sharing happens during downtime at lunch and coffee breaks, and we use a number of apps to share content that helps create those social ‘hooks’ that form the basis of shared experiences and references among our dispersed team.
While we may not have lunchtime conversations about our upcoming home improvements or weekend concert plans, those same topics are discussed when we swap ideas about our domestic inspirations via Pinterest or share festival playlists on Rdio.
Another way we bond over common interests is through old-fashioned link sharing. Dozens of links to articles from news and entertainment are exchanged between members of our team every day—everything from tech industry news or scandal (thanks Sam Biddle!), to the latest hilarity from Buzzfeed. There's also a core group of about 40 journalists we all follow on Twitter, and their tweets keep our fingers on the tech industry’s pulse. We're often discussing the latest breaking news internally before there's widespread coverage.
Internal communication tools like Yammer, HipChat, and Slack have changed the way this type of information is shared. Instead of selectively choosing which colleague you send the next compelling article or GIF to, you can connect with your entire team. Beyond the team building benefits, these internal communication tools are incredibly helpful in reducing internal emails.
Chemistry is often cited as a critical factor in team success. An MIT study of call centers found that the cohesive relationships formed between colleagues during overlapping coffee breaks led to higher productivity levels and less burnout. Other MIT research has found that employees who sat at larger group tables during lunch had substantially higher performance.
As Jeff Veen, VP of Products at Adobe, said at a recent AIGA event in San Francisco, "Great work is just the leveling field. Culture is the killer advantage."
Productivity gains are always compelling, but another reason to focus on a team’s social glue is even more basic—happiness. Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, so if we can build a fun, positive environment it will translate into improved health and satisfaction throughout all aspects of your life.
—Rebecca Reeve is the founder of Rsquared Communication, a boutique PR firm working mostly with B2B web apps. With offices in San Francisco and Vancouver, the company is continually testing out new tools to enhance collaboration among its dispersed team. Disclosure: Rebecca is married to Cal Henderson, the cofounder of Slack.