In 2017, political analyst Robert Kelly was doing a BBC interview, live from his home office. Suddenly, his young daughter, Marion, opened the door and danced jubilantly toward the camera. Moments later, his infant son wheeled in on a rolling chair and joined the party, the entire scene ended when Kelly’s wife, Jung-a Kim, dashed in to gather both children.
Kelly later told The Guardian that he thought the brief incident would sink his career, but it was quite the opposite. The clip went viral and the family was flooded with interview and appearance requests. While global fame also created some short-lived challenges for Kelly and his family, the segment was overwhelmingly met with joy. Viewers loved the juxtaposition of domestic life and serious, geopolitical discussion. The footage was both hilarious and relatably human.
In March, COVID-19 sent many of us to work from home, set up at our kitchen tables, balconies, and basements. We witnessed pets crashing video conferences and coworkers pausing calls to find crayons or comfort a crying toddler. Millions of people can now relate to Kelly’s iconic 2017 experience. Perhaps, that’s a good thing.
Even in the best of times, nurturing a dynamic work culture isn’t easy, but it can be even more challenging when some (or all) team members are working remotely.
Impromptu office meetings, afternoon coffee runs, and face-to-face chats deepen relationships. We bond over work, but we truly connect when we relate to each other as real people, with messy and imperfect lives.
A remote work environment requires intentional culture-building. It takes time, but it’s worth the effort to encourage strong personal connections. Here are four ways to help your teams stay engaged from a distance, both with your company and with each other.
Ensure continued transparency
Your team has probably attended a hundred video chats since the pandemic began. In the face of “Zoom fatigue,” it can be tempting to cancel the all-hands meetings and dial back events. This might be wise in some cases, but the need for open communication endures.
Whether your employees are back in the office or working from home, use town hall meetings to discuss what’s happening inside the company—even when those details seem obvious. Introduce new hires, explain important initiatives, tell stories, and share the impact of specific projects to help employees stay motivated.
Promote new connections
Ben Waber, the president and cofounder of Humanyze, which provides analytics on companies’ internal communication patterns, says relationships fall into two categories: “strong ties”—the people you talk to most often; and “weak ties”—the people with whom you rarely interact.
He also believes that weak ties promote innovation. “Corporations have historically seen some of the biggest new ideas,” he told The New York Times, “when two employees who usually didn’t talk suddenly, by chance, connected.”
Without fortuitous hallway encounters, you can use technology to trigger creative collaboration. For instance, one idea is running an employee lottery; the winner is awarded a lunch or coffee date with the CEO. The app Donut, a computer software that focuses on coworker connections, periodically pairs up team members for virtual conversations and get-to-know-you sessions, strengthening the company’s culture.
Make space for fun
Watercooler-like channels within communication tools like Slack can be a great place to share photos of furry coworkers, play games, hold trivia contests, and build company culture on an essential, human level. And creating designated spaces prevents employees from clogging online business threads with nonwork banter.
COVID-19 closures have also inspired some fun moments of levity. For example, if your organization donates to Ontario’s Farmhouse Garden Animal Home, Buckwheat the donkey will join your team video chat. Similarly, Sweet Farm in Half Moon Bay, California, runs a program with its cadre of goats, llamas, turkeys, pigs, and roosters.
Reconsider the status quo
Before the pandemic, Slack used to hold elaborate monthly meetings for its more than 2,000 employees. Executives sweated over slides, and there were multiple cameras, live editing, and hundreds of hours of preparation for the hour-long meeting. This year? It was a 21-minute video call.
As CEO Stewart Butterfield told the The New York Times, “There was one moment where Julie Liegl, our chief marketing officer, was giving her update, and she had one daughter suddenly jump into her lap and another daughter come behind her chair and start dancing, and she didn’t miss a beat, just kept going.”
Just like Kelly, Liegl drew rave reviews from employees, because she modelled behavior they had all experienced. Afterward, staff rated the event higher than any previous all-hands meeting. “Your kids are going to creep into the video,” says Butterfield, “and that’s OK.”
As a result of the disruption of the coronavirus, the changing workplace is an opportunity to reconsider how you connect and support employees. Perahps your formal events could be more casual, or teams could choose how they want to collaborate. Now is the time to help your employees connect as real, complex human beings—and strengthen your culture in the process.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.