5 Steps Towards Building Inclusion for Remote Teams

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

Last week, I was working with a team of leaders who tend to work remotely with their respective teams. In our workshop, they wanted to know how to maintain levels of engagement and foster a sense of inclusion given that they rarely see each other?

This is something that we have always found easier to do with informal interaction in the workplace –in the kitchens or by the watercoolers, impromptu coffees or beers after work, and general office chit-chat sparked by a weekend experience or a photo shared with another.  In other words, interacting face to face helped tremendously with the creation of team spirit, something that is more difficult to replicate when working remotely.

That’s not to say that there aren’t remote ways to maintain that team bond.  Many team leaders have already been doing that and there are lots of suggestions on how to do this best.

What I recommend, however, is to work with your team to find the way that works best for everyone – and this is what we did last week, as well.

Follow these five steps to come up with your tailored team approach to inclusion that is bound to work better than any general suggestions out there:

Together with your team…

1. List the things that you used to do (when everyone was in the office) to create engagement, motivation and team spirit.  Things like team bonding days, celebrating birthdays, bringing in food to share, informal conversations during lunch hour, etc.  Have a volunteer capture as many things as people can think of that made it easier for every team member to feel included and that they ‘belong’ to the team.

2. Now look at the completed list and cross out everything that you can no longer do as a result of remote working.  Things like sharing cakes or fruit with the team at the office or informal conversations around the watercooler, for example, will be the kinds of things that will be crossed off the list, as they require people to be in one place together.

3. The next step is to task the team (in small groups of 3 to 4) to come up with any and all ideas – no matter how obscure, expensive or unrealistic – that could replace the things that were crossed off in step 2.  The idea here is to cast as wide a net of creative ideas as possible.  For example, as a direct substitute for sharing food in the office, one could arrange for the delivery of cakes or fruit to each member of the team at home, to then share enjoy together during a virtual call, while chatting informally.  Or, as an alternative to the informal watercooler moments, an idea might be to create a ‘virtual watercooler’ that people can enter online during the day (just as they might check their Facebook or Twitter messages) to see who else happens to be there, and then pick up an informal short chat with them.  The aim is to create as long a list of initial ideas as possible, no matter how realistic they seem.  To get the creative juices to flow faster, give some examples first, such as the ones here.

4. Once you have a good long list of ideas, go through each one to see how realistic each one is.  For those that are more difficult, discuss what makes them difficult – Is it the cost?  The technology?  The time?  Once the obstacles are identified, ask the team to think of ways to address each specific obstacle.  For instance, in the example above of sending cakes/fruit to each person’s home, if cost is an obstacle, one way around it might be for each team member (who would like to participate) to pay a small amount into a kitty that goes towards a monthly virtual cake meet-up.  The organisation of this can be on a rotational basis.

5. Once you’ve come up with ‘replacement’ ideas for the kinds of things that you used to do when in the office and could now do remotely, challenge your team to come up with new ideas that will make it easier to feel a sense of belonging.  For instance, encourage team members to meet up for coffees once in a while.  As a team leader, you could also organise an informal gathering with everyone on a regular basis.  You can create opportunities for informal interactions – both online and in person – from virtual quizzes and murder mysteries to in-person escape room experiences and karaoke nights.

Creating a sense of inclusion and belonging does not follow one particular formula.  There are many ways in which we can show each other that we care, in which we can listen to each other and empathise.  The fact that life has made it more difficult for us to continue to do these things the way we used to do them should not mean we don’t try to do them at all.  Instead, look for new opportunities and create new and exciting ways and traditions to bring the human element into your teams to create the team spirit and sense of ease and belonging.  A team that feels a strong sense of belonging will be far more likely to feel engaged and motivated to perform.  And that, in my opinion, is a win-win situation.