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What does workplace culture mean to the growing number of people who work from home or as freelancers? We spent the last three years studying the science of emotions on the job for our new book, No Hard Feelings. One of the most common questions we get asked by leaders is how to ensure the growing number of remote workers feel connected to their work and to their colleagues.
Feeling a sense of belonging, which is when we feel safe and valued for embracing what makes us different, makes us happier and more productive. We’re also healthier and better able to cope with job stress. Not belonging, on the other hand, is among the strongest predictors of turnover.
The task of creating a sense of belonging among remote workers can seem daunting for organizations and managers. Laura Savino is an iOS developer who lives in Seattle and works remotely for companies based around the world. When we spoke with her, Laura was up front about the biggest drawback to her career: Because she rarely gets to know her colleagues outside of work, she sometimes feels isolated and invisible. “One company scheduled a weekly 30-minute video teatime for all employees.” This type of gathering, explicitly social, helped to bring her team closer together.
These kinds of virtual watercoolers help remote workers connect and build empathy within teams. Employees at social media management company Buffer, whose 75 employees are distributed across the world, share personal snippets of their lives on Instagram Stories. Buffer director of people Courtney Seiter told us, “Now I know what my colleague’s day is like and what her workspace looks like. I get to see my coworkers making cookies and walking their dogs. It’s the things you would never share on a conference call, but seeing them helps you understand each other.”
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Another isolating factor that remote employees may encounter is the issue of recognition. The “out of sight, out of mind” trap makes it more likely that remote workers receive less praise than their non-remote counterparts. When we work with our colleagues in person, we compliment each other after meetings, in the hall, or over drinks. Remote workers have fewer chances to receive this kind of informal feedback. “Many remote workers receive assignments, deliver them on time, and hear back only when their managers need more work done on these assignments,” explains Kristen Chirco of E Group. Making sure to point out in public (whether in a Slack channel or on a team video chat) when a remote team member has done a good job will go a long way toward building a sense of belonging and recognition for them.
The best advice for making remote workers feel like they belong: Make their experience as similar as it can be to that of coworkers who see each other in person every day. From a management perspective, the following tips are especially helpful:
- Once they’ve earned it, trust them. Because you don’t see them working, it’s easy to assume any lull in communication means remote workers are twiddling their thumbs. The nicest part of working remotely is that you can easily build blocks of uninterrupted, concentration time into your day. Set clear expectations for remote workers as to what communication best practices look like at the company, but don’t worry if you don’t get a ping from them every five minutes.
- Be mindful of time zones. To help people in all time zones feel included, strive to delay decision-making until you’ve heard from everyone who should be involved. And if you occasionally need to ask a colleague to join a meeting outside of their normal work hours, we recommend skipping video. It’s much easier to jump on and participate if they aren’t expected to be camera-ready.
- Send them physical packages! When Liz was working remotely as a consultant, one of her clients had a cake delivered to her apartment on her birthday. Another sent her paychecks in illustrated thank-you cards. When everything is digital, a physical package (think company swag, books, snacks, or handwritten notes) is delightful.
- Help remote workers meet each other. This can be done by setting up virtual lunches, teatimes, or what Buffer terms “pair calls”. For pair calls, Buffer employees opt in to be randomly paired with someone else at the company once a week. Calls have no set agenda; coworkers get to know each other by talking about their families, hobbies, and favorite shows.
Creating belonging for remote workers doesn’t have to feel like a daunting task. It simply requires carving out small moments for employees to connect digitally on a personal level.