Why you should focus on building work relationships in remote teams and how to make them last

Most metrics associated with the success and failure of remote work would lead managers to believe that they lost nothing and gained a lot. Since adopting work-from-home policies, many saw productivity increases, discovered cost-cutting opportunities, and were able to expand talent pools and staff open positions faster. 

Yet, for some reason, leaders continually express dissatisfaction with remote work. To voice their frustration, they often use vague concepts like “the absence of serendipitous creativity” or “environment prone to procrastination”. In our opinion, a lot of these concerns share a common denominator – they have to do with social capital. 

Often overshadowed by financial and human capital, the company’s social environment – workplace networks and work relationships – is equally important to long-term success. Data shows that organizations with strong networks have more efficient referral programs and higher employee retention rates. 

However, during the pandemic, most companies faced the challenge of maintaining work relationships and few knew how to overcome emerging hurdles. 

The data collected by Microsoft in the last two years shows that employees focused on communicating with their close networks – people on their core team – and had fewer opportunities to connect with people outside that small circle. 

The number of people posting in team chats in Microsoft Teams decreased by 5% compared to pre-pandemic activity while the number of small-group interactions and 1-on-1 messages shot up by 85%. 

At the same time, out of a 5,000 employee survey conducted by McKinsey, 75% of respondents, especially women and frontline workers, reported having less time and opportunities for building workplace relationships. 

Why team leaders cannot afford to miss out on work relationships

What effects do these social capital gaps have on organizations? The most immediate one is attrition – about 13,000 workers surveyed across 6 continents consider leaving their jobs in the next 6-12 months. 

The cost of losing talent and knowledge can put a significant strain on an organization’s budget – statistically, replacing a teammate who resigned costs team managers twice the amount of the employee’s salary. 

Other losses are less quantifiable but equally impactful. For one, there is productivity – the ability to quickly ask colleagues from different departments for feedback, advice or a review helps eliminate bottlenecks and move projects forward. 

Innovation has also been diluted during the pandemic, as teams became more siloed and closed off. In a traditional remote workplace, there’s less room for brainstorming and knowledge transfer because the barrier to entering discussions is higher. 

Where, in the office, people from different teams can share updates by chatting in the hallway, as distance increases, the need to schedule dedicated meetings becomes apparent. Yet, most employees hate video conferencing: surveyed US professionals saw it as the number-one productivity killer. As the result, the culture of brainstorming and sharing ideas in a remote workplace was slowly disappearing. 

In an attempt to restore social capital, leaders are calling teams back to offices. The move is partly justified: Microsoft data showed that increasing the amount of in-person time helps maintain stronger networks and cross-department relationships. 

However, even in hybrid teams, leaders still have to be more intentional about bringing employees together, seeing also that, over the course of the pandemic, a lot of teams expanded internationally. 

Born in the midst of the pandemic, our company faced similar challenges. We were looking for ways to align teams distributed across multiple time zones and encourage interactions that go beyond 1-on-1 communication. 

Here are the practices we discovered for increasing social capital in hybrid and remote teams. 

Practice #1. Promote a culture of sharing

One of our first realizations was that remote work quickly eats away at visibility. oVice team managers discovered that there was no way to know how teams are doing if people didn’t have a habit of constantly sharing what was going on. 

We had to find a way to build a culture that would give managers and teammates quick access to each other’s availability, updates, and bottlenecks, without requiring a ton of micromanagement and pestering in direct messages.

So we created a three-layer visibility system: 

  • Individual visibility helps teammates connect with each other individually. At oVice, all employees have a personal #times channel where they share updates and can answer questions from anyone else within the organization. There are no restrictions on the types of post people can share on their personal channels – we wanted to make sure that teammates have an opportunity to display their genuine selves. 
  • Team visibility helps teammates quickly understand what’s going on in other departments. We made sure that all teams have separate Slack channels where they share updates in a descriptive, easy-to-understand way. At first, we had to emphasize the importance of bringing discussions to threads rather than chats or direct messages – over time, most organization members realized the benefits of this approach and formed a habit of sharing updates with the rest of the organization rather than privately. 
  • Organization-wide visibility. Every week, a member of the C-suite holds a town hall meeting to discuss project updates, share challenges, and celebrate milestones. This way, we protect remote teams from growing siloed and ensure that individual projects’ goals align with the company’s overall vision. 

Practice #2 Remove the hurdles for building work relationships

Thinking back to in-person interactions, we quickly realized that hallway conversations are way less exhausting than conference-room meetings. 

However, at the start of the COVID pandemic, we quickly realized that replicating that spontaneity in a digital environment using existing tools is a fool’s errand. 

Video conferencing solutions were not designed to engage people for a long period of time, while chat tools like Slack didn’t transmit the feeling of proximity and presence. 

In the search for an in-between, we created oVice: a virtual office space. On the one hand, using it over video conferencing tools eliminated the struggle of meeting fatigue. 

On the other hand, the ability to instantly talk to someone by simply moving your avatar closer was similar to talking in person. That’s how we preserved the feeling of a hallway conversation and gave remote teammates a platform for building connections. 

Since its launch two years ago, oVice is adopted by over 2,200 organizations, the majority of which are enterprise companies. Here are the practices these teams use to make the most out of their virtual offices: 

  • Focusing on ease of use when customizing spaces: adding bulletin boards that explain how to use oVice, labeling areas to facilitate navigation, and using naming or profile conventions to make learning each other’s names and positions easier. 
  • Turning feedback gathering into constant practice. Creating monthly surveys helped our clients find out what ideas and suggestions teams had for improving the virtual office space and apply those to layout or workflow design. 
  • Facilitating adoption through low-pressure events. For most of our clients, hosting a workshop or a networking party in a virtual space helped introduce the platform to the team in a relatively relaxed, low-pressure environment. 

Practice #3. Make work relationships part of the to-do list

In a remote workplace, getting together with colleagues is not as spontaneous as is the case in the office. More often than not it feels like more work – happy hours keep employees from spending time with families, running errands, or diving into their hobbies.

So, instead of expecting employees to spontaneously hang out outside of their working hours, leaders should integrate opportunities for casual team building into the workday. 

Here’s how we approach this in oVice: 

  • Approach team building as part of work and reward it accordingly. In the process of building a remote team, we realized that catching up and networking should be seen as part of an employee’s to-do list. That implies a give-and-take relationship: managers should accept that when their subordinates get together, they put agendas on hold. In our opinion, although technically unproductive, team building is worth implementing anyway because its long-term impact on productivity engagement and retention outweighs that of a single cleared to-do. 
  • Reward employees for helping others. Giving a colleague a hand is often enjoyable by itself but not having that effort recognized by managers might get employees thinking they are taken advantage of. That’s why we do our best to encourage and praise people for advising, casually educating, or stepping in when the situation calls for it. This simple practice helped create a positive feedback cycle in the company – when assistance is praised people are more willing to help others adding to the spontaneity and fluidity of knowledge sharing. 
  • Reward teamwork as much as individual contribution. Understandably, it’s easy to give spotlight to top performers whose contribution to a successful project (be it a feature release or a marketing campaign) is obvious. But, since we know how many moving parts and responsible actors a successful project has, we made sure to praise teams rather than single people out. 

Practice #4. Leveling the playing field in meetings 

oVice is an international team, spanning multiple countries and continents. As the result, it’s harder for some of our employees to be involved in meetings with Japanese and Korean teams. 

From a relationship perspective, leaders should make sure that physical barriers don’t create a wall between a hire and the company. As difficult as it is to set up a meeting in a time slot perfect for American, European, and Japanese employees, we do our best to do so. 

If there’s no way to match time zones, we make sure that no single employee bears the load of discomfort. Sometimes, the members of the Japanese team would meet their American peers halfway, other times the team in Africa would match the timing of their Asian peers.

If all else fails and there’s no way to include someone in a meeting, we keep detailed notes to make sure that those who don’t make it can catch up anyway. 

The bottom line 

In remote workplaces, social capital is often overlooked. In the short term, the disappearance of work relationships and shrinking employee networks don’t seem like a disaster. Yet, months down the line, the after effects appear – quit rates rise, engagement drops, innovation stalls. 

That’s why keeping a sharp focus on building work relationships in remote and hybrid teams is a must-have for successful leaders. In our experience, the key components to successfully leveraging social capital remotely are finding the technology that meets your needs, balancing workloads for social interactions, finding ways to seamlessly connect via Slack, social media, or town halls, and keeping meetings inclusive. 

Most of these are achievable with oVice – a virtual office platform that facilitates remote team management and promotes collaboration. In our experience, the platform makes catching up a lot more effortless and reduces meeting fatigue. 

Learn how oVice helped our clients transition to remote work during the pandemic and keep thriving under the new model. Also, we encourage you to give the platform a try and connect with our team by coming to the tour space

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