How to Cultivate a Healthy Remote Culture Through Intentional Leadership

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Over the past 20 years, there’s been a 40 percent increase in the number of companies that offer work from home or telecommute benefits to employees. The result is that more than 60% of organizations have had to build, manage, and lead a team that they don’t necessarily see in person every day.

While in-house employees can benefit from the existing company culture from day one, virtual workers are often on their own when it comes to building camaraderie and sensing the tone of a new workplace. And that’s precisely where problems with virtual work often start: no matter how talented or charismatic your individual employees are, remote cultures can’t build themselves. If your management team isn’t proactively setting the tone for a healthy remote culture, you’ll have talented, motivated employees flailing to do it themselves — at the expense of their job-related priorities.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that organizational leaders can do to build a virtual culture and connect a team that doesn’t see each other every day. Here are four ways to practice intentional leadership to build a healthy remote culture:

Hire for Virtual Fit

Even if you anticipate the significant adjustments that come with bringing on a virtual team, you may find that some employees are simply not cut out for it. So, as you start to build your team, you’ll want to consider which characteristics make for the most effective and productive off-site employees.

In a webinar with representatives from HelpScout and FlexJobs, we shared a number of characteristics to look for (and avoid) when hiring remote employees. We found that the best remote hires are curious, committed, and trustworthy self-starters with no ego. It’s critical to screen for these traits (as well as communication style, promptness, and previous work behaviors) during the interview process so that the team members can function independently just as well as they do as a group.

There are also traits to look out for that make for poor virtual employees: candidates who thrive on competition and workplace harmony (because working alone, you often won’t be able to control those factors) and people who are motivated by in-person networking and building face-to-face relationships.

Assign Team Partners

When you work on-site, it’s natural to have lunch or coffee breaks with your coworkers or head out after work for a friendly beer. When you work remotely, however, these spontaneous relationship-building opportunities are few and far between.

One way managers can encourage new employees to “mix and mingle” is to match them with established employees who seem like they might be a good fit or who share a time zone or geographic location. Not only does this give the new employee a leg up on meeting new people, but it also provides them with an obvious source of information for those random new-on-the-job questions that aren’t worth bringing to a manager.

Adapt Team-Building Activities

Team-building activities are just as important for virtual teams as for onsite teams. After all, when someone works with you in an office, it’s a simple matter to invest downtime in getting to know each other. Those impromptu moments are harder to come by with virtual workers, leaving them to wonder if they’re missing out or feel like they’re not a core part of the team.

Leaders need to purposefully adapt in-person team-building activities to draw in virtual employees. For example, if your office has a Halloween costume contest, invite your virtual employees to take photos (or dress up) and include those photos in the contest. Schedule time at the end of formal meetings to include 10-15 minutes of team-building activities that are just for fun. And, most important of all, establish an all-hands online communication platform so virtual employees are equally available for project-focused updates and ad-lib water cooler talk (at CultureIQ, we use Slack).

Want some team-building ideas you can adapt to a virtual workforce? Click here!

Prioritize Mutual Trust-Building

You can hire someone based on a resume and an interview, but it’s hard to trust them when that’s all you have to go on. So it’s no wonder that off-site employees default to remote work myths like, “If they can’t see me working, they don’t think I’m working,” and feel insecure about their workplace relationships.

Mutual trust-building must become a priority for managers of virtual teams so that off-site employees see that their leaders trust them, and leaders see they can trust employees. First, schedule weekly one-on-one check-ins via video conferencing to set a baseline of regular communication. Use these meetings to confirm small tasks and accomplishments and check for any project roadblocks. Then, sit back and let employees work. It may seem like it’s easier to stay on top of employee performance with frequent check-ins, but in reality micro-managing damages a leader’s ability to trust. It perpetuates the falsehood that employees won’t perform without hands-on attention, and it displaces opportunities for employees to prove themselves.

Whether you’ve incorporated a virtual workforce into your business plan to expand your ability to recruit or improve the productivity or scalability of your existing team, you won’t see a return on your investment unless that virtual team gets the support it needs. Use these intentional leadership suggestions to ensure that you design a healthy remote culture that empowers your employees.

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