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Creating connection and team bonding

Foster a sense of belonging, in person and virtually.

By Darryn King

May 3, 2022

Remote workers may work separately from one another, but their work will suffer if they feel like they’re working in isolation. Feelings of mutual trust, respect, and belonging are important for the health and happiness of the individual worker and the organization.

With co-located workers, those feelings often (but not always) emerged naturally, the natural byproduct of sharing a space with the same people. By contrast, bonding, and creating a sense of belonging among a distributed, async-first team — who may be distributed widely across the globe — requires conscious and continuous effort.

All that said, it’s worth remembering that diverse teams have diverse preferences, and the ability to opt in — or out — is a measure of inclusivity.

(Satisfactorily recreating the sense of belonging and positive reinforcement that arose naturally in the office remains one of the unsolved problems of remote, async work. See Unanswered questions of async.)

"Psychological safety is a shared perspective on the team, where people believe it’s safe to take interpersonal risks: speaking up, speaking out, pointing our risks and issues, sharing their ideas. Research has shown that psychological safety is associated with team effectiveness. It’s associated with higher levels of knowledge sharing, more giving and receiving of support, and an increased likelihood to discuss the stuff the matters."

— Dr. Richard A. MacKinnon, Founder, WorkLifePsych; co-host, My Pocket Psych podcast

Team meetings

Limiting a recurring meeting to discussion of work is a missed opportunity to build trust and rapport. Intentional team bonding moments — as opposed to unfocused small talk — can be easily incorporated into these sessions. A playful pre-planned ice-breaker or warm-up question (What is your go-to karaoke song? What was your favorite cartoon growing up?) is a simple way to get colleagues to connect and get more value out of a recurring synchronous engagement.

Co-working weeks and retreats

A remote-first, async-first company get-together may seem like a contradiction in terms. In fact, companies are increasingly investing in regular team off-sites and company-wide retreats to encourage cross-organizational bonds. While a certain amount of time will be spent co-working, the emphasis is on colleagues building trust and getting to know each other outside of a work context.

Co-working retreats are the surest way of fostering meaningful friendships between colleagues. In that, they are a deliberate investment in a company’s health and culture and future resilience.

Organized team bonding activities

Games of bingo, trivia contests, and escape rooms are just some of the activities that distributed teams are enjoying together online. While there’s no shortage of companies leveraging video conferencing technology to offer these sorts of activities to teams, often the best source of ideas for simple team bonding activities will come from your team members themselves.

Apart from letting team members let off steam together, at their best, organized activities can nurture certain skills, such as collaborative problem solving, that come in handy in a professional context.

Informal interactions

Facilitating “creative collisions” between colleagues has long been a hallmark of workplace design. Casual, informal chatter between colleagues, especially across departments is part of what makes work feel human and vibrant, and the spontaneous interplay of ideas can stoke creativity.

The basic concept can be recreated virtually for distributed teams, albeit by relying less on serendipity and more on intentionality. The app Donut, for example, pairs colleagues at random on Slack and encourages them to interact over “virtual coffee.”

But it’s really as simple as creating dedicated spaces for non-work conversation — dedicated channels in your chat application, for example, kept separate from work channels. Given the option and the venue, colleagues will bond and banter over everything from their favorite recipes to their houseplant situation.

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