Five ways to create a sense of community when your employees are working remotely


The BBC spent a year investigating Madbird, a fake design firm.

Ever heard of that psychological experiment where they get volunteers to count basketball passes on a recorded video, and almost everybody gets the number of passes right, only to miss the guy dressed head to toe as a gorilla casually stroll by the background?

Here’s the thing. We’ve been so busy looking at the technical details of this forced working from home revolution, that it’s been easy to overlook one key component: making staff feel valued, cherished and safe.

I spoke with 38 leaders last week to take a peek over the top of this rollercoaster and get ideas that you can put into place in your organisation that calms the bee sting and replaces fear and isolation with anticipation and community.

Here are five approaches I learnt that really stood out.

1. Care kits delivered to the home

Care kits are a treasure chest, or picnic basket, of comfort food, beverages and little luxuries, as well as items that scream innocent fun (like a bubble blower, those exceptionally annoying yes/no buttons, and the loud squeezy dog toys that would ordinarily have you banned for life if you brought them to the office).

Your team is going on a journey together, and bringing forward that feeling of Christmas is a way of bringing in the human warmth of an unexpected surprise.

2. BBQ at home

Instead of casual Fridays, one company switched to ‘BBQ Friday’, sending a Weber Baby to all employees at their homes, complete with a spice kit, meat and some vegan options too.

There’s a grill-off every fortnight from each employee’s home, and each employee’s family is invited to join in, making it this inclusive bond over BBQ, with a little competitiveness and BBQ trash talk, if that’s your thing.

3. Mandatory fortnightly EAP

EAP (employee assistance programs) are short 30-minute or 1-hour sessions of independent psychological counselling delivered over the phone, which have already been available for most employees at larger organisations for about a decade, but often goes unused because of perceived stigma or tight usage restrictions.

One leader signed up their entire work-from-home team for 30 minutes of mandatory EAP every two weeks, fully paid for by the company, meaning both the session and the salaried time.

Staff can use it to talk about sports, hobbies, or anything at all.

By scheduling every employee in for EAP, they actively reduced the stigma and opened up this private, judgment-free outlet that gives an escape for steam, even to cover off “non-work matters” before it becomes a pressure cooker that’s ready to blow.

4. Indoor plants to the home

One leader sent each member of their team an over-the-top, lush, potted indoor plant with its own name (such as ‘Brian’), care instructions and branded plant food.

Staff were encouraged to post photos to a Slack channel with ‘growin’ updates, and there was a vanity contest for ‘plant of the week’.

It’s fun, upbeat, different.

At the end of this process, there’s a living memento of this roller coaster, and it is bridging the home-work gap in a way that feels much softer than just carting in a standing desk and a new laptop to the employee’s once sacred private space.

5. Skill exchange

This volunteer-driven initiative was a great way of bridging team-building without new costs that worked in a not-for-profit setting.

Staff volunteer to teach a 30-minute live video session on any passion topic they like: yoga, gardening, mindful meditation, whatever they feel confident and passionate about.

Staff working from home take a popular vote that’s tallied, and every Wednesday, the most popular topic has a mid-afternoon learning session, paid for on salaried time, to provide a break and change of pace from the regular grind. This encourages collaboration, team bonding and discovery. This was especially applicable where there’s a split workforce, with some staying at home, and some staff working at the office.

Even though you may be leading a team mainly working from home, these five ideas will give you some fresh inspiration to tread your own path in growing the company culture over a distributed workforce.

The core message is, take a little time to invest in your people as they transition, because you can’t give what you don’t have, and warm feelings and emotions are the starter yeast that binds productive teams together, enabling them to grow and adapt in times of uncertainty.

NOW READ: Schedule, schedule, schedule: How to stay productive when working from home

NOW READ: These Aussie gin distilleries are producing hand sanitiser to help meet national demand, and keep their staff in work


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