How to Build a Strong Remote Work Culture While Working in Virtual Teams

Written in collaboration with Kathie Elliot, MSU HR’s Senior Learning and Organization Development Specialist.

As the pandemic persists, many employees will continue working remotely in virtual teams with their coworkers for the foreseeable future. During this time, it is not uncommon for the culture of a workplace to change as the shared set of values, social norms, goals and practices employees have already established by working together in person are now drastically different. Successful collaboration with coworkers can be challenging while working remotely, but it is still possible for employees working in virtual teams to develop a positive and inclusive remote work culture that ensures the same level of quality and productivity as if the team was still in person.

Why is Remote Work Culture Important?

“The 9-Step Definitive Guide For Building Remote Work Culture in Virtual Teams” describes remote work culture as an unconditional feeling of connection coworkers experience when they’re bonded by similar priorities, interests, and attitudes (Bell 2020). When people are not able to see each other on a regular basis, this feeling of connection can dwindle. Strong remote work culture is equivalent to how strong your workplace culture already is. By creating a strong remote work culture in addition to what your virtual team might already have had in person, employees can continue to feel united around a shared sense of purpose while being on their own.

Your team’s culture is surely different than it was six months ago, and with the continually unexpected changes COVID-19 has brought into the world, it might continue to change rapidly. Even if you are unaware of it, your team does have a culture that is influenced by the work you do, your work location, your team’s composition and your individual team members’ histories. Having a strong remote work culture doesn’t require team members to be in the same location if you are aware of the priorities, interests and attitudes that your team shares.

How to Develop a Strong Remote Work Culture

There are many ways to go about developing a strong remote work culture, but one of the most impactful ways to do so is through effective communication. It is easy for misunderstandings to occur while employees are working together virtually, often causing the quality and timeliness of the team’s work to suffer. By practicing methods of effective communication such as these, you can strengthen your individual relationships with your team members in hopes of creating a unified and cohesive remote work culture with your team as a whole.

  1. Frequently inquire about your employee’s social and professional needs. Knowledge and information sharing may be inconsistent due to business, lack of attention, misunderstanding what info is valuable to the team (and why). And information sharing may be imbalanced (for some) due to such factors as work style or personality differences, supervisor or co-worker preferences or bias toward certain employees (whether or not consciously known), or technology access and skill differences of the team members.
  1. Ask specific questions using multiple formats. Frequently ask specific questions, using multiple formats. “How is it going?” is not going to get a fulsome response from many employees. But, “Do you feel the communication you receive from me is frequent and thorough enough, timely, and helpful? What can I do to improve my communication with you?” is very specific.
  1. Discuss and set standards for scheduling meetings, work hours, time off, etc. What sort of communications require visual meetings, phone, text, email, messaging? Is there a priority or urgency assigned to the methods? For example, is a phone call only used when an immediate response is needed? Do all messages need to be acknowledged? Within what period? Are there “blackout” hours or days when you won’t send work-related communication unless necessary. (Use the delay send feature in an email if you think you may forget.)
  1. If something isn’t working, try something new! Whether it’s approaching a work task differently or planning a unique social event, mix it up and look for ways to keep things fresh and use this time to grow as a team. Look for ways to build in relaxing or fun team activities; identify other units or colleagues that might appreciate support or outreach “just because”.

Sources:

Bell, Ashley. “The 9-Step Definitive Guide For Building Remote Work Culture in Virtual Teams.” SnackNation, 2020, snacknation.com/blog/remote-work-culture/.

“The 2020 State of Remote Work.” Buffer, 2020, https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020.

Tips for Creating an Effective Remote Work Schedule

Whether you’re now working from home during this time period alongside your family members, or if you’ve got a furry friend by your side begging for your attention, working remotely can be a challenge. Stepping out of your daily routine at the office may be bringing added stressors to your work life as you try to effectively manage your workload from home while adjusting to new methods of collaboration with your coworkers. 

Figuring out what works best for you during this time is far from easy, but after already practicing working away from campus these past few months, many MSU employees have been able to find ways to bring structure and efficiency into their remote workdays. We asked employees to tell us what tips, tricks, or tools they’ve been using to help them effectively succeed at remote work, and here are some common themes we found.

  1. Utilizing flexible work hours where possible

Some employees have been able to coordinate a flexible work schedule with their supervisors that helps the employees as they work remotely.

“Since COVID-19 and working from home, I start my workday at 7:30 a.m. I also take a 30-minute lunch and these two easy changes allow me to finish my workday at 4:00 p.m… I feel very blessed to have some control over my workday schedule.” – Jackie Hohenstein

“A lesson from this remote work is, work does not necessarily have to be 8-5. Work needs to get done, but depending on your preferences and home situation, perhaps starting at 6 a.m. is better, or resuming at 8 p.m. As long as the work gets done, schedules can and should be flexible.” – Rick McNeil

“I learned in a training that working at your peak performance hours leads to better productivity. For example, if you’re a morning person, you work better and complete more during your peak times. I also found that stepping away from the computer for five or 10 minutes every two hours keeps your momentum going. Overall, I like the new things I have learned becoming a remote worker.” – Natasha Williams

  1. Build Breaks Into Your Schedule

As Natasha mentions above, taking breaks keeps the momentum going. Other employees agreed that building breaks into their schedule helps them work remote more successfully.

“Working from home means that when I’m working, that pretty much means I’m looking at a computer screen. In the office, meetings used to give my eyes a break but now most meetings are on Zoom or Teams so I’m looking at a screen even then. I try to give my eyes a break by getting up from my seat and away from the computer for at least a few minutes every hour or so…I make myself take a lunch break every day where I’m not looking at my computer or phone screen. I also still take notes and brainstorm in a notebook, so that also gives me a screen break.” – Courtney Chapin

  1. Continue Your Regular Morning Routine

“One thing I have done to combat “quarantine fog” is to try to stick to my normal work schedule while also integrating time to care for my child and animals every couple of hours. Sometimes this extends the workday, but I have found I am better able to focus on my work after I have taken the dogs outside and played with them for a little bit. In addition, my 10-year-old daughter and I have been using our time in quarantine to have some good quality ‘talks.’” – Mary Keyes

  1. Keep Track of Your Workload

“I keep a document that I plan my work for the coming week on Friday. During that workweek, I keep track of the things I accomplish and the new things that come up that need to be done. I leave future action items on the list. I find this to be more effective than a paper list.” – Renee Graff

  1. Limit Distractions in Your Workplace

“Set aside a work area and leave work in the work area.  Don’t invite it into other areas of your home life.” – Jayme Miller

After hearing from other MSU employees, it is clear there are many ways to navigate remote working schedules. However you go about working remotely, looking to other coworkers or your supervisor for guidance can be one of the most helpful ways to ensure future success for yourself and your team.

Maintaining Employee Engagement During COVID-19

In a matter of months, our world has changed drastically due to COVID-19. Everything about our work lives, home lives and social lives is now different as much of our day-to-day interaction with others is now done virtually. For many, navigating the changes between in-person to online work has been no easy task. Working remotely with little in-person communication can make it difficult to recognize what the purpose of your work is or remember the goals your team has put in place. As employees continue to work remotely, it is important to make time to check in with yourself and your team members about these things to maintain a strong sense of employee engagement within your virtual team to ensure continued success.

What is Employee Engagement?

But what is employee engagement exactly? Employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to their work, their team’s goals and their company’s mission. To inspire this emotional commitment, you must first understand what drives it. Engaged employees tend to feel like:

  • They have a purpose at their company
  • They are aware of how their work helps them grow
  • They understand how they impact others

However, many people tend to have different definitions of employee engagement that include employee happiness or employee satisfaction. Although these things are not what defines employee engagement, both employee happiness and employee satisfaction are still important elements in the larger ecosystem that drives engagement. This means to support this emotional commitment from employees, organizations have to create a strong, cultural foundation to be able to achieve high levels of employee engagement.

Why is it Important?

Whether you realize it or not, employee engagement can ultimately have one of the biggest impacts on your organization’s goals. The difference between a team of engaged employees and a team of disengaged employees could be what’s creating problems within your team’s productivity and quality of work.

During this time of remote work due to COVID-19, reaching high levels of employee engagement seems to be an especially large challenge for many. With employees away from the office and their coworkers, it can be very easy for them to become disengaged from their work or see the purpose in doing it at all. While it may seem impossible, there are still many things team leaders can do to help combat high disengagement levels during COVID-19, even while working remotely.

Tips for Maintaining High Employee Engagement While Still Working Remotely

  1. Develop a sense of purpose at work

Successful, engaged teams are made up of employees that have a sense of purpose. To develop this sense of purpose for employees within their work, try reminding employees how important each of their roles are to your team’s goals at team meetings to help them understand the impact of their efforts.

  1. Offer professional development opportunities

Employees should be able to expect a range of learning and development opportunities from their employers to be able to stay engaged and invested in their roles. To inspire engaged employees that want to grow and improve, try searching for and reminding employees of professional development opportunities that you come across.

  1. Give recognition and rewards

A powerful way to improve employee engagement is to recognize and reward employees for their successes. To elevate your employee recognition, try tying it to real and frequent rewards to build more engaged employees.

Leading Through Uncertain, Rapidly Changing Times

This is a guest post written by Jennie Yelvington, Program Manager, HR Organization and Professional Development

March brought unprecedented change to this large, often slow-moving organization, and it is easy to see why it might feel overwhelming at times. Each day brings new information and impactful changes that leaders must influence and enact without much warning. Additionally, each of us must manage adjustments in our personal lives. Making a proactive effort to take care of yourself will be critical to handling these times effectively with your staff. Staying calm, forward-thinking and encouraging requires you to not allow yourself to become depleted.

You know what this involves: get enough sleep, eat nourishing food,  exercise, and do other things that help to sustain you. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll have no capacity to take care of your team and the organization. I am confident that this upheaval in our daily routine will change us in ways we can’t yet imagine and perhaps for the better. Creativity and innovation are often born out of times when we can no longer do “business as usual.” In addition to doing the work of the day, don’t forget to bring humanness to your leadership with these tips for success:

  • Be patient with yourself and others as we navigate this new terrain and recognize gains made, however small.
  • Acknowledge and grieve losses, sharing empathy and compassion as we find our way through.
  • Strengthening our connections is more critical now than ever, so help each other to learn new technology and overcome barriers. Share knowledge and seek help from your peers across the organization.
  • Make an extra effort to connect with your team. Utilize Microsoft Teams to hold daily virtual meetings, share information and provide encouragement. Or just pick up the phone.
  • Learn something new as a team. Have team members “host” the ideas.
  • Stay connected with people who cannot work remotely. They are important to the overall success of your organization and when things get back to normal, you will need them. Think about how you can stay connected in new ways. Try mailing letters or cards.
  • If you are a higher-level leader, providing support for your Chairs and front-line supervisors is critical. Make sure you are connecting with them on a regular basis.
  • Create structured meetings for all and consider one-on-one meetings and small project/team meetings to enhance communication. It’s OK to just “talk.” It is vital, more than ever, to increase positive interactions.

The following paradoxes outlined in the article Leadership Confidence in Times of Uncertainty by Dave Ulrich may be helpful to consider:

  • Avoid the extremes of either over-reacting or under-reacting or as a thoughtful sage once said, “run with patience.”
  • Care for both the individual and the organization.
  • Balance the need for decisive action (be bold) and the need for thoughtful value-based decisions (be calm).
  • Respond to the short-term challenges of the moment and anticipate and plan for the long-term implications.

Along with the obvious challenges, this is also a time of great opportunity if we can remain open. In the Forbes article, Leading In Times Of Uncertainty: How To Engage Optimism And Focus When Nothing Seems Predictable, H.V. MacArthur reminds us that we have a number of options that uniquely present themselves at this time, including:

  • The ability of your team to experience the flexibility that comes from using remote work options.
  • Opportunity for team members to catch up on work and upcoming deadlines.
  • Time for your business to do proactive planning and strategic thinking.
  • An opening for up-skilling team members through training and development.

Eventually, this crisis will pass, and we will move to another new normal. Focusing now on how we are taking care of ourselves, each other and the organization will influence how we come out on the other side. We have been encouraged by the compassion and determination expressed by our colleagues across the organization—continue that good work. While you’re at it, consider sending us your thoughts and suggestions on what is working well so we can share them more broadly at ProDev@hr.msu.edu.

Sources:

MacArthur, H. V. (2020, March 17). Leading In Times Of Uncertainty: How To Engage Optimism And Focus When Nothing Seems Predictable. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/hvmacarthur/2020/03/16/leading-in-times-of-uncertainty-how-to-engage-optimism-and-focus-when-nothing-seems-predictable/#5ebb3fed47e2

Ulrich, D. (2020, March 12). Leadership Confidence in Times of Uncertainty. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-confidence-times-uncertainty-dave-ulrich/?trackingId=2Xa4HAlp8xcOpEp3RFH/DQ==