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.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month

This is a guest post written by HR Accommodations Specialist, Cherelyn Dunlap.

Michigan State University is a leader in cultivating a diverse and inclusive campus environment.  During the month of October, we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, led by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.  Held annually, this observance aims to raise awareness about disability employment issues and celebrate the many contributions of workers with disabilities.

Individuals with disabilities add significant value to the workplace, offering diverse perspectives on how to tackle challenges and achieve success.  This year’s theme “The Right Talent, Right Now” interconnects with the university’s core value of inclusiveness.  It highlights the unlimited possibilities that occur when barriers are removed for individuals with differing abilities.

What can you do to observe National Disability Employment Awareness Month?  Strive to make all employees feel like they belong and are valued for their unique characteristics and perspectives.  Also, realize that October isn’t the only time we can engage and promote awareness of disability employment issues.  We all play an important role in fostering a more inclusive workforce, one where every person is recognized for their abilities – every day of every month. It is of the utmost importance that the university community is one that is welcoming, recognizing that the talents of all people are a critical part of building an inclusive work culture.

For more information on National Disability Employment Awareness Month please visit the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s website