water cooler
How do we recreate this dynamic on remote teams?

How often have you leaned across your desk or paused in an office doorway to ask a colleague a question? Or made eye contact with a team member and raised your eyebrows, a show of silent, supportive communication in the face of a tricky client?

Along with water cooler conversations, these small confidences and day-to-day interactions are the building blocks of great working relationships. But what happens if those you work closest with are spread across oceans, borders, and time zones? 

While remote work is the norm in our current-day pandemic, for many companies, it could become the permanent standard. Some are realizing a remote workforce doesn’t result in loss of productivity or profit, but can save on overhead costs — and boost employee work/life balance. Twitter recently announced the shift to permanent, optional work-from-home status, save for workers whose jobs require their physical presence.

But can leaders still create the inclusive, supportive cultures that lead to those water cooler moments when working with entirely virtual teams?

I believe they can. Leaders can both set the tone and lead by example. They can create teams that feel just as connected as if they worked side-by-side in the same office.

Here are tips to help you create your own virtual-water-cooler team culture:

Make bonding a regular routine.

Former Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Vivek Murthy has written and spoken extensively on the “loneliness epidemic” facing Americans. He emphasizes the importance of social connections to keep us mentally and physically healthy, and believes that organizations can foster those connections by creating opportunities for employees to learn about each other beyond their work roles.

When he was Surgeon General, Murthy developed an exercise for his staff he called, “Inside Scoop.” For five minutes during weekly staff meetings, people were asked to share something about themselves — an interest, hobby, personal story — through photos. The impact of this simple activity was powerful and immediate. People were given the opportunity to share themselves as they would like to be seen, and they felt more valued when they saw their colleagues’ genuine reactions and interest. Everyone reported to Murthy how much more connected they felt to their colleagues — and to the mission of their jobs.

Teams work well when they feel connected to one another. Make creating those connections a regular, built-in feature of your leadership strategy.

Find ways to “get together.”

Virtual team bonding can also be a “special occasion” that takes the place of in-person gatherings. I worked recently with a global virtual team which takes turns, once a quarter, sending local food from their country to other team members around the globe so that they can all share breakfast or snacks together during their regular conference calls. At a recent team video conference, U.S. colleagues sent boxes of fresh bagels and coffee grounds to introduce team members in the Philippines to an American breakfast. This simple idea transformed those video calls into a vibrant and effective communications forum.

It’s easy to become uninspired and unmotivated by the day-to-day routine of video calls, conference calls, and endless emails. Be creative and give your team social events to look forward to. They can be as effective as in-person team outings.

Encourage curiosity.

The opportunities for miscommunications and misunderstandings compound when we can’t read in-person non-verbal cues. Encourage your team members to ask questions and seek to understand before rushing to judgement. 

I had a US-based client who was struggling to connect with a member of his new team, based in Mexico City, who seemed very slow to respond to email requests. Hiding his growing irritation he asked other colleagues, “What’s she like?” 

He discovered that she had recently had a baby and was balancing work and new motherhood, which explained the sporadic responses. He immediately emailed her, congratulating her on her new arrival and sharing the news that he had become a grandparent around the same time. He even attached a photo of his grandson. Within minutes she responded with a picture of her daughter, starting a dialogue that helped them to quickly build an effective working relationship. 

The current pandemic is proving that teams can work just as efficiently remotely as they do in person. But, for teams to truly excel, they require leaders who can foster the inclusive, supportive environments that make workers truly happy to “come to work,” whether the office is located in a downtown skyscraper or a virtual cloud.

Lead by fostering regular, genuine social connection, and your team can have its own “virtual water cooler.”

About the author

Maya Hu-Chan is the author of Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust (Berrett-Koehler; June 9, 2020), and founder and president of Global Leadership Associates. Maya is a globally recognized management consultant, executive coach, and speaker. She was an anchor for the China Broadcasting Corporation in Taiwan, former CEO of a nonprofit organization in California, columnist for Inc., and coauthor of Global Leadership: The Next Generation. She has trained and coached thousands of leaders from Fortune 500 corporations, nonprofits, and public sectors in North America, Asia, Europe, Australia, and Latin America.

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  1. Working for govt entity – there’s no department budget for food or awards. Managers pay out of pocket for celebrations which is demoralizing to manager even if staff appreciate gesture. Cost free suggestions are appreciated.

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