The water cooler, break room, and local restaurants are all places where coworkers can socialize and bond. Being able to spend a reasonable amount of downtime with coworkers during and outside of work hours is part of a healthy workplace. It also builds stronger teams, as they get to know one another and form strong relationships that enable them to work well together.
For employees who work in the office, mingling with coworkers comes easy. Walk down the cubicle aisle to catch up with a team member, or makes plans to meet for happy hour when 5 p.m. rolls around. For virtual employees, however, it isn’t so simple. They might live hours, states, or continents away from the people they work with. How can they be social when they’re not physically present?
We must be reminded that the Internet is an inherently social place. Through video conferencing and other technologies, virtual interaction lends itself well to mixing and mingling – you just have to get creative with how to do it. Incorporating the following virtual-friendly bonding activities will enhance the virtual workspace and foster positive relationships among remote coworkers.
Becoming “friends” with a coworker on Facebook or other social media is, understandably, something many employees try to avoid. However, employees can create separate work-only social media accounts to interact with coworkers online. Within reasonable time limits, they can share interesting reading material, display photos of their babies and cats, as well as discuss work projects – all things that people would normally do in-person at the office. It’s not a bad idea for employees to have a professional online presence, anyway. Yammer, which is essentially a Facebook for the corporate world, is a good option for building connections among professionals.
Virtual Happy Hour
One of the secrets to high-performing teams is that they know when to take a break. Schedule regular virtual “happy hours” or BYOB coffee breaks, where coworkers can sign on to a videoconference and chew the fat for 15-20 minutes. At this virtual coffeehouse, topics can range from the personal to the professional, as long as it’s casual. Attendance should be voluntary, but send out e-mails encouraging employees to attend. Adult-beverage happy hours can also be held during after-work hours at your virtual “bar.”
Not all meetings are something to look forward to, and at best they’re merely something that needs to get done. Since meetings break up the regular workflow, it can take a few minutes for meeting participants to get into a groove. Why not spend that time catching up socially? Ask team members to share personal updates, though don’t make it a requirement for those who are more shy. They can also discuss notable developments in the field/industry or interesting things that they saw in the news – anything not work related that is also work appropriate.
Online Professional Development
Virtual employees may also feel like they have fewer opportunities for local professional development activities. To remedy this, organize activities that educate your virtual employees as a group. For example, hold a monthly book club where you read and discuss business-related titles. Sign up for a free or low-cost online course together. There are also lots of virtual conferences out there, so pick one that’s relevant to your company and register everyone who can attend. After each activity, host an informal meeting where everyone shares their thoughts about what they learned.
Expressions of Appreciation
A common complaint from employees, whether virtual or traditional, is that they don’t feel appreciated. Another virtual meeting opener that helps build rapport and respect is opening up the floor for expressions of appreciation. The manager should definitely contribute their thank-yous, but should encourage others to thank their teammates for a job well done. Employees will not only feel appreciated, they’ll also grow their appreciation for their coworkers.