How To Keep Your Remote Team Feeling Happy & Motivated

by Benjamin Brandall — Last updated May. 9, 2016

The word ‘remote’ can mean disconnected, unfriendly, or distant, but it doesn’t have to feel that way. Thanks to the tools we have, working remotely is now not only possible, for some, it’s preferred.

No more rolling into the office at 9am after pouring coffee all over your trousers in the car. No more ‘can you stay an extra couple of hours tonight’, then leaving red-eyed and drained. But, sadly, no physical, interpersonal connections. It’s harder to make friends with someone you’ve never met.

That means we need a substitute.

Human beings get energized and motivated by interacting with each other, but a remote environment isn’t best suited for open interaction. That’s because employees don’t want to feel like they’re bothering each other, or have nothing remarkable to talk about because they’re just sitting on their laptop somewhere. Well, the latter isn’t strictly true.

I’ve been working at Process Street for around a year now, and we’re deliberate with how we keep our remote team thriving and interacting with each other.

Here are some of the ways we stay happy and productive while being on opposite sides of the planet.

Company Hearthstone Tournament

There’s always something inherently geeky about tech startups, so we thought we might as well embrace it. Holding a company Hearthstone tournament is simple way to randomly match coworkers together, help them feel comfortable communicating and then - watch the ruthless banter unfold.

We play with fully basic decks to make sure veterans can’t stomp new players with their pro-level cards. Even if you’ve not tried Hearthstone before (a few hadn’t), it’s easy to pick up and with basic decks no one has much of an advantage.

Excellent/terrible movie of the week

The concept is simple: Every week, one of us is chosen to select a movie that’s so bad it’s good.

We’ve had Shivers (not so terrible, actually) and The Beast Must Die — a werewolf whodunnit that gives you a ‘werewolf break’ interlude to decide who the killer is.

There’s nothing like a good old laugh to keep spirits up, and who can resist low-budget ‘70s production value? Plus, if your remote team isn’t much into movies, you could try books, TV shows, albums or any kind of media that can be so bad it’s good.

Pair brainstorming sessions

Working on projects with coworkers you usually don’t cross paths with is a great way to settle into a remote team. Even though I’m not working directly on content creation with the other team members, I often suggest we brainstorm headlines as pairs. Not only is this a good way to actually come up with quality headlines, it’s a chance for hilarity.

Even though it can seem like all the joking around must drag us away from getting meaningful work done, studies show we’re a lot more productive when we’re happy. If we’re in the mood to mess around, it probably means we’re not feeling hyper-focused at that moment anyway, so it’s best to spend time on something more worthwhile than scrolling around on Twitter.

Making proper introductions during the first week

A vital stage of employee onboarding is introducing new team members around. That’s fine in the office; you can gather round, chat, get a better idea of what someone’s like than just seeing their thumbnail in Slack. You can go for a drink, talk about idle nonsense and forge friendships faster. Over the internet, however, it’s a slow process.

Time reveals the new employee’s personality a lot slower than it would face-to-face. That’s why we all make an effort to welcome new employees — usually with a slew of welcome gifs — and help them to feel like they’re noticed, not just a new silent DM option in chat.

Take a ‘remote first’ approach

What’s a remote first approach? It’s respecting the fact that remote workers are at an inherent disadvantage to the rest of the office-based team and agreeing to all use online tools to make sure that remote workers are kept in the loop.

This means:

  • Holding conference calls over Hangouts, even if only 1 team member is remote
  • Updating Slack with information talked about in-person
  • Keeping a perpetual room open in your physical office that remote workers can come in and out of at any time

As well as, I came accross a great tool called on Product Hunt. It helps remote workers connect with each other (at different companies, even) and with their offices.

Not only does this approach help remote workers feel included, it also means that everything is indexed and searchable online. It’s harder to remember something someone mentioned last week than it is to do a quick search in Slack and get their word-for-word message.

Get the right toolset, and you’re away

You’ll not find a more comprehensive selection of tools for remote teams than Peter Legierski’s 184-piece list, featuring contributions from Zapier, Buffer and Intercom (to name a few).

For building a culture of happiness and motivation, there are a few standouts.

Sqwiggle (similar to but purely for your own organization) lets you see the faces of your team mates all day, just as if you were to be in the same room. And, if at any time you need to have a chat or video call with a specific team, it’s possible to go into a private room to do that. The fully-remote success story Buffer swears by it.

Screenhero is a free screen sharing tool which, unlike Microsoft behemoth Skype, won’t lag all over the place and look terrible. So much better than Slack for quickly explaining a process to someone. We’re all awful at giving informal instructions, so screensharing forces us to go through it step-by-step in a more interactive and personal way.

Hackpad is like a less boring version of Google Docs. Since acquired and merged into Dropbox Paper (equally excellent), Hackpad is a great way to quickly rough out content, share files and notes with your team on the digital equivalent of a piece of paper.

These tools all have something in common: they encourage freeform communication. Communication for the sake of it. At the very least, they’re something more fun than your Dear Sir/Madam emails.

Everyone can learn to love remote work

For me, it wasn’t much of a transition. My first ‘proper job’ had me sitting in the backroom of a local realtor calling colder-than-stone leads. Hardly any interaction, and I could have worked at home if necessary. After that, I freelanced for a year then got the job I have at the moment.

There’s a charm that comes when everyone tries to work harder because they know it’s more difficult to keep the team happy and motivated. Managers try harder too — it’s tougher to recognize if someone’s feeling down without seeing their face.

In the end, remote teams have the opportunity to become just as close as physical teams. Especially when you develop your own Slack in-jokes, rituals, tournaments and laugh about the artistic failures of 1970s movie directors.

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