2020 brought a seismic shift in the way we all work: even after the COVID pandemic has eased, it’s likely this new approach will persist in some form. Employers and employees alike have had their eyes opened to the reality of widespread remote working, and are recognising its benefits and possibilities more than ever.

While remote working has many advantages , it also presents some unique challenges. A common concern is the impact  that removing a shared workspace and face-to-face interaction has on employees’ ability to build genuine relationships with one another. This perceived disconnect can lead to workers feeling lonely and isolated.

This is not only detrimental to the wellbeing of employees, but also takes its toll on the overall health of a business. Meanwhile, building a sense of community between colleagues not only improves individual happiness, but also boosts job satisfaction, improves productivity, and reduces staff turnover.

It’s now more essential than ever that employers dedicate time and resources to generating opportunities for employees to build relationships with one another. So, with that in mind, here are a few tips for fostering better community spirit among colleagues in this strange new age of remote working.

Curate Your Channels of Communication

While setting up adequate channels of communication is important for facilitating efficient workflow while working remotely, you should also be setting up your platforms to simulate real-life interpersonal interactions as far as possible.

At a very basic level, you should be ensuring you incorporate some form of instant messaging into daily proceedings. While email communication can feel stilted and formal, the quick, casual conversation facilitated by  IM platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams  makes it possible to get in those five-minute chats that would usually happen in person around the watercooler.

You can also experiment with creating different channels on your platform of choice, to open up  space for different types of communication. Whilst some chats might be exclusively for nuts-and-bolts talk about the projects at hand, creating feeds where people can share interesting news stories, discuss TV shows and book recommendations, or just talk about whatever comes to mind will all help make the social experience of this digital workspace more natural and convivial.

Employers and senior members of staff should definitely lead the way in getting these chats off the ground: be the first to break the ice, by dropping in a message and asking what everyone’s getting up to that weekend!

Create a Buddy System

When starting a new job, trying to get to know a whole bunch of people at once can be so overwhelming that some opt out of even trying. A buddy system preempts this and should prevent the more retiring newcomers becoming isolated. By creating a touch point in the form of a designated buddy, you can ease the pressure of having to get to know everybody all at once, whilst also creating a comfortable environment where new employees are able to ask questions freely and casually.

These pairings or groupings also create a great basis for bouncing ideas off one another and  creates a pretext for the kind of regular conversation that will naturally lend itself to people getting to know one another. These opportunities for one-to-one dialogue which people may have been otherwise nervous to create are a great way of starting to turn a sea of faceless virtual colleagues into real people.

Furthermore, it has long been acknowledged that having at least one close colleague not only makes us happier, but also boosts our productivity. For example, a common tip given to aspiring novelists who want to write faster is to have a writing buddy, someone to discuss progress and talk through issues with. Creating a buddy system that nurtures this kind of peer-to-peer encouragement will therefore not only forge friendships, but will also increase accountability and motivation among employees. It’s a win for all involved!

Replace After-work Drinks With Remote Social Events

With the number of video conferencing platforms available, it’s now fairly easy to set up a fully remote social event. From bigger calendar events, like quizzes and Zoom bake-offs, to regular social calls, where  employees can  just hang out a couple of times a week, outside the context of work, allows everyone to get to know each other a bit better.

For casual chats, it’s good to limit the number of the people in the call to under ten, to prevent the atmosphere going from friendly catchup to public speaking engagement. But these kinds of casual chats and designated social times can be essential in promoting a good work-life balance, a concept which has made its way out of self-help books and into the minds of every conscious worker, especially in this era of working from home.

Make Opportunities for Asynchronous Bonding

It can be difficult to coordinate large-scale synchronous social activities if your international team is spanning time zones, or people’s outside-of-work responsibilities mean they can’t  come along, so it’s important to consider a few ways you can foster community even if you can’t actually all be on a call at the same time.

One way of doing this is by getting your team to get a head start on their memoirs by penning all-about-me bios to be released internally, which other team members can read. These create the perfect window into getting to know your fellow colleagues and might spark interesting conversations, or even a lifelong friendship if shared interests are found.In-house holiday celebrations like a secret Santa gift exchange can also help to humanize the people on the other side of your emails. There’s also the option of encouraging those who are comfortable to do so to share any social media they have, so that people can see what each other are up to and gain a fuller idea of what makes their coworkers tick.

Whatever method you choose, make sure that there are at least a couple of asynchronous opportunities for colleagues to get to know each other, to prevent anyone missing out on the fun (and to let every team member know they’re appreciated)!

By maintaining focus on the social dynamic, you’re creating a stronger team, who will look out for each other and encourage one another to perform at their best – all while having fun doing it! So be sure to dedicate time to building those bridges, and making sure that every employee is having their social needs fulfilled, even if they live on the other side of the world to the rest of the team.