Remote work Elearning Workplace training

13 minute read

How to Bring Your Team Together During a Time of Social Distancing

Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Like most of us, your team probably wasn't shy about airing the occasional complaint about working so closely on a daily basis. Annoyances were normal and, as the leader, you got to hear about every last one of them. 

Kaylea insisted on taking every single one of her calls on speaker phone. Logan’s lunchtime tuna fish sandwiches repeatedly stunk up the shared workspace. Yolanda was notorious for thinking aloud (and distracting everybody else in the process). 

But now? As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, you and your team members are relegated to your own home offices, kitchen tables, or couches. You’re all working in isolation. Suddenly, instead of dealing with those minor gripes and the innocent finger-pointing, you’re hearing how much your team members actually miss working side-by-side. 

Despite the fact that you’re no longer co-located, you don’t want your team to feel totally disconnected. So, you’re looking for ways that you can keep those bonds strong in this era of social distancing. 

It’s a unique challenge (and perhaps one you never thought you’d be facing). But rest assured that there are plenty of ways you can keep your team members feeling united. Let’s dig into what social distancing is, how it’s impacting the workforce, and how you can maintain a strong team—even if you’re spread out for the foreseeable future. 

woman working from home office

So...what is social distancing?

Social distancing is a term you’ve heard thrown around a lot in recent weeks. But, it has become such a buzzword and phenomenon that tracking down a single social distance definition is tough. What does this term actually mean?

As Johns Hopkins Medicine explains, the concept of social distancing is actually pretty straightforward: It’s a term used to describe a variety of measures that are taken to increase the physical distance between people and avoid unnecessary contact.

It’s simple in theory, but as we’re all learning, it’s a heck of a lot more complicated in practice. It involves a number of seemingly drastic actions, such as limiting gatherings of 10 or more people, shutting down events and businesses, and encouraging people to stay at least six feet apart when they need to be in public. 

Social distancing is important for slowing the spread of the virus. While there’s still research being done about exactly how the virus is transmitted, the main method is thought to be through person-to-person contact—mainly, when the small droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes are transmitted to another person.

So, it makes sense that increasing the physical distance between people will hopefully mitigate the risk of individuals coming into contact with the virus. The more space, the better. 

However, the World Health Organization recently made a switch from the term social distancing to physical distancing in an effort to emphasize that people should still safely connect in a social manner (through things like video chats, phone calls, social networks, and more). The goal of these measures isn’t necessarily to socially isolate people, but to physically isolate them.  

Unprecedented times: How social distancing is impacting the workforce

Obviously, all of these changes to how we go about our daily lives has had a major impact on how businesses and their teams get their work done.

In many locations, businesses that are deemed “non-essential” have had to close their locations for the time being and allow employees to work remotely if possible. Considering that’s not realistic for a lot of industries and companies (from restaurants to hotels to construction sites), a record number of employees are out of work.

For those who are able to keep operating, the limit on gatherings of large groups means they now have nearly all of their staff members working from home—a pretty drastic shift for a lot of companies. 

According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work Report, only 9% of respondents said that 76% to 99% of their staff works remotely. But, that number has undoubtedly exploded given the current state of things. 

buffer chart - percentage of company that works remotely
Source: Buffer

Better together (but apart): How to keep your team connected in the age of social distancing

For teams who aren’t used to working remotely, making the transition to the work-from-home lifestyle isn’t always seamless. 

Plus, combine that shift in their working arrangement with the added stress that many people find themselves under—such as suddenly homeschooling children or caring for their older family members—and we’re all certainly dealing with an increased amount of pressure.

As a leader, you want to ensure that your team continues to produce high-quality work. But, you also want to keep morale up, support your team in making the best of this situation, and provide them opportunities to continue to strengthen their working relationships with each other. 

Sound impossible? We promise, it’s not. Here are a few ways that you can make that happen. 

1. Institute a (remote-friendly) team tradition 

When you were in the office, you had your fair share of fun team traditions that boosted spirits. Maybe it was something as simple as bringing in donuts every Friday, or something more involved like your annual team-wide Olympic games.

No longer being co-located doesn’t mean that your team doesn’t get to have fun together. Think of some lighthearted and remote-friendly traditions you can start to implement.

Maybe you’ll all wear jerseys in support of your favorite sports teams on Mondays and share the photographic proof in an email chain. Perhaps you’ll make Friday a day when everybody shares funny photos in a specific theme (like their high school prom portrait or a photo of their dog). Maybe you’ll start a shared playlist that all of your team members can contribute their favorite songs to.

The sky's the limit. Challenge yourself to get creative, and make sure to ask your team members for their own ideas too. You’re bound to come up with a number of clever ways that you can all stay close—despite being spread apart. 

man working from home showing coworkers his breakfast

2. Start a place for water cooler chat

When you’re no longer enjoying lunches together or gathering around the office coffee bar in the morning, small talk and friendly chatter is something that can easily fall by the wayside. If you don’t already have a place where your team members can go to converse about non-work-related things, start one now.

That could be a designated Slack channel for people to engage in discussions that would normally flow naturally in an office environment (like their Netflix recommendations or updates on their marathon training). Or, you could even use a tool like Zoom to create a video conference room where people could jump in and share their morning coffee or have an after-work happy hour.

If you need even more help or support in encouraging these social connections, check out Donut. It makes it easy to pair up team members for virtual coffee or lunch dates. 

Finally, make sure that you leave some time at the start or end of your meetings for people to engage in some small talk—just like they would if you were meeting in-person. Even just a few minutes will help people feel more connected, before you get down to business. 

3. Host frequent video conversations

The fact that you’re all working remotely shouldn’t be an excuse to never see each other face-to-face. It’s tempting to rely solely on email or instant messages for communicating, but the lack of “in-person” interaction is only going to compound the sense of isolation that your team members are experiencing.

If you previously hosted a full team meeting every Tuesday morning, continue to do so via video. If you were having bi-weekly one-on-ones with your team members, keep those up as video conversations.

It’s a seemingly small detail. But, being able to look each other in the eye (even virtually) is a great way to keep that sense of connectedness strong. 

4. Continue to uphold your cultural values

This is a big change for your team, but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to be turned on its head. One of the best ways to maintain stability and consistency for your team is to continue to stay true to your cultural values—even if that looks a little different in practice these days.

Was growth and development always a core pillar of your culture? Make sure that you’re still connecting with your employees about their career goals, and supporting their advancement with learning opportunities (like offering access to online courses through GoSkills).

Did you always prioritize innovation and thinking outside of the box? Rather than falling into the routine of just cranking through daily tasks, continue to host regular brainstorming sessions or even a remote hack day when people can spend a full workday on a solution that otherwise would fall to the backburner.

We get it. Everything is different now, but staying true to the core essence of what your company and team represents is still important. Don’t forget to return to your cultural values and make sure that you’re finding ways to keep those strong. 

man on video call shows coworkers his dog

5. Provide opportunities to know coworkers on a deeper level

Believe it or not, the fact that everybody is working from their own environments actually offers the chance for your team members to get to know each other on a totally different level. Suddenly, you have more access and insight into people’s home lives than you ever did before.

While you never want to be invasive, there are some fun ways that you can encourage your team members to share these different aspects of their lives and personality.

For example, have everybody introduce their pets at the start of your team meeting or provide a quick tour of their work-from-home setup. Or, team members with children can involve them in the occasional meeting too. As CNBC reported, employees at GitLab are giving their kids a chance to connect.

“People will throw out, ‘Anyone have kids home from school who want to chat with my kids?’” says Darren Murph, who leads employee culture and onboarding at GitLab, in the article for CNBC.

This gives the team’s kiddos a quick opportunity to hang out with each other (hey, they’re probably lonely too) and often gives the parents a much-needed break at the same time. 

6. Create a designated place for pandemic-related conversation

There’s a lot going on in the world, and it’s important to recognize that some people will want to discuss it—while others will want a break from all of the talk about the current state of things.

That’s why it’s smart to create a designated space for people to engage in conversations about the pandemic. You’ll provide an outlet for people who want to vent and share advice, without allowing those topics to infiltrate every single meeting or instant messaging channel.

Plenty of companies are doing this well. Jason Fried, Founder and CEO at Basecamp, set up an “All Pandemics” project within Basecamp for employees who want to share anything related to the virus. It keeps that topic isolated in a certain area, so people can access it if and when they want to get an update. Or, they can stay away from it altogether if they choose. 

Source: Jason Fried

Another example? Meaghan Clark Tiernan shares that the parents’ group at the marketing agency she works at in the Bay Area has started a spreadsheet of quarantine ideas for kids that’s consistently updated. 

And, Katy Palmer who’s the Operations Manager, Professional Services at Verblio, says that her company has started a #quarantinetips Slack channel to share non-news-related advice of all kinds for making it through this period of isolation. “There are plenty of goofy videos, fun subscription services, and practical tips,” she says.

Working from home? You can (and should) keep your team connected

We’re all supposed to be social distancing right now (or physical distancing, if that’s the term you prefer), but that doesn’t need to translate into total social isolation. 

Despite the fact that this can be a tough transition for your team who’s used to working under the same roof, there are plenty of strategies you can lean on to maintain your team members’ bonds and keep morale high.

Put the above tips to use, and you’ll ensure that your team members feel connected—until you can all be together again (hopefully soon!).

Whether your team will be working remotely for the short or long term, the GoSkills LMS is the ideal way to train your team, help them gain new skills, and keep them productive. Access GoSkills' award-winning course library, upload your own courses and resources, and watch your team bond and grow together, even while they are apart.

It’s free to sign up and add unlimited learners to the GoSkills LMS, so you can start providing your team with the essential skills and information they need while working from home today.

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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. When she escapes her computer, she enjoys reading, hiking, golfing, and dishing out tips for prospective freelancers on her website.