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Team Bonding in the Time of COVID-19

Team bonding best practices can help engage employees and produce positive business results, even when employees are working remotely due to COVID-19.

The letter "J" for Justworks.
Oct 27, 20208 minutes

For companies that are fully remote and organizations with employees who are working remotely due to COVID-19, it can be challenging to provide opportunities for employees to bond and build strong working relationships. Justworks partnered with customer Donut to host a webinar focused on providing practical strategies to promote employee bonding with teams that are fully or partially remote.

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In the webinar, Justworks’ HR Consultant Moses Balian and Donut’s Chief Executive Officer Dan Manian shared tips and suggestions for boosting employee engagement and productivity through employee bonding strategies that can be effective with remote and hybrid teams alike.

Employee Bonding in the Age of COVID-19

Building relationships with coworkers can be difficult even when everyone is working in the same location. Add to that the rapid transition to remote or hybrid (partially remote and partially in-office) work due to COVID-19, it has become increasingly challenging for colleagues to bond with one another. Once people transitioned to remote work, all of those incidental, ad hoc opportunities for bonding — such as chatting while getting coffee or running out for lunch — simply evaporated.

Remedies for Disconnected Work

Bonds with coworkers are important, not just to individual employees, but also for the company. As Dan Manian of Donut said, “Positive relationships with coworkers not only lead to higher employee engagement and happiness, but also boost productivity and the bottom line.” With remote work being more prevalent now, people are feeling more lonely than before and more disconnected from the people they work with. Companies are looking for remedies, searching for ways to keep some of the bonds that tend to develop organically with in-office teams, even with a transition to remote work.

Meeting Employee Needs

This is particularly challenging now, because the incidental opportunities to connect when everyone works from the same location just don’t exist anymore. The answer begins with being more deliberate when it comes to making connections with coworkers. Manian recommended providing multiple avenues for employees to make connections where they are. “There isn’t a cookie cutter one size fits all approach,” he said. Not everyone will find the same bonding opportunities appealing because there are so many individual differences, from different personality types, to different types of roles, to variations in how people’s workdays are structured, to their home lives. Manian stressed that “All of these different ways of working create different preferences with how people would like to connect.”

Multiple Ways to Connect

With this in mind, it is so important to provide a variety of different ways through which people can build bonds. “We see the most successful organizations, with respect to bonding, frequently having multiple programs that allow multiple modalities for people to participate,” Manian said. That certainly makes sense, because individual access and preferences vary. Some people like to connect with others one-on-one, while some prefer small groups. Some like purely social time; others enjoy having a structured topic to discuss.

“Everybody in this environment has some loss of social interaction that is driving some loneliness,” Manian cautioned. “At the same time, a lot of us have Zoom fatigue. There’s a paradox of finding ways to promote connection while not cramming everybody’s calendar with even more virtual meetings.” Manian recommended empowering individuals to set their own preferences for how to engage in virtual bonding. Ideas for connection include:

  • Coffee roulette: Employees who wish to chat over a virtual cup of coffee are randomly paired for a brief chat focused on getting to know one another.

  • DEI discussion groups: Groups focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion can enable people to connect over and share perspectives on a rich, meaningful, substantive topic while also creating peer learning. This occurs in a way that doesn’t keep people within their own bubbles.

  • Company buddy systems: Pairing work-from-home veterans with people who are new to this way of working can be a great way to help people successfully navigate the change from in-office to remote work while also building bonds with colleagues.

  • Daily prompts: Set up a Slack channel to promote social conversation. For example, ask “What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?” People can answer, share pictures, and discuss whenever it’s convenient for them, regardless of time zone.

Providing connection opportunities like these not only helps people bond, but it can also be a helpful way to support mental health and wellbeing for remote employees.

Setting the Stage for Buy-in

Setting up bonding opportunities is important, but it’s also important to get employees engaged and participating in events. Every organization is different, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Manian stressed the importance of really listening to what employees want to be doing. It’s important that people don’t feel pressured to participate in any or all of the activities.'

It’s crucial for employees to be able to opt in, rather than automatically opting them in and letting them opt out. “If they step into it themselves and come themselves, they are going to be a lot more bought in,” Manian said. This allows bonding programs to grow more organically, in a bottom-up way, which is better than having leadership require participation. That may mean a program will start smaller than you'd hoped, but if the people who are participating are having a good time, then word will slowly get out and others will join in. “Make sure there is visibility in the programs that are happening and that people can see the outcomes,” Manian advised.

How Bonding Is Evolving

Manian said Donut is seeing a change in how people are connecting now versus before remote work became as common. “We’ve seen a lot more teams interested in more frequent shorter connections,” he explained. “Prior to remote work, people were often using Donut to meet somebody new once per week or every other week to chat for a half hour. We now have teams where members now have a daily 10- or 15-minute conversation with someone on their direct team. They’re not meeting someone new, but are replacing that office banter and chat with seeing a different face every day for a quick conversation.”

Breaking Out of the Bubble

When you’re communicating primarily with the team to which you are assigned, remote work can allow for deeper relationships to develop within that group. When you join people on Zoom regularly, in a way it’s like they’re in your home. This can be a good thing, but it can also lead to developing or strengthening silos and cliques, both of which can be problematic. Manian emphasized the importance of going beyond the bubble of your primary team, to keep from allowing cliques to develop or become deeper.

Cross-department Mentoring

One strategy to encourage people to break out of their own bubble is to implement mentoring opportunities outside of the department or reporting chain. Not only does this foster bonding, it can also help build a more equitable workplace. You can have executives or leaders mentoring people earlier in their careers, but you can also have the lateral mentorships, such as someone on the engineering team who is interested in learning more about product management.

Mentoring Up

Left to their own devices, leaders may gravitate toward mentoring people who remind them of themselves, which may not be the most inclusive option. Manian recommended setting up a more deliberate mentorship program, where people are matched up on what they can offer as mentors relative to what type of upleveling opportunities others are interested in. A lottery to pair executives with mentees is one example to consider.

Lateral Mentoring

Mentoring can also occur laterally. “Whether it’s career coaching or a specific skill set — maybe someone wants to learn more about data science or uplevel their public speaking skills — and there’s experts in your organization who can do that,” Manian said. “I think peer mentorship and learning programs can be really powerful. People in your organization probably actually have something they can teach someone else or something they can learn from lots of other people.”

Multiple Benefits

This connection-focused approach to mentoring benefits mentors and mentees allke. As Justworks’ Moses Balian added, “They say you learn something the best or the most deeply by teaching it, so this idea of lateral mentoring has myriad benefits for beneficiaries on both sides.”

Take a Deliberate Approach to Building Bonds

In looking at the best practices for team bonding in these challenging times, it seems that what matters most just may be taking an intentional approach to fostering connections between and among team members. As Balian concluded, “What I am hearing here is the importance of just being deliberate. It feels a little awkward, but it’s an awkward time where we’ve got to just be purposeful about our conversations, even these.”

Dan Manian is the CEO and Co-Founder of Donut, a tech solution designed to build trust and form friendships for even the most distributed teams.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.