This Party’s Electric: Culture, Cocktails and Remote Co-workers

By Sarah Fister Gale

Feb. 18, 2016

At FlexJobs, the fact that all of the 70 employees work virtually doesn’t get in the way of culture-building. The leadership team for the telecommuting job service uses collaboration technology to come up with fun ways to help employees develop relationships outside of work.

“We have employees who have never met anyone on the team,” said Carol Cochran, FlexJob’s director of people and culture who is based in Frisco, Texas. “This gives them a way to connect.”

These connections include a twice-monthly virtual yoga class over Skype run by an employee with a yoga certification, and a trivia-themed happy hour using Sococo, an online virtual workplace, where employee teams gather in virtual rooms to brainstorm answers to questions posted by the CEO.

“You would be surprised by how well it all works,” Cochran said. “It gives people an opportunity to get to know their co-workers and have some fun.”

Such efforts to engage remote workers are becoming increasingly important as the rate of remote working continues to increase. Gallup Inc. estimates that 37 percent of U.S. workers telecommute, while the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that as of 2015, 40 percent of the U.S. workforce is now made up of contingent workers.

Making a Connection

If business leaders want these virtual employees to stick around, they need to find new ways to connect with them, said Katie Evans, senior communications manager at Upwork, an online talent marketplace formerly known as Elance-oDesk. When Evans joined Upwork in 2015 she was initially concerned about working for a company where most of the 300 employees worked virtually.

“I had reservations about whether I’d be able to form meaningful connections with my teammates,” she said. Despite being continuously connected to them via technology, she felt personally disconnected, and she worried that others in the fast-growing company felt the same.

She thought a virtual holiday party might help bring people together, but she wasn’t sure how it would even work. She researched a variety of technology options, including virtual meet-ups, an online gaming platform and virtual reality, but ultimately decided to keep it simple, using Google Hangouts to play some games.

“A virtual game might have been fun but it wouldn’t have done much for team-building,” she said.

Evans chose a “get to know you” theme, and had employees submit three facts about themselves. She shared the facts anonymously with the team, then employees met using Google Hangouts video to guess which facts went with which person. “I thought it would last for 30 minutes, but it lasted two hours,” she said. “Everyone had a lot of fun.”

The party made her realize that you don’t need to be live and in person to build company morale, and you don’t need to use complicated technology to make virtual celebrations fun. “The value is in the face time and storytelling, not the platform,” she said.

Now she hosts quarterly all-company parties and smaller teams have begun using collaboration tools for team coffees and weekly “rocks and roses” meetings where everyone shares their best and worst moment of the week.

Along with building camaraderie, virtual events can also be a cost-effective way to celebrate big news, said Michelle Markus, communications director for Point B Inc., a management consultancy with 500 employees based in eight U.S. markets. Point B had been striving for years to become 100 percent employee-owned, and when it achieved that goal the CEO wanted to celebrate with the whole team — but the company couldn’t afford to fly everyone to Seattle. Instead Markus set up party rooms in each market, complete with food, drinks and party favors, and then broadcast the announcement via a live feed.

“It was important that every site was festive, so they all felt like they were an important part of the event,” she said.

Not Complicated

Bringing remote employees together for a little team bonding doesn’t have to be complicated, but you do need to be thoughtful about how the technology will work — and how it might get in the way, Cochran said. In the yoga class, for example, participants found the music, which was meant to be soothing, was actually quite jarring via Skype so they got rid of it; and activities that could be done in a desk chair made the most sense.

She also encourages talent leaders to gather feedback from employees on what they want to do, and whether the virtual events are working, she said. She recently canceled an annual cookie exchange because employees lost interest. Instead, they added a belly dancing class when someone suggested it and others showed interest. “Let employees shape the program, and be open to change,” she advised.

Whether it’s a weekly chat, an evening cocktail party or a fitness program, using collaboration technology to build personal relationships is a great way to make workers feel like family.

“Put these events on the agenda,” Evans said. “That’s how you make people feel like they are part of the corporate culture.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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