How to build social connections on a remote team

Virtual team building is tough. Here are 7 ways you can build social connections on a remote team, even from afar.

I’ll be shocked if you’re shocked: Building social connections on a remote team is the hardest part of managing a remote team. According to a survey we ran this past fall with 297 remote managers and employees, “fostering a sense of connection without a shared location” was seen as the #1 most difficult part of being a remote manager — and the #1 most difficult part of working remotely, in general.

It’s predictable. When you work in a co-located office, you walk by someone’s desk and give them a friendly hello, catching up about their weekend. You notice a coworker’s body language appears a little “down” so you ask if they want to grab coffee later. You share a joke over lunch with another colleague when you realize you both oddly adore the same brand of obscure New Zealand mints.

Those serendipitous moments of social connection don’t happen with the same frequency or fidelity when you’re working remotely. As a result, the sentiments of “Ah, we’re in this together” or “You’ve got my back” can be absent on a remote team unless you deliberately foster them.

Scholars have described these sentiments as helpful for building “affective trust” — a form of trust based on emotional bond and interpersonal relatedness. It varies from the “cognitive trust” — which springs from reliability and competence. Both are influential to performance, but affective trust tends to be more salient for a team at the beginning of a relationship, according to studies.

Other studies show how detrimental the lack of social connection in the workplace can be. In a 2018 State of Remote Work survey conducted by Buffer, they found that loneliness was the biggest downside for 21% of remote employees, and one of the reasons that made them more likely to quit. Furthermore, in a separate survey with over 2,000 managers, 60% of respondents said they would be more inclined to stay if they had more friends at work.

The data doesn’t stop there: Another study revealed that individuals who had 15 minutes to socialize with colleagues had a 20% increase in performance over their peers who didn’t. Not to mention, there’s extensive research that exists on the positive impact that social relationships have on life expectancy.

Given this, how do you build social connections on a remote team? I pulled insights from our survey data, as well as from our online leadership community in Know Your Team, The Watercooler, with over 1,000 managers from all over the world.

From it all, here are the most commonly cited — and reportedly most effective ways — that remote teams stay connected:

Ditch dull icebreakers for dynamic ones

How many times have you been asked, “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have any hobbies?” Shrug. Too many times. The questions feel tired, so the answers are tired. Rather, if your icebreaker questions are intriguing, cheeky, humorous — the answers you receive will be, too. One of my favorite icebreaker questions is, “What’s the one song you can’t stand right now?” We recently asked that here at Know Your Team, and the answers were nothing short of hilarious. Looking for more icebreaker question ideas? Check out the 25 specific best icebreaker questions to ask.

Many remote teams will kick off their weekly meeting with an icebreaker question or insert it during their morning stand-up meeting. Even more popular is asking a series of icebreaker questions during the onboarding process when hiring someone new (you can read more about onboarding in remote teams below). In fact, in Know Your Team we have a fun Icebreakers feature precisely for this purpose.

Over-emphasize onboarding

With effective trust being so important to foster at the beginning of a relationship, onboarding new hires well becomes even more critical for virtual team building. This is underscored by our survey results from last fall: We found that 69% of remote managers and employees who responded said they have a formal onboarding process at their company.

Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, a remote company with 200+ people, has a specific onboarding process that’s often partially in-person. He explains: “AirBnOnboarding, which when we hire folks within the first month, we actually do like to have them spend a week in person out here in the Bay Area. So we’ll rent an Airbnb, we’ll bring their manager out here, them out here and then spend a week working alongside them.”

Other companies follow a similar model of a “buddy system” for onboarding (you can read specifically more about buddy systems in remote companies below). At Help Scout, a remote company with ~80 people, they give each new hire what they call a “work best friend” (they have a fantastic write-up on their entire onboarding process here). At Automattic, a remote company with ~1,000 people, they “do a mix of self-guided training and buddy feedback,” as explained by Valentina Thörner, Happiness Team Lead at Automattic. Valentina shared with our other 1,000+ managers in The Watercooler, our online community:

“Each new hire is added to a mega-check list that will guide their work during the next 12 weeks. The list includes tasks for the new hire (e.g. “finish the course on debugging shipping extensions”), for the lead (e.g. “check access to scheduler tool, Zendesk, etc etc”) and for the buddy (e.g. “check in with new hire about xyz”). We constantly refine and add to the check-list. It’s easier to just check off a “no-brainer” task then to realize that every other hire/lead did NOT think that was a no-brainer and forgot about it.”

Build a buddy system

As discussed, many remote companies offer buddy systems for onboarding — but they also implement them as a fun way for every to interact socially and get to know each other better. In fact, in our survey, we found that 51% of remote managers and employees reported having a mentor mentorship program or buddy system.

This can take the form of assigning someone an official “mentor”, with whom they have one-on-one meetings once a week or bi-weekly to ask questions and get acclimated to the company. It could also include randomly pairing 2–3 people every week to have a fun video chat over something non-work related. Either way, carving out and designating a specific relationship that’s shared between people is a way to be purposeful about encouraging social connections on a remote team- rather than merely hoping that an informal connection will form on its own.

Interestingly, mentorship within a company not only benefits the mentee. A 2013 study found people who have the opportunity to serve as mentors experience greater job satisfaction and a higher commitment to their employer. The benefits of having a buddy extend both ways.

Set scheduled video chats

If you can’t talk to folks face-to-face, the closest thing you can get to is to chat over video. It may seem unnatural at first, but as one survey respondent remarked: “Get comfortable with the awkwardness of video calls, and have them often.”

Help Scout organizes 15–30-minute coffee breaks over video between randomly assigned team members called Fikas. At Litmus, week to week, they get “Coworker Coffees” over video, drink beers on Skype, and play video games online. Other companies, as discussed in The Watercooler, will hold book club discussions or have specific topics or themes about video chats, such as food, music, etc.

In general, when video is used for social connection on a remote team it should feel more and more like second nature. The most common frequency for video chats, according to our survey, was several times a week (32% of respondents).

Carve out a dedicated non-work chat channel

If you’re a remote team, you likely already have some sort of non-work-related chat channel. Many Watercooler members who work remotely remarked on its importance. Whether it’s a #cats channel in Slack or a place to say “good morning” to everyone once you hop online, it’s essential for recreating the “watercooler chat” that you might have in an in-person office.

Most remote managers and employees in our survey shared that this kind of synchronous chat was their primary mode of communication (45% of respondents said this). Given this, a non-work related chat channel should fit well already into your existing workflow as a remote team.

Invest in company retreats — and do ’em right

At the end of the day, when it comes to social connection, nothing beats meeting in-person, face to face. According to our survey, we found that the most common frequency of meeting in-person was “several times a year” (25% said this) and that they spend on average $1,001 — $5,000 per employee (29% of respondents said this) to accomplish this. This can take several forms:

  • Most remote companies host some sort of yearly or a few-times-a-year meet-up. At Know Your Team, we try to get together at least twice a year in-person. Other companies do week-long retreats three times per year. Balsamiq takes a lighthearted, personal approach to their all-team retreats that focuses on getting everyone together to have a good time. Other company retreats optimize for working together side-by-side, having strategic discussions, thinking through tough problems. If you’re looking to plan a company retreat, here’s an excellent piece Buffer put together about their most recent one.
  • In some companies, occasionally, mini-meetups happen where only some of the team members will meet in a location for a very specific reason. For example, a design team will get together for a few days to hash out a project.
  • At other companies, throughout the year, they’ll fly in people to the HQ (if there is one) to kick off new projects, go to conferences together, or go to client meetings together.
  • Some remote companies will often encourage team members that live closer together to meet, by reimbursing lunch, etc.

Lastly, this came up from our Watercooler members, I promise: Use Know Your Team 🙈

I know, I know, this seems like a shameless plug. But in fact, it came up organically in our Watercooler community (see the screenshot) below:

Managers in remote teams have found us to be particularly useful for building social connections from afar. We in fact built Know Your Team as a means to help make social interaction in remote teams easier. Everything from our Icebreaker feature, which welcomes new employees, to our Social Questions, which ask a different, fun, non-work related question periodically, is centered around this. As a remote company ourselves, it’s how we get to know our own team.

Whatever you decide to implement – video chats, a buddy system, better icebreaker questions – social connection on a remote team will only happen with a little elbow grease. Be intentional. Set aside the time. Know it will require deliberation. It won’t happen organically.

Sure, it’s a little work. For many, it’s work well spent.

🐴 I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here – but truly, the easiest way to build social connections on a remote team is to put Know Your Team to work for you. Use the Social Questions and Icebreakers: these fun, lighthearted periodic questions help people to find surprising connections with one another and also brings everyone closer together. They’re a huge hit in the remote teams we work with. See for yourself today.

Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you avoid becoming a bad boss. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

One thought on “How to build social connections on a remote team

  1. Obviously, it depends on culture. But I believe, especially with our generation, that it’s easier to build online teams than old school cubicles teams.
    Why? Because, yes – if you have some cool interactions with your co-workers you’re in a good mood, etc. But, I think I’ve read in a book about toxic people, etc. that 1 toxic person can poison 10 others in the workplace!
    While at home, at your own schedule, you’ve got your family around, you got time for social life, for your own interests. You don’t do the idiotic traveling experience where you’re either alone in traffic or in the subway with a bunch of ppl looking at the phones. You’re eliminating sooo much wasteful time. Just use this time for social activities. Learn how to meet people, use meetup, etc.
    After smart use of your time, you’ll be in a good mood and it’s obvious even in the chat window 🙂 All else, those trends… it’s just stupid, mostly ego driven – I want to see him work in front of me kind of controlling bs. Let go of your controlling behaviour, show trust in people and they’ll usually deliver.

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