Remote Work

3 Remote Team Building Strategies That Work [2021 Guide]

March 23, 2021

Relationship building isn’t the same when you’re fully-remote. Remote teams need to be deliberate. We compiled three strategies that actually work.

Corine Tan & Annie Yan
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5 min
Relationship building isn’t the same when you’re fully-remote. Remote teams need to be deliberate. We compiled three strategies that actually work.

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If you miss working in the office, it’s probably because you miss human interaction. Relationship building isn’t the same when you’re working fully-remote. There’s a certain energy you get in an office, one that’s hard to recreate without in-person body language and casual hallway chats. In comparison, connecting with remote teammates feels forced.


It’s more than a feeling, however. Across 550+ interviews with remote managers, we were stunned to hear how many mentioned “relationship building” as their top struggle with remote work. A year without in-person interactions left many teams feeling siloed, transactional, and burnt out. Many leaders described a loss of trust, a major red flag for team effectiveness. At scale, the difficulty of building remote relationships costs organizations their culture and employee engagement.


Unfortunately, most virtual team building resources boil down to a list of icebreakers and games. Having fun is only a piece of the puzzle. Remote teams need to be deliberate and strategic with their team building. 


That’s why we’ve created a comprehensive guide with five key strategies for connecting with remote employees. We’ll cover:

- Why relationship building is essential in remote work

- 3 Strategies for Remote Team Building:

  1. Plan Social Events
  2. Align Values and Vision
  3. Set Async Cadences

A remote teammate plays a team building activity that makes her laugh.
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash


Relationship building is essential for remote work

Burnout and isolation are at all-time highs for remote teams. Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work Report showed “Not being able to unplug” (27%) and “Loneliness” (14.5%) as the two largest issues among remote workers. These two factors create a toxic feedback loop: loneliness leads to overworking, more burnout leads to loneliness. A study by Monster states 69% of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home. If companies hope to scale their remote culture past the pandemic, they’ll need to address this crisis before it’s too late. 


Thankfully, the solution to this crisis already matches every culture-conscious leader’s goal. A tight-knit team makes for a happier, more engaged culture. The power of workplace friendships cannot be understated. According to Gallup, team members with a “best friend at work” are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, to better engage customers, to produce higher quality work, and to have higher wellbeing. A foundation of understanding and trust helps teams raise their psychological safety, a factor we’ve written extensively about for its direct ties to team success.


Building up friendships requires more than just once-a-month Zoom escape rooms (though they're super fun and help!) It takes deliberate effort and vulnerability.


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How do I connect to remote employees?

To build support networks and connect with coworkers, managers need to be deliberate with team touch points. They key is to create frequent opportunities for vulnerability and cater to every individual’s needs.


Here’s our three strategies for remote team building:

1. Plan Social Events


A yellow infographic with six ideas for team building activities.


This team building strategy is the most common. When asked about current team building efforts, many remote managers recalled fun events their companies host. From local dance seminars to homemade terrarium building to Zoom escape rooms, companies go above and beyond to delight and unite teams. Like in-office events, the goal for these sessions is to have fun and spark conversation.


Sessions often last for an hour or less (though some social events are lined up around themed weeks) and range in formality. Some remote teams use apps like Donut to schedule random 1:1s and lunch dates with teammates they may have never met. Other managers use services like PizzaTime or Grubhub to host spontaneous pizza parties for teammates. LaunchDarkly’s People team coordinates with local craftspeople in Oakland to host unique workshops in pottery, cooking, and glassmaking. Malwarebytes hosts mental health workshops and virtual yoga classes.


There are plenty of places to look for inspiration. We won’t rehash an exhaustive list of activities, but here are some lovely starting points:



Tips for planning a successful remote activity: 

  • Different activities work with different crowds. Poll the group for options and cater to your team’s interests. Find opportunities to learn together!
  • Plan the event out in advance. Zoom calls with high hopes and poor structure can leave the group frustrated and uninterested.
  • Lower your expectations for turnout. Teams are often burnt out and may prioritize work or family over another Zoom obligation.
  • Design activities that include everyone, including disengaged teammates. Team rapport requires everyone’s effort.


Pitfalls of social events:

Of course, companies that plan extravagant social events still struggle with employee engagement and culture building. That’s because we’re stuck in a unique COVID-era paradox: Zoom fatigue leads to low attended events, but face-to-face interactions feel necessary for connection. Zoom activities are too often band-aids for a larger issue. Monthly events can’t possibly make up entire relationships. This first strategy needs to be used in tandem with other touch points in order to succeed.


A stack of rocks reflects balance and the importance of value-based remote bonding.
Photo by Sean Stratton on Unsplash


2. Align Your Values

We already wrote an entire article on the values that guide some of the most successful remote cultures we interviewed. However, they’re not only useful for guiding culture. Values can also unite teammates and lead to a fundamental understanding of others.


It’s essential to align company values with processes that affect your team. All too often companies leave their values in job descriptions, but fail to lean on them for everyday work. When used correctly, values can inspire remote teammates and create a sense of pride in the company. Buffer’s value of “focus on self-improvement” led them to a four-day workweek and their right to disconnect mentality. GitLab has a set of custom Slack emojis representing each of their core values, so individuals can react when they notice another teammate act with integrity. Building team-wide engagement across timezones requires teammates to feel part of something greater and recognized for their efforts.


On a more granular level, values can help you adapt to individual teammates. In her bestselling book “Dare to Lead,” Brené Brown lists over 100 values (Diversity, Faith, Knowledge, Time, Family, Success, etc.) She then challenges participants to narrow their top picks to two core values. These are meant to be a person’s core drivers and dealbreakers. If you can name each teammate’s values and understand why they’re so fundamental to them, you’ll be setting a strong foundation for a relationship.


Tips for aligning values & vision:

  • Give every teammate time to process this list. Allow for a proper amount of time and attention before starting a wider discussion.
  • To whittle down your list, look for patterns. What similarities did you notice in the top 10-15 values you chose? Were any of them associated with a core memory?
  • Acknowledge that teammate values may oppose one another. It's troubling when core values clash with a coworker. However, this understanding can shine a light on differences and strengths.
  • Lean into gratitude. If a teammate is vulnerable, react with gratitude and support. Start a gratitude circle that highlights how teammates live up to their values.


Pitfalls for value exercises:

This particular strategy requires vulnerability. This means your team should have a level of psychological safety and trust, or at the very least, an understanding that value discussions require safe spaces. Attacks to our core values create triggers and friction, so set ground rules of respect before beginning. 

A pink and blue background is split by a clock. Employee engagement isn't limited to timezones.
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash


3. Set Async Cadences

To make up for the social gaps in between 1-1 meetings and large social events, the best remote companies rely on asynchronous cadences. "Asynchronous" refers to any interaction where immediate responses aren’t necessary. It may seem counterintuitive at first. How can bonding happen out of sync?


In actuality, however, async relationship building allows for more sincere interactions and less pressure. Async communication comes in handy for teams working across timezones or for any teammate busy with their own schedule. A lack of meetings aids Zoom fatigue, ending the isolation-burnout loop.


There are plenty of creative async activities. Zapier creates fun watercolor Slack channels where teammates can hang out virtually or bond over dogs and office set-ups. Hubstaff sends a daily question of the day (Pizza vs Taco?) to spark conversations. These points of contact add up over time, reminding teammates that they’re always part of a team.


Tips for setting async cadences:

  • To transition to async, start by reducing meetings. Trust your teammates. Emphasize that participation is more important than response time.
  • Lead by example. Teammates mimic behavior from leadership. Always respond to prompts and set an example of the behavior you’d like to see.
  • Avoid message overload. Especially for Slack, beware of sending prompts into channels where they may get lost or overwhelm teammates.


Pitfalls for async cadences:

Asynchronous cadences require a bit of adjustment for teams, especially those that rely on synchronous meetings. There may be low initial participation that picks up over time. However, creating a habit out of asynchronous bonding can cover the gaps in between meetings and help preserve trust over time.



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Conclusion

Having strong relationships with remote coworkers makes work more fun, rewarding, and effective. However, team building is more than just playing games. All three of these strategies––social events, value-based discussions, and asynchronous cadences––come together to connect remote teammates. By using these strategies deliberately, teams can create healthy team cultures from the ground up.

Meet the Author(s)

Corine Tan

Get in touch!

Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.

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