How to Strengthen Communication Within Remote and Hybrid Teams With a large number of employees continuing to work from home, implementing fun and functional team-building exercises is crucial to maintaining great communication and culture in the workplace.

By Cheri Beranek

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Covid-19 forced everyone to go remote, but many companies, like ours, had already been operating with hybrid models when the pandemic hit. Most businesses that had never learned to balance a corporate-remote-team energy struggled with holding everyone together during the transition, but we had already built empathy for remote work into our operations. As a result, our team stayed united despite being forced to implement a more divided model.

Better communication through team-building leads to greater empathy, the least understood and most effective trait that we can build as employees. But if your focus stays on-site, remote workers feel left out, and their work will suffer as a result. Remote work and hybrid models are here to stay, so businesses that can extend that empathy to remote workers with team-building exercises will maintain a stronger bond among their employees in spite of any distance.

Here's how to do it.

Introduce productive socialization

Remote team-building exercises that your employees find both functional and fun encourage productivity. No matter the location, anyone can participate in quizzes on Kahoot! or online games like Jeopardy that give them a shared topic to talk about. You can create specific support spaces for remote workers to discuss work-from-home tips too. I give gifts to let my remote employees know that I'm thinking of them, and even that's a level of team-building because it affects how they see me as a teammate.

These activities should be functional, but sometimes fun is the function itself. Schedule a team happy hour or a weekly "Filter Friday," where employees can use whatever filter they want in Zoom meetings. While it may only seem to introduce fun, encouraging positive social dynamics among all workers corporate and remote lets them know you care about their well-being, which motivates them to work their best for you.

Related: What Phil Jackson's Leadership Teaches Us About Remote Team-Building

Remove barriers to participation

Word of mouth around the office can teach someone what he or she may not know, but remote workers are excluded from this, so consider all communication barriers when you plan a team-building exercise. If having to figure out a new application on their own stands in the way of participation in an activity, employees may see the whole effort as a bother. Removing barriers to joining the team-building exercises through education in areas like technology makes it easier for everyone to buy in and reap the benefits.

Of course, establishing a stable hybrid model depends on network strength and security. Outfitting remote workers with quality broadband and fiber, as well as added layers of security like protection on public networks, automatic firewall updates and PC encryption makes it easier for them to join team-building activities. When you take into consideration the obstacles that can cause remote workers to get left behind, they feel valued and included and want to do their work well.

Related: Six Tactics To Improve Collaboration For Remote Teams

Make sure your teammates are okay

It can be easy for employees to neglect their health when isolated from the rest of the team, so including remote workers in your team-building lets you know they're doing well. Remote workers often find that going from the bedroom to the home office is their exercise for the day, so create avenues of communication that encourage shared physical activity. A lunchtime walk around the building can become a remote team-building exercise over video chat, and everyone can enjoy the positive social engagement.

Team-building exercises can also support remote workers' mental health. Not only does the rest of the team uplift remote workers through social support, but they also end up with more empathy for their remote teammates. In one team-building program, my coworkers and I were introduced to a hypothetical situation in which a woman was seen exceeding the speed limit, swerving through traffic and, finally, running a stop sign. When team members were asked to put together ideas on what was happening and how to resolve the situation, people suggested that the driver was reckless, perhaps drunk or simply disruptive. However, when it was disclosed that her driving was due to her efforts to get help for a baby that was choking in the backseat, the anger within the group quickly dissolved into empathy. Especially when they work remotely, you never know when coworkers have a "baby in the back," and this team-building practice reminds us to ask if they're okay.

Related: 7 Virtual Team-Building Ideas to Keep Your Staff Connected

Encourage active and passive learning

One of the biggest benefits to working in an office is the passive learning that takes place, so encouraging this in remote workers will take serious team-building efforts. With active learning, some established training log describes the steps to teach a new position, but passive learning comes from simply being in the presence of someone with more skills or knowledge than yourself. A more senior person in the office may not be intentionally sharing his or her words of wisdom with junior workers so they can learn they just do.

Opening communication between remote workers and the people that can teach them through example will take innovation in communication technology. Our first solution was as simple as implementing desk-to-mobile phone forwarding, but now we're converting users to softphones that follow them with their computers. As more businesses take on remote workers, more tools will emerge to facilitate this highly beneficial passive learning among them, so stay proactive in your hybrid-infrastructure investments.

Team-building opens up channels of communication that allow employees to develop deeper relationships with one another, but if any part of your team is remote, it requires new considerations. When you make fun and functional activities easily accessible to all employees, they learn to work better together no matter where they are. When you care about your coworkers and value their contribution to the team, the desire to see everyone succeed comes more naturally, and greater productivity follows.

Cheri Beranek

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Clearfield

Cheri Beranek is the CEO of Clearfield and a 2021 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductee. Under her leadership, Clearfield has grown from a concept to a market cap of more than $500 million, providing optical-fiber management and connectivity solutions across North America.

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