How to Connect and Motivate Remote Teams

The current surplus of remote work thought leadership shows that distributed workforce models are here to stay. Haystack Needle was fully remote before the pandemic and will remain that way because talented people thrive in their own space and at their own pace. 

Remote work…works.

Since many companies have called workers back to the office, Gotham City is once again buzzing with weekday energy and business attire. Some firms have opted for this so-called “return to normalcy” as a visual representation of productivity. Clearly, it’s not the only way to achieve “normal.” A fortunate few have found smooth sailing in a hybrid formula of remote work + occasional time together.

The trust and teamwork that keeps Haystack thriving was born on a couch. We’re a decade deep in working from home, the corner coffee shop, airports, closets, drive-thrus, sailboats, MRI machines, and the occasional space station. In other words, my biases in this debate are obvious. The key to our success lies in the creative ways that we keep our remote teams connected and motivated. So, here are a few secrets we’ve learned along the way.   

Love + Work Matters

The main fear I hear about remote work is that it causes disengagement and encourages workers to cheat the system. This idea feels wrong to me for a couple of reasons. 

First, if you don’t trust your people to do the work you hired them for, then we should discuss recruitment, not retention. Invest in quality talent and give them the tools they need to succeed. Second, the fear that remote work causes a lack of engagement is contrary to my experience and goes against current research on the topic

Instead of worrying unnecessarily about productivity, a better (wiser?) use of our energy as leaders is to focus on creating a Love+Work organization. Because when we prioritize our people and design work they love to do, engagement takes care of itself. 

“...people who find love, strength, joy, and excitement in what they do each day are far more likely to be productive, to stay at the company longer than others do, and to sustain themselves in the face of life’s inevitable challenges. Finding love in work, therefore, is not self-indulgent or narcissistic; it is a precursor and an amplifier of performance.” — Marcus Buckingham

Taking this a step further, we must design work and create a culture people love. Work content may breed engagement, but I believe that for people to love their work, they must also love their workplace and the people they work with, especially when those spaces and relationships are remote.

Size Also Matters (and bigger isn’t always better)

To effectively foster connection with a remote team, smaller groups work better. If you have a large team, consider creating subject-specific groups within it.

When I talk about my team, I’m referring to the agency as a whole — the creative collective of Haystackers. But that’s further organized into smaller teams with unique identities and specialties, including websites, video, branding, events, search, social, and photography. Each of these smaller teams is its own ecosystem of relationships, goals, systems, and preferences. But they all function under the same administrative umbrella and can collaborate across teams to meet the needs of any given project.

Small teams create a cohesive workflow and ensure stronger connections between individuals. They also cultivate an ideal learning environment with a balance of both structure and fluidity. At Haystack, new hires begin on a single team but are encouraged to cross-train with other teams as bandwidth and interest allow.

Workers who reported that they felt part of a team were not only 2.7 times as likely as others to be fully engaged, but also three times as likely to be highly resilient and twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging to their organization.” — Marcus Buckingham

In a previous post, I shared the value of hiring and structuring work around experts. Our current setup reflects that approach, and the number of specialized teams in our agency has increased over the years to keep pace with technological evolutions and our own growth. Our latest addition is an internal team focused on administration and operations.

I won’t go so far as to suggest specific headcounts for the ideal remote team environment — Dunbar suggests figures far beyond our own — but small and nimble has worked best for us.

Celebrate Good Times

Once you’ve designed the work and culture your people love — and you’ve optimized your team’s size, it’s time to celebrate! Remote work can be isolating and tough on people, so keep your company culture fun wherever possible.

People may occasionally feel unseen or unappreciated without the oversight that a traditional office environment provides. Rather than assuming your team members feel the love, call out a job well done or point to something you appreciate about them. Thank your team for their hard work daily. Swap disingenuous, sweeping, or grand gestures for real, solid examples of quality work and performance — an effort made easier within smaller, more intimate work groups.

Love + Work organizations build trust by actually paying attention to employees through their team leaders.” — Marcus Buckingham

Since Haystack is a remote company, our “office” is Slack, a real-time messaging app with most channels dedicated to working but others focused on fun and team building. We use emojis, photos, and GIFs. We share videos, announce birthdays, circulate memes, host virtual show-and-tells, and share our love for pets — not to mention a LOT of inside jokes. For example, this year, on my birthday, I awoke to find that everyone had updated their Slack status avatars to an illustrated bust of me — an absolute cringe-worthy and heartwarming prank from my digital family — I’m told we kid ‘cause we love. [grin]

Still skeptical that a digital interface could create a culture as strong as a traditional water cooler? Just check out this amazing video made by one of our creative video directors and gifted as entertainment during this year’s holiday party celebration — you may change your mind!

Speaking of which, as a remote team, we double down on times when we do get together:

  • Our annual holiday party is the one time our entire collective gathers in a shared space, so we’re always working to outdo the year before (both to accommodate continued growth and to show love for everyone’s hard work, complete with swag bags and appreciation bonuses).
  • Each of our smaller, specialized teams hosts a retreat every year. These long-weekend trips are opportunities for close colleagues to come together, IRL, for collaborative co-working, team building, and fun. Escape rooms, anyone?
  • And then there’s the last-minute coworking or meals shared by project-specific teams during work travel (primarily our event and video crews).

I share all of this as a humble brag since I’m deeply proud of the culture we continue to build together, but also to emphasize that in a digital world and workspace, finding ways to keep the human element present will help your team(s) thrive.

In summary, I’m a devoted fan of the remote and hybrid work model and will continue to encourage others to adopt it — while sharing our lessons learned to support those just starting down the distributed work path. I genuinely believe this is the future of work, and I offer the above examples as evidence that when you put your people first, it doesn’t matter where their desk is. Organize in small groups and emphasize the fun. Get your priorities straight, and productivity will follow.

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