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Changing How We Work: New Norms for Building Workplace Culture & Empowering Belonging in Distributed Teams

Anne Balistreri
min read

The way we lead and manage our teams is changing fast. We might have team members in Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, or further afield. Even if we still go into the office occasionally, there are some colleagues we might never see face-to-face.

Because of our new hybrid reality, we’re tasked with building workplace culture beyond the office and finding new ways to empower our teams. Whether you’re attempting to understand what your team cares about outside of work, monitoring colleagues for signs of burnout, or managing ever-shifting flexwork policies, you can only lead with empathy when your company invests in the right technology for employee belonging.

In fact, a Future Forum survey found that companies that invested heavily in digital infrastructure in 2020 have employees who are two times more likely to feel a greater sense of belonging to their company. This is likely because communication frequency went up during the pandemic, as knowledge workers found ways to reach out, stay in touch, and collaborate digitally.

As research shows, with the right technology for hybrid work—and the right management strategies—you can foster a greater sense of belonging, empower your team, and build an incredible employee experience

Here are five new norms you should know—and how they contribute to a more connected, productive, and empowered workplace culture.

1. Become a “people expert” in your team

While there’s plenty to love about working on a distributed team, remote work has also resulted in more emails, more meetings, and more work about work.

Managers and people leaders have a special role in alleviating these stressors for their teams. In addition to moving day-to-day projects forward, there are new expectations for managers to track the well-being of their direct reports, recognize and ease the signs of burnout, and identify passion projects that will direct and nurture talent.

Becoming more attuned to your employees begins as early as employee onboarding. Whether you introduce a new company ritual or connect new hires with local colleagues, onboarding is a foundational way to build connections and to provide employees with resources integral to their well-being.

For example, at Arianna Huffington’s culture change company Thrive Global, all new employees learn a strategy for managing stress called a “Reset.” Data shows that 60 to 90-second breaks, or “resets,” can reduce stress and anxiety. At Thrive, new hires gather inspirational quotes and images into their own personal “Reset,” which they can use to take breaks throughout the work day.

In addition to supporting personal needs for new members of your team, you can also consider large-scale onboarding solutions that foster belonging. At Slack, for example, they trained employees to lead local onboarding sessions, as a way to provide new hires with regional connections. Combined with social Slack channels devoted to casual conversation, this in-person approach to onboarding helped employees build more meaningful relationships from day one.

For more insights into becoming a “people expert” in your team, check out our event replays on leading with empathy and preventing burnout.

2. Embrace “core collaboration” hours

One way to foster a sense of employee belonging is to focus on how your team collaborates. Overall, the easier it is to work together in a distributed team, the happier your team will be.

For distributed teams, this means doing more than resisting the silos that spring up between departments as a result of remote work. It goes to the very heart of how your company addresses remote work policies, including when your team is available to work together.

Navigating flexwork policies with intention requires instituting policies around “core collaboration” hours. What time of day can everyone switch from asynchronous work to synchronous work? How many times a week should you hold your core collaboration hours? 

The more consistent and transparent you are about developing and enacting these policies, the easier it will be to eliminate time-wasting meetings and alleviate the expectation for near-constant availability that leads to burnout.

Of course, flexwork also means you need the right technology to work asynchronously, especially if you have a hybrid or distributed team. Whether that’s a communication platform like Slack to help speed collaboration or an employee event platform like Welcome that connects your entire organization in a virtual auditorium, investing in the right tech stack makes or breaks your ability to collaborate digitally.

There’s plenty of data to back this up. We already know employees who lack flexibility at work are unhappy. And we know that better collaboration leads to a stronger sense of employee belonging. Now, it’s time to put those key findings together into the right strategies—and the right tools—for your distributed team.

3. Show your team you “see” them

What does it mean to be “visible” during hybrid work? 

As head of ActivTrak’s Productivity Lab, Gabriela Mauch set out to define visibility in our new context. She discovered that different segments of workers define visibility differently—but that all definitions help us understand what employees need to thrive. 

According to Mauch’s findings:

  • Executives need visibility for strategic alignment and monitoring overall company health.
  • Mid-level managers need visibility to monitor team performance and to help their teams avoid burnout.
  • Employees need visibility into their peers’ communication preferences and schedules, so they can collaborate in supportive ways.

By reflecting back to your team their efforts, helping them navigate distractions and roadblocks, and supporting transparent flexwork policies, you’ll ensure that the employees you manage feel seen, heard, and supported in our new ways of working.

In addition to day-to-day work, visibility also means that you’re making time to shout out successes during all-hands meetings, identify passion projects that map onto employee skills, and create opportunities for additional training and skill-building.

After all, when employees feel like they’re being invested in, they’re not only more engaged in their work—they’re more likely to feel a sense of ownership in your organization and stick around.

4. Treat employee experience seriously

Organizations can no longer afford to ignore employee experience. Those who do will fall behind in the fight to retain talent and struggle to build an incredible workplace culture. 

One recent Future Forum Pulse survey found that knowledge workers working in less flexible environments reported strikingly low EQ scores. Employees who returned to in-office work full-time reported 1.5 times more stress and anxiety than hybrid employees and were 1.6 times less likely to be satisfied at their jobs.

But it’s not enough to simply count on remote or hybrid work policies keeping your employees happy, productive, and engaged. By taking regular polls and measuring EQ scores over time, you can continually identify areas of employee experience for improvement.

You can also, as McKinsey analysts suggest, identify the “moments that matter” throughout your employee life cycle, from recruitment to employee onboarding to their final day. Each touchpoint has unique demands—and unique solutions—for your team. Find out what your organization does well, and where it can do better, measuring progress and iterating along the way.

For example, if your organization is concerned about employee belonging, you might identify key performance indicators for that goal, map specific belonging strategies onto each touchpoint, and continue to measure and improve as you receive employee feedback.

5. Build and maintain your company’s workplace culture together

More than ever, employees want a say in their company’s workplace culture. Managers and people leaders can take advantage of this trend by inviting employees to collaborate on culture in meaningful ways.

This process might be different from traditional work models, but McKinsey research suggests that co-designing employee experience with your team leads to higher levels of employee engagement, better retention, and deeper, more human connections at work.

From incorporating social elements into your team’s day-to-day work experience to finding opportunities for reflection about work and organizational priorities, you can work together with your team to design a better employee experience.

Final Thoughts

New norms for distributed teams are impacting employee experience at every stage of the employee lifecycle. From onboarding to skill-building, you have opportunities to empower employee belonging, build a stronger workplace culture, and improve employee experience.

Welcome is the employee event platform that supports you at each stage of the employee journey. Hold onboarding sessions that help new hires build meaningful relationships, measure employee sentiment scores at each all-hands meeting, and build company culture together with your employee resource groups

Start designing workplace culture for your distributed team at your very next gathering—contact us below for a demo or to find out more!

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