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Team building in home office

9 min read

Lately, discussions with our customers had left me quite impressed and also inspired. We are all having a tough time at the moment. The pandemic forces us to limit social interactions wherever possible. In business, this means one thing above all: up to 100% home office. To a certain extent, the concept comes with some benefits, no question, but the isolation and the lack of interaction with co-workers can also be a strain. That's why it is so delightful to see how much heart and soul some team leaders put into helping their employees, giving them a sense of belonging and team spirit and making everyday work a little brighter. Unfortunately, many people know that this is not something that you can take for granted. Therefore, to all those who approach the matter with so much creativity in order to build up, push and sustainably motivate their team during this time - which is very stressful for all of us anyway: You're doing a great job! Worth saying, I think.

Now, what else is worth thinking about? Well, we should ask ourselves: How is our own team doing with the current situation and what can we do to support each other? This is a question everyone should think about once in a while, and not just during a lockdown. Humanity and people skills is what a functioning team is built on and what should never come last.

Because home office will continue to be a big thing even "after Corona," we should also look at the downsides of this way of working. We should ask ourselves what team leaders need to do to create a healthy basis for collaboration in remote teams and find inspiration: from the many great and creative ideas companies are using right now to strengthen team building and workforce well-being. While this is especially important against the backdrop of the lockdowns, it doesn't mean that it is irrelevant in office teams and once things go back to normal (whatever normal means).

What's the problem with the home office?

For a long time, Germany was an absolute laggard when it came to modern forms of work. However, there was a desire for flexible working hours and flexible workplaces in almost every company, which is very obvious, because the concept comes with a number of advantages. Employees avoid long commutes to the office, they can coordinate their professional life with their private life more flexibly, they have more time for their families (if only because they can have lunch together at home), and they can more easily keep appointments that require their attendance at home. Technological advancements - with the increasing shift to digital work systems, mobile work devices and advanced cloud collaboration solutions, such as those offered by Stackfield - make all of this possible. Yet, for a long time, companies that had specific home office policies were rather rare. Predominantly, it was a matter of trust, and that trust was simply not always there.

With Covid-19, this perception has done a 180. Companies were forced to make home office an option in order to meet their responsibilities related to the pandemic. In many cases, home office arrangements have been greatly expanded, and in some cases there has arguably been a fairly rapid shift from 100% office to virtually 100% home office. Although this offers some advantages for employees, it also proves that permanent isolation from the team can sometimes be quite hard.

In the end, employees are now sitting at home - some of them all alone - and exchanges with colleagues are limited to the minimum necessary to get the job done successfully. Short conversations that arise spontaneously in the kitchen are no longer possible. The team tends to miss out on how the individual is coping with his or her tasks, what problems he or she is facing, and what successes have been achieved. Another aspect that should not be underestimated, as trivial as it may sound, is that a large part of the exchange takes place through writing, which means that the person you are talking to may sometimes perceive your statements in a completely different way than you intended. This leads not only to professional misunderstandings, but also to personal ones. For some people, these situations become a burden, especially now that social contacts must be reduced to a minimum anyway.

In addition, working from home inevitably means that work and private life merge, which can also lead a sudden breakdown of boundaries that were clearly defined in the office. Longer working hours, constant accessibility and the feeling of having to do more in order to be "perceived" as a valuable employee, even from a distance - these are the most common problems employees struggle with in lockdown.

At the end of the day, we're all human, and psyche just happens to play a significant role for peoples well being - and yes, even in terms of performance.

So, at this point, we are not talking about increasing productivity and optimizing success, but simply about togetherness, interpersonal interaction and "mental support" in the team - specifically against the backdrop of the pandemic-related change to home office. This concept, according to a recently published study by the BSI will not be going anywhere anytime soon.

The Basics: Here's what makes a great remote team leader

Team leaders should be aware that people are emotion-driven. Whether collaboration works or not depends heavily on whether the individual feels comfortable or not. Reliability and and a sense of security is crucial here, but so is appreciation and empathy. In remote teams, there are some things that team leaders need to pay additional or closer attention to in order to maintain an environment like this.

#1 Get your employees ready for the home office

Make sure employees have the equipment they need to work easily at home. They shouldn't have to rely on using their personal devices - if only for security reasons. If you're not sure, just ask what each individual needs.

#2 Make it clear that it's okay to ask for help

For many, working from home is absolutely new ground, and it's very likely that problems will arise sooner or later. Be sure to clarify that you don't expect everything to be smooth sailing, that it's okay to ask for help and to voice any problems or insecurities.

#3 Make sure communication works

Communication is the cornerstone making remote work impossible at all. If communication is a problem, it will not only be a barrier for work, but also a source of frustration for employees. Try to keep in mind that people are different and have different needs when it comes to interacting with people. For example, extroverts tend to need the regular face-to-face talks more than introverts. Fixed dates for video calls can definitely help in this respect.

#4 Be there and show empathy

A good team leader is available to his or her employees, tries to empathize with them and will listen to problems. During a lockdown, this is more important than ever. Respond to questions, and also check in with each employee once in a while to see how they're doing. Unlike in the office, you won't be able to tell right away if an employee is feeling overwhelmed or overworked, or even struggling with private issues. Remote teams require a little more empathy and you have to pay attention to the little things, e.g. changes in voice tone, withdrawn behavior, increasing number of mistakes, etc. Regular check-ins with individual employees, that should always include the question "Do you need support?" can help tremendously.

#5 Address the most common problems for employees

Those working from home are more prone to working despite being sick, working longer hours and being constantly available. . Those who are no longer able to separate their professional and private lives, who work permanently until late in the evening and do not take breaks because they feel like they need to be available all the time, are no longer able to truly switch off. As a result, they feel exhausted and lose their ability to perform. The constant accessibility and regularly long overtime hours can also lead to problems in the private environment as you might guess, which is not making things any better.

You probably don't think it's worth mentioning, but these issues need to be addressed. Make people understand that they should rest when they are sick and that regular breaks are important. You can even support this with fixed offline times and health offers.

For inspiration: support team building and create connection

There are many ways to increase employee happiness and team spirit. It definitely makes sense to talk to managers and employees from other companies. What did they do? What was particularly well received? What results were achieved? It is always a good idea to look for a little inspiration, so that's what we did:

#1 Coffee Breaks

To be honest: We were also a bit... let's call it "blindsided" with the situation and the move to the home office. We had all the necessary equipment in place, so we went home with laptops and mobile phones tucked under our arms... and that's where we ended up being. Everyone did their thing and from a work perspective there were no major problems, but something was missing. Fortunately, my clever colleague figured it out quite soon and said: "We're going to take a virtual coffee break at least every two weeks! And thats what we did and we knew what was missing. The little jokes, the short check-ups on how we were doing and the feeling of NOT being alone. Thank you, Daria!

It is acturally very common for teams to introduce these little video chats to replace the office kitchen, and employees are happy about it all the way. Of course, virtual and planned is not quite the same as spontaneous and direct, but it's an alternative and it gives you the sense of belonging that you can miss out on being at home, far away from everyone else.

Tip: In case the obligatory "What's up?" question tends to be followed by an awkward silence, it helps to list a few questions for everyone to think about. Make it a game of discussion - like "What is the first place you want to visit next, and why?".

#2 "Thank you for part of our team"

... was written on the survival package my friend and his colleagues received from their team leader by mail - inside was a great lunch box with company logo, a small selection of pesto, mango chutney and other treats, as well as toilet paper and FFP2 masks.

A nice gesture that showed everyone: our work is appreciated and we are an important part of the team. Great idea!

#3 Digi-Dinner

I learned about an even more creative version of the Suvival package from a client who is very passionate about team spirit in the home office. All team members received a small ingredient box for a team cooking session via conference call, which they could use to create a simple and delicious three-course menu. This also provides a substitute for going out to a restaurant together, and it's an event that the team is going to have a lot of fun with, for sure.

Because we always liked to go to the restaurant together, we tried it immediately. I embarrassed myself a bit because of my non-existent cooking skills, but at least my dear colleagues had something to laugh about. That's what I had intended *cough*.

#4 Beer Tasting

Also the idea of a Beer Tasting session was something that I found quite interesting (also there is less potential for me to embarrass myself). Participants receive various types of craft beer and snacks to start a small beer nerd talk together with expert moderators. In a way, this is your own digital pub of choice right at home.

#5 Remote Games

Yahtzee, Black Stories, Exit Games, Crime cases, Taboo, Activity... the list of remote-friendly games is endless. Those teams who just want to spend a nice and fun evening together can definitely do it digitally. For elaborately organized and well structured events - such as the Beer Tasting just mentioned - there are a number of providers on the web, but in a pinch, a piece of paper and a pen will do the trick.

#6 Picture of the Day

Some of our customers told us they created special rooms on Stackfield for everyday photos from the home office. Employees can upload a "Picture of the Day" here on a regular basis to share funny, annoying, or simply enjoyable situations with colleagues.

Cats making themselves comfortable on the office chair, kids drawing a picture of dad on the phone, the laptop installing update 2 of 3698, cooking artwork... who says there's nothing exciting going on in the home office? If people share their experiences and those little moments of everyday life, they will most likely feel less alone.

Social isolation is the problem par excellence at the moment. For team leaders in particular, it's important to keep in mind that some employees are probably struggling more than usual. Some of this is due to isolation in their private lives, and some is due to the change in their work situation. Physical distance from the team is part of it. It is becoming increasingly clear that the "home office" concept will be part of the new normal also the future, albeit in a somewhat weaker form. To make it work, it's important that all employees feel valued and that they are an important part of the team. Success in a team is sometimes not just about efficient work processes, but also about the employee as a person with feelings and emotions.

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Lena Wimmer
About the Author:
Lena Wimmer is Product Marketing Manager at Stackfield. She is passionate about American literary history, great content and cinematography.
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