‘Take an Intentional Approach’; Creating Collaboration in a Remote Workforce

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said that, while “the office as we know it is over,” he still believes very strongly in getting staff together for “immersive, intentional gatherings.” He said they’re trying to be “super intentional, so we expect every employee to be together for one week a quarter.”

Chesky added that the one week of staff togetherness “is not going to be random meetings. It’s going to be meaningful experiences that we’re going to design to build trust, connection and do important collaborative work.

“Ultimately, I don’t believe that CEOs can dictate how people work. The market will. The employees will. Flexibility will be the most important benefit after compensation,” Chesky said in the interview. Another benefit can be increased diversity. “If you limit yourself to hiring people only in San Francisco [for example] then you’re limited to the diversity of people that can afford to live [there]… true diversity [comes] from a diverse set of communities.”

Taskrabbit closed its corporate offices, turning instead to monthly get-togethers, and is providing corporate employees with two “wellness weeks” a year, during which workers will get paid time off. “We held our first team week [a four-day, voluntary in-person week for planning and meetings], and generally speaking, it was a big success,” said CEO Ania Smith in another Post interview.

As remote work has become more the norm than the outlier, here are more ways to support your staff and facilitate more collaboration:

Be intentional. “Organizations need to take an intentional approach to address this issue,” wrote Post tech at work writer Danielle Abril, echoing Chesky. “That means creating onboarding processes that offer several points of connection and give new employees the chance to meet both their co-workers and other people across the organization. And when employees join, managers should make sure new hires feel like they have some ownership in the company’s culture.”

Convey a greater sense of worth. “An inspired employee comes to work lit up about what they’re doing because they feel they matter, their work matters, and the impact they’re having matters. What burns people out is when they don’t have a sense of the impact or contribution and that it matters,” says Stephen M.R. Covey, author of Trust & Inspire: How Truly Great Leaders Unleash Greatness in Others, in a recent Fast Company article. Can you crisply provide your company’s reason for being in 30 seconds or less, the article’s author, Anne Marie Squeo, asks. “Times of major change make it easier to evolve and progress, because people are already feeling uncomfortable.”

Consider structuring unstructured time, said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere. Perhaps “starting every meeting with some personal connection time, versus jumping right into the subject matter at hand.” He suggested that 10-15% of meeting time could be allowed for the group to chat freely. This is where the random subdividing into smaller groups could pay dividends. “Starting in a personal way increases group cohesion and group performance. You have to build in the informal to get to know one another.”

Think out of the box. “In essence, we need to stop designing work around location and start designing work around human behavior,” Alexia Cambon, a research director of the human resources practice at research firm Gartner, wrote in The Guardian last year. “Employees will work better, stay at their organization longer and keep healthier if they are placed at the center of work design—trust me, we have the data that proves it. This is what we should be asking ourselves: if 9-5 had never been invented; if ‘office’ were a foreign term; if the concept of a meeting sounded like gibberish—in short, if today were day one of the history of work—how would you design how you work?”

Create virtual “connection points” for employees. “Is there a platform in which employees are encouraged to chat with each other?” Abril asked. “Are there regular calls? Are there opportunities to team up with employees from different teams for something that might resemble a virtual water cooler?”

Encourage two-way conversations. U.S. CEO of Edelman public relations, Lisa Osborne Ross, spoke of the importance of “two-way conversation” during the pandemic. “I think managers had to change. Managers had to realize they were not managing for work, but you’re managing for people, which again, is something we should have been doing all along. And I think this two-way conversation is asking people, what you think. We do a thing called ‘P-Can’ [phonetic]. We’re doing it every three months during the pandemic, and then we started doing it generally. It was six months. But it was asking people, what are your needs? What are your tech needs? What are your emotional needs?” A recent study by Deloitte found that one in three employees and executives are constantly struggling with fatigue and poor mental health, with an enormous dichotomy between perception and reality.


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