Building a robust virtual team atmosphere can be a daunting task even at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a world pandemic. While ANDE was well-positioned going into the full-time remote response to COVID-19, given that half our staff works across eight regional chapter offices around the world and is therefore already used to virtual collaboration, the current situation was nonetheless still an adjustment. Luckily, ANDE already had many strong pre-existing processes and remote working tools, but has also been mindful of maintaining our people-centric approach in the face of this crisis, keeping staff spirits up so we can continue our important work.
To do this, ANDE focused on nourishing strong relationships and team building, and has found the practices below to be useful over the past two months to nurture that team connection.
Create a fun and flexible team environment
Adapt (or institute) regular video-based all-staff team meetings to not only provide updates, but also promote leadership and encourage bonding and celebration. Every Monday, the ANDE team gathers for a Zoom team meeting, and since the crisis we have instituted themes ranging from wacky t-shirt day to dream vacations to pet day. ANDE has even hosted a couple of virtual dance parties! Global team members worked together to create a dance tutorial (one team even made a TikTok video!) and shared the dance during an all-staff meeting. These diverse options can help prevent Zoom burnout and encourage team bonding by allowing employees a fun outlet to showcase their interests and connect with coworkers.
Additionally, ANDE encourages its global staff members to coordinate their own team events based on their location and availability. Every department at ANDE connects virtually — some teams gather for a weekly happy hour, others meet for trivia and game “nights” (given our geographic distribution, they can take place anytime during someone’s day!), and some have opened these internal team sessions to other ANDE staff and ANDE members. This decentralization of power helps employees feel united and valued as they are working to establish connections with their team members.
Focus on your team’s wellbeing
Encourage all team members, from the head on down, to be flexible and understanding of others’ living and working conditions in this difficult time. Social distancing and working from home can put a strain on everyone’s mental health. From the beginning of this crisis, ANDE’s leadership has been vocal about encouraging staff to use their accrued leave to support their mental and physical health and not feel that taking time off was prohibited because of the crisis. Additionally, ANDE instituted an administrative day off (in addition to any scheduled time off) to give staff an extra break to help cope with any negative effect caused by COVID. Vacations involving travel might be out of the picture for now, but we could all benefit from a work break!
Create an internal working group to help understand how your team is coping with COVID. Use the group to tackle hard questions, brainstorm, and develop recommendations. ANDE’s internal COVID response has led to many great initiatives — including new recipe sharing, fitness, and movie discussion Slack channels; mental health and wellness tips and tools; support groups based on individual’s living situations; and a weekly meditation session. As we learn more about the coronavirus, we are proactively thinking about safety and social distancing measures when returning to the office.
Provide tools to assist with remote work, both emotionally and technically
Coronavirus has impacted many people’s routines and limited their daily human contact and interactions. Encourage employees to connect with their coworkers to help manage feelings of isolation. At ANDE, this was formalized with a “COVID Buddy” program, where each team member was paired with someone outside of their normal team to check in on each other. Since instituting the program, many of the COVID Buddies meet virtually every week, connecting by taking a walk together via slack call, sharing a move night, or cooking together over Zoom. Others who are more pressed for time or suffering more from Zoom burnout, send encouraging messages in WhatsApp, trading jokes, riddles, pictures of their day, or other little tidbits to remind each other that they are not alone. Buddies help connect colleagues from around the globe and have brought joy and support to our team at ANDE.
Beyond the emotional, however, also ensure employees have the necessary tools to complete their job while working remotely. If possible, move all important files to a cloud-based system like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft SharePoint, to allow remote access from around the globe. Gather a list of useful virtual collaboration and productivity tools to share with your team. Consider offering a stipend to purchase needed supplies and equipment to improve their work from home conditions. ANDE employees were provided with a small fund to purchase needed office supplies and equipment, such as headphones, computer monitors, desk chairs, or a WiFi router. This helped to alleviate the stress associated with working from home and provide employees with the tools to succeed during this difficult time.
ANDE continues to evaluate the overall wellbeing of our staff as we adjust to this “new normal,” and come up with new ideas to stay connected and productive as a team. As a member organization, one of our primary goals is to share best practices across our network, so we look forward to additional ideas and success stories on how organizations big and small, local and global, are working together through this time.