The COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to transition to remote work overnight. While some have welcomed the flexibility and autonomy of working from home, others have struggled to maintain engagement, collaboration and company culture.
As more organizations adopt hybrid and remote policies for the long-term, it’s clear that success requires more than just the latest collaboration tools. Companies must proactively invest in building culture, connection and inclusion among distributed teams.
I recently spoke with Melinda Ramos, SVP of People Partnerships & Experience at Bounteous, about how her company has navigated these challenges. Bounteous is a global digital consultancy with employees distributed across the United States, Canada, Mexico and India.
Start with a Foundation of Virtual Collaboration
Unlike companies that were office-centric pre-pandemic, Bounteous was founded as a remote-first organization. According to Ramos, “We’ve been very much accustomed to operating in a virtual environment.”
This meant that practices like asynchronous communication, documentation and virtual team building were already part of their culture. When COVID hit, the transition to fully-remote was less jarring than for traditionally office-based companies.
Organizations that start with a strong foundation in virtual collaboration are better equipped for long-term remote and hybrid work. Rather than trying to retrofit office habits to a digital environment, remote-first companies build a culture optimized for distributed teams from day one.
Invest in Onboarding and Mentorship
To successfully onboard new hires in a remote setting, training and support must be structured and proactive. At Bounteous, every new team member is assigned a dedicated mentor or “career coach” who meets with them regularly to provide guidance and feedback.
Peer mentoring is another valuable practice. New hires are paired with “buddies” who help them navigate company systems, tools and culture. Group mentoring sessions allow cohorts of junior staff to learn from each other and senior mentors.
The key is facilitating both one-on-one relationships and peer learning opportunities, giving new team members multiple avenues to connect and develop skills.
Make Virtual Socializing a Priority
Without impromptu conversations around the office, it takes more intention to build personal connections and camaraderie among distributed co-workers. Companies must create space for virtual socializing and team building.
Bounteous holds regular virtual workshops focused on topics like diversity, equity, inclusion and cultural awareness. The goal is to reinforce bonds and shared understanding between global team members.
They also bring distributed staff together periodically for in-person events based around collaborative projects vs generic team building. This allows remote workers to forge stronger relationships with the colleagues they interact with daily online.
Watch Out for Confirmation Bias
When implementing remote work policies, leaders often default to what feels familiar from their own in-office experiences. The dangerous judgment error known as the confirmation bias causes them to seek out information that validates their existing beliefs and assumptions.
For example, a manager who thrived in an office setting may unconsciously discount evidence that distributed teams can be just as productive and connected. They end up creating remote policies that force old workflows rather than embracing new approaches.
To counter confirmation bias, managers must proactively expose themselves to contrary perspectives from remote staff on the front lines. This will broaden their understanding and prevent reliance on a narrow “office-first” viewpoint.
Bridge the Empathy Gap
Leaders often struggle to empathize with the day-to-day realities of their remote employees. This empathy gap makes it harder to provide the support and accommodation that distributed teams need.
Bridging the empathy gap starts with asking remote workers direct questions: What are your biggest challenges day-to-day? How could our policies be adapted to improve your experience? Regular check-ins focused on the remote experience are key.
When remote workers feel their leaders understand and care about their unique needs, they are more engaged, included and empowered to do their best work.
Address the Risk of Proximity Bias
Studies show that remote workers can be overlooked for career opportunities compared to those who work on-site, a problem known as the proximity bias. Since they have fewer casual interactions with leadership, their contributions are less visible.
Ramos emphasizes that inclusion takes continuous effort as organizations grow and evolve. Bounteous acquired several companies with existing office cultures, which took time to integrate into their remote-first model.
They mitigate proximity bias through practices like rotating meeting times to accommodate different time zones. Virtual employees have equal opportunities to showcase work and connect with higher-ups.
Leverage AI as an Enabling Force
Emerging technologies like generative AI have the potential to enhance remote collaboration. As Ramos points out, AI can optimize workflows, information sharing and 24/7 global coordination.
However, she notes that human connection remains indispensable, even as tools automate certain tasks and processes. In an increasingly digital work environment, companies should use technology to augment (not replace) real relationships.
Reframe the Office as a Hub, Not Headquarters
Given how ingrained physical offices are in corporate culture, it’s easy to default to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality with remote teams. Ramos stresses that today’s distributed organizations can never go fully back to the old model.
She believes offices will transition to more flexible “collaboration hubs” where teams periodically convene in person around shared projects vs clocking in each morning at a central HQ.
As more companies embrace hybrid policies, offices will become just one zone of collaboration rather than the nexus of all work. This shift requires a workforce where on-site and remote employees are equally empowered.
Prioritize Asynchronous Communication
Synchronous video meetings can be draining for remote staff across different time zones. Ramos explains that Bounteous relies heavily on asynchronous platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Docs.
With workers spread globally, documentation and written updates are vital. Remote teams need workflows optimized for co-workers in different locations, not just supporting those in the office.
The remote work genie is out of the bottle. While the pandemic demonstrated that distributed work is possible, leading companies recognize it takes real investment to do it well at scale.
Success requires fundamentally rethinking not just where people work, but how they engage, collaborate and identify with the organization. As Bounteous demonstrates, with the right foundations a thriving remote workforce is not just possible – it’s already here.
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