Rebuilding Teams After Remote Working

See also: Team Building

The pandemic has resulted in more people working remotely. Around the world, whole teams and even organisations have moved to home working. As vaccination programmes are rolled out worldwide, however, many employers are starting to think about returning to the office—and people are finding that this process is not always simple.

In particular, many work-based relationships have been damaged by distance. The social ties created by meeting at the kettle or water filter have been eroded or lost altogether over a period of enforced absence from the office. Employees may also be finding it hard to return to the office on a personal level.

This page provides some tips for managers of teams struggling to return to the office after remote working.

1. Encourage transition through hybrid working

Your employees may not want to see full remote working continue—but may be open to hybrid working.

This might involve people working in the office on some days and at home on other days. This may be easier for many people to manage, either initially or more permanently.

For example, some organisations are encouraging staff to all be in the office on one particular day each week, for in-person meetings, but allowing staff to work from home on other days. This enables people to work without interruptions on major projects, but still facilitates in-person relationship-building.

You can also hold hybrid meetings, where some people are in the office and some joining via video-conference. The key here is to be inclusive, so it may work best if everyone uses video-conferencing software, and joins from their desks.

2. Recognise that there may be very different views about returning to the office

Some people will undoubtedly be very happy to be returning to an office-based environment. Others may be less enthusiastic, either because they simply like working from home, or because they are anxious about the risks of doing so.

Take time to check in with people and make sure that they are coping with the change.

Don’t wait for people to come to you. Instead, reach out and talk to people about what’s going on—and what’s been going on while they worked remotely. Understand each person’s issues, and then you can be proactive in helping people to manage.

3. Remember that distance builds distrust

While there is no guarantee that proximity builds trust, there is also no question that distance builds distrust. It prevents open communication, and encourages people to make (usually incorrect) assumptions about others.

After a period of remote working, therefore, you will always have issues of trust within any group or team.

As a manager, you need to take action to rebuild trust—and the first step is through improving communication. Ideally, you will have been encouraging open communication across the team during the period of remote working. However, if not, you can start now.

Where whole teams are back in the office, trust will probably rebuild naturally as people start to interact more in small ways. However, where hybrid or remote working is still the norm, encourage better communication. For example:

  • Foster social conversations as a key part of team meetings.

  • Encourage people to be more explicit about why they have taken particular actions, or hold particular views. Voicing this kind of thinking avoids people climbing the ‘Ladder of Inference’, and therefore improves trust.

4. Prioritise relationships in the workplace

If the organisation values relationships within and across teams, it must show this by prioritising the work required to build those relationships and networks.

Relationship-building within the workplace does not happen by chance. It needs to be encouraged and facilitated through, for example, formal networking meetings and events that are instead of, not on top of, other work. Managers therefore need to carve out time and energy for these interactions, by reducing other work demands.

An organisation’s reward structure has a huge impact on organisational culture and activity. You can encourage networking by rewarding it in some way.

5. Be proactive in helping your team to build relationships

You can encourage better social ties within your team by facilitating some social chat in the margins of team meetings, whether remote or in-person.

For example, a formal agenda item about ‘something interesting in my life’ can be a good ‘ice-breaker’.

Inviting people from other teams to attend team meetings to share information is also a good way to build relationships beyond the team. This is especially helpful when some people are still working remotely.

6. Organise work-socials around food

The lure of a free (or even ‘bring and share’) breakfast or lunch may be enough to get more people into the office, at least for a day.

Organising a social or work-related event around food can be a very good way to encourage people to attend in person, rather than remotely. Almost any interaction will help to build and rebuild social ties. Interactions with a purpose, such as sharing information about a particular topic, will be even more valuable.

7. Be aware of the nuances around ‘new’ team members

You may have people who have been in the team for several months, but have not actually met the other team members in person. They may therefore have a very good grasp of the work, but not of the office.

You must therefore take time to introduce them to the workplace when they first come in, as you would any new starter. They may also need things like a work-station assessment.

You also need to be aware that there may be issues that were not apparent during remote interactions. For example, some ‘new’ employees have reported problems with office banter, or being on the receiving end of age-related comments because they were older or younger than most of their colleagues.

We know that diversity on teams is valuable. You do not want those who are ‘different’ to leave as that leaves the team at more risk of ‘groupthink’ and other problems with group decision-making. It is therefore worth looking out for any issues, and being sure to stop any talk that seems in any way discriminatory or unpleasant. Of course you should be doing this anyway—but sometimes this gets missed where you have a very cohesive group, and it seems like idle chat that’s not bothering anyone.

8. Organise shared training events and activities

You don’t need a ‘team-building day’ to build up your team’s relationships. Shared training activities on important issues can be a good way to build a ‘common cause’—one of the most important aspects in building team ties.

Discuss with your team whether there are any shared training needs—and then organise something.