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The new wave of remote job opportunities has brought a lot of flexibility to both companies and their employees. Employees can get their work done from anywhere, and employers have access to a larger talent pool.

This increased freedom does come with a unique challenge: keeping your remote employees motivated. When you’re working from anywhere, it’s hard for leaders to foster the sense of community that comes from meeting people face-to-face.

Leadership vs. Management

Leadership and management are different skills, but today’s leaders must have both. Try out this course from GLOBIS Unlimited to understand the difference, as well as when and why each skill is necessary for motivation, communication, and value.

At the 2021 G1 Global Conference, cofounder of Human Awesome Error Shiho Fukuhara and IDEO Partner Tom Kelley explained how to motivate employees and create an engaged and creative remote working environment. Below is a transcript of a segment of their session, edited for clarity.

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What is the most important factor in making remote employees feel engaged at work?

Shiho Fukuhara: The most important thing is how we communicate together. We have something called a Stand Up. It’s a ten-minute chat we have instead of [traditional] coffee breaks. We have coffee and talk about our personal news.

Things like “Oh, I bought a new sofa.” “I bought new coffee mugs.” and we spend the first five or ten minutes talking about things like that.

So that kind of relaxing with each other [is vital]. Things like, “you changed your hair color” which are totally not related to your work, make you feel closer. Even with the distance from each other.

How do you build a sense of community when working fully remotely?

Fukuhara: It’s important for us to keep our sense of culture. If you work at a [physical office,] the office will help you feel the day-to-day culture at the company.

But if you work remotely you have to build your own culture that’s linked with the rest of the team. That’s how you get to know each other. That’s important for creative work.

That’s not that difficult, even if it’s online. As Tom Kelly said, we have a lot of tools to do so.

I think in my third year of online work, I changed my idea about the actual workspace and the physical office is now my “offsite” space. I go there to meet with people and have fun, and the rest of the important work has been done online. That’s how I see it.

How can organizations encourage employee team building when working remotely?

Tom Kelley: So, my answer is we’re doing tons of things that– what you have to do in this environment is take the stuff that used to happen casually and make sure it happens. You have to plan for it a bit more.

We’ve got twenty different experiments running on this. Just to pick a few, we did something called May Frenzy that ran here in the US from 6:00 AM on Monday until 10:00 PM on Friday. And it ran continuously on Zoom.

But people would join from Germany and then they’d come in from Shanghai and Tokyo. And there were some quieter hours and there were some busier hours, but it was this giant share of ideas and thoughts and things like that.

And so that on the kind of massive scale, that’s a big one, but at the other end are the random casual meetings. At an earlier session, the CEO of Indeed said he’s meeting an employee once a week for an hour. And later he mentioned he has 10,000 employees. So that’s going to take him a while if you do the math on those weeks.

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There's more to leadership than driving a team to profit. In fact, there's a word for looking beyond self-interest to prioritize individual growth: servant leadership. Try this course for a quick breakdown of what that is, how it works, and how it can lead to organizational success.

How can team members get to know each other individually when working from home?

Kelley: In IDEO Tokyo, we use this app or bot–I’m not sure what you call it– called Donut. And so we have Donut Buddies. Every week I’m randomly paired up with some member of IDEO Tokyo, and we talk for thirty to sixty minutes. And there are only about 50 people, so over the year, I’m going to talk to all of them.

And it’s really fun. We don’t talk about work at all. I found out one of them is expecting a baby and hasn’t told anyone else at IDEO Tokyo. I found out that one of them has an intense dislike for a famous politician in Japan, who I shall not name.

It’s really fun. And it’s exactly the kind of thing you need: the casual meeting or like, “Hey let’s go to lunch.” So this is, “Hey let’s go to lunch,” but not in person.

Between the thirty to sixty minutes of Donut Buddies and the 120 hours or whatever it was of the May Frenzy, there are many other things. We have something called Homemade in which people systematically share things about home projects they are doing that don’t have much to do with work but are design related.

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