Having a cohesive team and strong company culture can infuse staff with motivation and focus, helping them feel grounded during times of deep uncertainty. In ordinary circumstances, culture spreads organically and through in-person interactions. How can founders of early-stage startups establish company culture and strengthen their team while working remotely because of a pandemic? It’s more challenging to create a sense of community when your team works physically apart, but it’s not impossible.
We connected with Sanchali Pal, co-founder and CEO of Joro—a technology platform that enables users to track and improve their carbon footprints on their smartphones—to find out what strategies she uses to forge connections with her newly-assembled team during the COVID-19 crisis. Like all non-essential businesses in Silicon Valley, Joro has been following a stay-at-home directive since mid-March. How does she foster a sense of community among such a young team?
Strategies for Strengthening Your Team While Working Remotely
- Schedule Time Each Week for Purely Social Interactions Online
- Reconceptualize Informal In-Person Activities with Digital Tools
- Recognize the Stress & Anxiety Your Team May Feel
- Solicit Feedback Regularly
Pal, who co-founded the company in 2018, is no stranger to challenge. The app her company built helps people reduce carbon emissions and solve the problem of climate change which—until the COVID-19 outbreak—loomed as one of the greatest challenges of our time. After bootstrapping the startup by winning CleanEnergy competitions and grant funding, she tried to raise capital. But she had difficulty finding investors. After weeks of hearing “no,” she raised a seed round and began building her team over the past few months.
Now she faces a new hurdle, “No one’s been on the team for more than eight months” and, she shares, one of her team joined two weeks prior to the stay-at-home directive. At the end of March—during lock-down—Pal hired a Head of Engineering. Below, she shares creative strategies to strengthen your team while working remotely.
Schedule Time Each Week for Purely Social Interactions Online
Most startups have at least some familiarity with online meetings and employees occasionally working remotely. But you can’t create a sense of team cohesion by simply substituting in-person meetings with online ones. As your entire team begins to work remotely, you may fear a drop in productivity. It may seem counterintuitive to take time “away from work” simply to bond with others. But giving your team time to interact informally can actually decrease anxiety or loneliness and enhance productivity.
Employees get to know one another, at least superficially, by working in the same physical location. Being co-located results in impromptu conversations that help bonds to develop. Often, teams build strong connections through informal social interactions, like going for coffee, lunch, or a walk together.
Strengthen Your Team by Recreating Informal Social Interactions Online
Pal endeavors to recreate the casual social interactions she would have had with her team by holding “a few weekly breaks” online. She shares, “we have a coffee break on Mondays and we have other interactions” including weekly lunches, a virtual book club, and short guided meditation and mindfulness sessions they do synchronously as a group. She elaborates, “The first day of lockdown was actually our software developer’s birthday and we were planning a birthday party for him. So we did a virtual happy hour.”
Social interactions should be short and informal—without a work-related agenda or goals. Taking the pressure to perform off—for just a short time—can make online social interactions meaningful. Pal schedules time for her team to meet once a week for lunch. Everyone prepares their lunch, joins Zoom, the web-conferencing platform, and shares whatever is on their mind—there’s no agenda. So far, Pal’s team hasn’t followed any specific discussion points during lunch. It simply allows the group to take a collective break.
It’s helpful to have some semblance of a structured schedule.Sanchali Pal
Reconceptualize Informal In-Person Activities with Digital Tools
Initially, Joro’s team used Hangouts Meet. Once the stay-at-home was issued, they switched to Zoom, because its “gallery View is really helpful for being able to have a communal discussion.” Just that small switch—enabling everyone on the small team able to view one another—fosters a deeper sense of connection.
If you have a small team, consider leveraging your team’s creativity by inviting people to suggest an informal online activity each week.
Online Meditations on Mindfulness
One member of Joro’s team introduced the group to short guided meditations on mindfulness on Insight Timer. Once a week, the team assembles in Zoom and listens to the audio recording of the roughly 10-minute guided meditation. Pal explains, “We turn off our video and go through it together.” When the audio ends, the group turns their video back on and shares their reaction to the experience. “That’s been a really nice way of having some sort of structured interaction.” See our resources below for additional online guided meditation apps available for free.
Play or Create Your Own Games
Pal’s husband, who is also working from home, and his team have found creative ways to bond during lunch, including “a Pet Show-and-Tell”—which gives those whose pets spontaneously make an on-screen appearance during more serious meetings the chance to formally introduce their pets. Pal also observed her husband’s team playing Jeopardy-style games, including a Coronavirus Jeopardy! Such games can help staff to engage in conversations about the virus or other topics in a more light-hearted way.
Recognize the Stress & Anxiety Your Team May Feel
Pal observes, “There’s a lot of ambient stress for everyone that is important to acknowledge.” Be aware that everyone on your team has personal circumstances that normally would not affect work but, during the pandemic, may add extra stress to working from home. Pal notes, “our newest hire has children and that makes his work from home a little bit different.” Similarly, one of her team moved apartments last week.
I’m trying to keep mindful of what’s going on in everyone’s lives.Sanchali Pal
Pal endeavors to stay aware of what her team is experiencing in their personal lives right now, acknowledge any anxieties, and mitigate stress by encouraging them to maintain some boundaries between work and home life.
Differentiate between Work and Home
Despite the radical change that the stay-at-home directive caused, Pal’s team has managed to maintain “a similar work style” by adapting the way they interact online. “We’re trying to find ways to create boundaries between work and life” while acknowledging that “everything is not exactly the same.”
It can be helpful to use an activity—such as a walk or 3-minute guided meditation—to mark a symbolic the start and end to your work-day. Pal confesses “With both my husband and I working from home, it’s easy for it to end up being eight o’clock and not realize that we were still working and we didn’t necessarily have to. We just didn’t stop.” Leverage technology by setting a timer to remind you to shift your focus.
Solicit Feedback Regularly
When everyone is based remotely, it’s much harder to read visual cues of how your team is feeling. To foster strong team bonds and establish your startup’s culture when everyone is apart, it’s especially important to check in regularly to see how each person is feeling each week. Smiley face surveys provide a simple, fast, low-pressure way for staff to express their overall experience that week.
Smiley Face Survey
Or set aside time each Friday for each person on the team to post an emoji that encapsulates how they felt that week. Then ask for short explanations for their choice. Give people the chance to “speak” with you in a quick weekly one-on-one.
She admits, “we went through the first week trying to just pretend everything was going to be normal.” Now, as the reality has sunk in, she acknowledges “things are not the same.” She encourages other founders to make an effort to have “some deeper conversations with people” on your team about how they feel each week, even if superficially everything seems okay.
Pal is “very aware that three people on my team have just moved to the Bay Area and don’t really know anyone here.” And one—who recently moved into a new apartment—moved in with a stranger. “She’s quarantined with someone she doesn’t know at all!” Giving team members a space to share such details about their personal situation can help them feel more connected as a team and more productive.
We went through the first week trying to pretend everything was going to be normal. Now, we’re acknowledging that it’s not the same.Sanchali Pal
- Build camaraderie by creating time for your team to interact informally online.
- Use digital tools to enhance online time & establish structure between work & home life.
- Recognize that your team may experience periods of anxiety.
- Plan to check-in with your team about how they feel each week, even if on the surface everything appears fine.
Resources for Online Meditations Useful for Teams
Headspace created an Employer Toolkit—a free collection of resources to help you guide and support your team through the stress and anxiety of the current global crisis. It contains resources on managing anxiety with a collection of short guided meditations (3 – 10 min.) and exercises specifically designed to help employees manage stress, anxiety, and uncertainty through mindfulness. It also provides free access to meditations designed geared from sleep, focus, parenting, and loneliness.
Insight Timer publishes the world’s largest collection of free guided meditations. Its free library offers a broad selection of 30,000 short guided meditations on managing stress and anxiety and improving sleep. Pal’s team at Joro uses Insight Timer.
Balance app is a unique personalized meditation audio program. Each time you use the app, you answer questions about your meditation experience, goals, and challenges. Based on your answers, the app suggests which meditations would be most useful that day. Balance is offering free subscriptions for a year because of COVID19. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for instructions—and please share with others who might benefit.