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How Can Remote Teams Build “Watercooler” Connections?

There’s no doubt about it anymore—the workplace has shifted fundamentally. Now, according to Pew Research, almost 60% of employees are working from home at least most of the time. That compares with only 23% before the Covid pandemic struck. And although this shift to remote teams has translated into mostly happier, more productive employees, it has taken a toll on healthy,  connected work cultures.

The same Pew survey says 60% of employees feel less connected with their coworkers while working at home. That’s not great news for a number of reasons, notably, for workplace culture and its impact on team collaboration, retention and recruiting. To put a finer point on it, over the last two years, the workplace watercooler has vanished.

For sure, making a “best friend at work” has become difficult in a remote-first workplace. Forging informal bonds that lead to creating those “best friends at work” is increasingly tough when we’re stuck on Zoom calls all day and lack the human connection that was so familiar to anyone who worked in offices or other central locations prior to 2020.

HR leaders are acutely aware of this situation. They know they need to find creative ways to bring employees together in simple yet meaningful experiences. But that’s very hard to do when nearly everyone seems to be online. We’re seeing the same challenges among our clients. So today, I want to talk about a few ideas for how you could potentially use wellness programming to replace the physical watercooler and start to build a remote-forward culture that will help attract and retain top talent.

3 Ideas to Help Remote Teams Feel Connected

1. Create wellness challenges and friendly competitions

One way to break down the virtual barriers among employees is to get them excited about competing in friendly ways. There are endless possibilities, but here’s one that works for our clients.

You could offer relatively easy-to-host fitness challenges like Spring Madness, where employees form teams and earn points for completing group challenges with activities that support brain health, nutrition, and physical fitness. This can get the blood pumping, while also drawing employees closer so they can create and reinforce those connections many are craving.

How can something this simple enhance employee wellbeing? Consider the feedback we’ve received from Eddie, an employee at one of our client companies. Eddie has come to really value the fitness challenges he participates in. They’ve given him a chance to network with people across his geographically distributed company.

“I’ve made tons of friends at work through these fitness challenges,” Eddie says. In fact, he’s been on fitness challenge teams with his manager and several other coworkers. Many colleagues he’s met through these challenges have provided him with career advice, as well.

“The amount of networking I’ve been able to do has been truly remarkable. It’s amazing how many people you can meet while sharing the goal of creating a healthier lifestyle.”

2. Facilitate virtual wellness coffee talks and meet-ups

I think one of the biggest benefits of the watercooler we all miss most is just the opportunity to chat briefly about little things that aren’t work-related. Taking a few moments to exchange thoughts about what’s going on in the world or in our daily lives helps us feel connected with other people.

That just doesn’t happen anymore. But we’ve found that hosting virtual wellness coffee talks and meet-ups gives employees an opportunity to get together casually and talk about something other than work.

These meet-ups are facilitated by one of our program managers in a way that makes them very conversational and non-threatening. Some topics we’ve focused on include mindfulness, sleep, social wellbeing, and more. This is a lightweight, low-risk, low-resource way to get employees more actively engaged with one another.

3. Encourage employees to join recreation leagues and clubs

Just because people may not be interested in commuting to a central location for a full day of work doesn’t mean they don’t want to get together. A local softball or kickball league organized by your organization could get employees coming together to move, catch up and have some fun as a group.

Also, don’t underestimate the power these kinds of recreation leagues can have on overall team building and work culture. Playing a sport together can have an incredibly powerful effect on your employees’ motivation, as well as their ability to bond as a team and work as a cohesive unit.

These team-building experiences can translate directly into happier, more productive employees pretty quickly. Ultimately, it can improve their sense of wellbeing and overall appreciation of their employee experience—no matter where they may be working from day to day.

Final Thoughts

Don’t these ideas sound relatively simple and doable? None of them require a huge resource lift. And they all have the potential to help you start creating that remote-friendly culture so many companies are trying to build right now.

It’s not just a fun way to take a break and replace classic watercooler conversations. It’s actually a way to develop trust, communication, and human connection that we all find indispensable in our work lives. Who knows? It may also become a differentiator that plays a key role in the future of your organization’s talent attraction and retention strategy.

Wellbeing programs create better connection for employees

impact awardWhile there’s still no clear sense for when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, one thing has come into sharp focus—the implementation of wellbeing programs. The future of work will include both in-person and remote arrangements to accomplish this.  

This new reality has various benefits for employees, including more flexibility, better work-life balance, less time spent commuting, and the freedom to work from anywhere. And a study by Stanford found that working from home increases productivity by 13%. So, there are benefits for employers as well. 

 But employees who don’t see their colleagues every day face a challenge: creating a sense of community and connection. And while it may not seem like a business performance issue at first glance, it actually is. 

Harvard Business Review says: “Employee disconnection is one of the main drivers of voluntary turnover, with lonely employees costing U.S. companies up to $406 billion a year.”  

The opportunity in front of us for wellbeing programs

At HealthFitness, we think there’s a massive opportunity for the corporate fitness industry to rethink how we help employees feel they belong and are cared for.

In fact, through our work with hundreds of companies across many different industries, we’ve seen how wellbeing programs can provide the community and human connection many employees are craving right now.

This means creating experiences where employees will find friendly and familiar faces—both in-person and virtually. This can include group fitness, personal and small group training, health and fitness challenges, health coaching, seminars and classes across a wide variety of fitness and health topics.

The classic in-person approach 

We’re all familiar with the onsite fitness center. While pandemic-era guidelines changed aspects of the experience (e.g., wearing masks, social distancing), they’re still a meaningful way to create connection.

One of our client’s employees, Eddie, said he had a hard time staying active at his job until he joined a new company with an on-site fitness center. There, he began taking fitness classes (which is something he never imagined himself doing). Plus, he also started using the center’s exercise equipment.

But he discovered an unexpected benefit as well.

Eddie noticed how the fitness challenges his company hosted allowed him to connect with coworkers throughout the company. “I’ve made tons of friends at work through the fitness center,” he says.

And the benefits he received went beyond the physical and social.

Eddie said that many of the colleagues he met through fitness challenges provided him with career advice. “The amount of networking I was able to do at the fitness center was remarkable. It’s amazing how many people you can meet while sharing the goal of creating a healthier lifestyle.”

The new virtual approach 

Like Eddie, many employees looked to their local gym or corporate fitness center for a sense of community before COVID-19. Now we know employees will seek this same sense of connection in a virtual format.

That’s certainly been our experience over the last two years.

Like many companies worldwide, we had to pivot fast in the spring of 2020. Our initial goal was to fill clients’ immediate needs and continue offering health and fitness programming in whatever way we could. To make the best of the unprecedented situation.

But then something unexpected happened.

The fitness classes delivered in a virtual format were a big hit with employees. They also allowed us to extend our reach to more employees that may not be located in a building where their employer provided a fitness center. Beyond fitness classes, wellbeing-related offerings like energy and stretch breaks, educational seminars, and even classes for kids opened up more ways to demonstrate that the company cares about their employees. Employees also enjoyed seeing the friendly faces they knew and trusted.

Given this, we think virtual corporate wellbeing experiences are an important way to create connection and community in a hybrid world. There are two primary options.

Live-streamed content

Live-streamed content can be used for live events like fitness classes, stretch breaks, educational seminars, and kid and family classes. They’re broadcast through professional-grade equipment to provide the highest quality streaming, regardless of device, bandwidth, or location.

The shift to working from home has served as the game changer for Sharon, one of our client’s employees, and her health and fitness routine. Sharon takes up to three virtual classes each day. She transfers between group fitness classes, to virtual personal training to mindfulness, nutrition and wellness classes. She regularly meets with her health coach.

As a result, Sharon is more resilient and stronger. “HealthFitness has been one of the most important aspects of my mental and physical wellbeing while working from home.”

Sharon’s weekly virtual personal training sessions with her HealthFitness trainer, Jim, keeps her connected and moving after knee surgery. This allows her to keep getting stronger in her health journey.

Not only does this benefit Sharon physically, there’s also the same sense of connection that Eddie described. When you know other colleagues are also participating in these experiences, you have a point of much-needed connection.

Video conferencing

Video conferencing offers real-time connections with wellness professionals for personal and small group training. It is also useful for nutrition coaching, ergonomic consultations, and movement efficiency assessments.

This approach will broaden based on employers I’ve talked with over the last 18 months. Employers want data-driven integration, segmenting, and targeting capabilities with programs that address subjects. Subjects like stress, resiliency, mindfulness, sleep, safety, and financial wellbeing.

Eventually, because of this data and technology integration, employers will offer this kind of programming wherever it works best for employees. That may be in person, at home, on the production line, on the go—whatever employees need.

This level of targeting has a side benefit. Employees can connect around common wellness priorities or goals, which again creates the sense of community many of us are longing for.

Regardless of format, wellbeing programs must be front and center

In their report Future of Work Trends in 2022, Korn Ferry says that “organizations that are leading the way in wellbeing embed it in all aspects of their people strategy. Research shows that this has a positive impact on retention, absenteeism levels, productivity, and overall satisfaction.” 

With all of these potential impacts, it’s time for corporate wellness programs to adapt to the permanently altered business landscape by: 

  • Recognizing how classic wellness offerings like fitness centers and programs can solve new workplace challenges, like the lack of connection 
  • Introducing virtual wellbeing offerings that employees can access when and where it’s convenient 
  • Offering a broader range of wellbeing programs that help employees connect with like-minded colleagues and create a sense of community 

When companies take these steps, they show employees they belong to an organization that genuinely cares. 

 

 

Ann Wyatt is Chief Client Success Leader at Health Fitness, a Trustmark company. With a holistic approach that extends beyond fitness, HealthFitness is a proven leader in engaging and connecting people both on-site and online, to create a strong community of health. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.