Keep it together: Tips for nurturing team culture when offices close

Emily Parsons, associate workplace manager of Slack’s London office, shares her team’s approach for keeping employees engaged while telecommuting

Anyone who works in office, facilities or workplace management will tell you that building and maintaining office culture is a critical part of the job.

When I joined Slack in May 2017, only six employees called our London office home. We hadn’t established our own workplace culture yet, so I had the rare opportunity to help shape it from the get-go.

In the years since, the team and I have built our own London identity through a combination of organic and intentional traditions and initiatives. Two favourites include:

  1. A monthly Breakfast Club, where everyone in the office can meet new hires, learn from other teams and hear customer stories
  2. Gather Hours, which range from grabbing dinner and drinks, to terrarium- and wreath-making workshops

Including every person from every team is so important to ensuring that everyone feels part of the London family.

The Slack London office takes a break to enjoy afternoon tea

The Slack London office takes a break to enjoy afternoon tea

Being a relatively small team that’s growing quickly, maintaining a strong culture is as important as ever. But what happens when there is no office to work from? How can we maintain and grow this family atmosphere, without physically being together?

Covid-19 has caused mass disruption globally, and Slack hasn’t escaped that. All of our offices have closed for the foreseeable future and there’s uncertainty around when we’ll reopen and how we’ll manage to work remotely for the next few weeks (or even months). This is new for everyone.

It’s my and our leadership’s job now more than ever to maintain (and even advance!) our culture and employee engagement. So what are we doing over in Slack’s EMEA region to keep things on track?

To start, we mapped out all planned events, team traditions and initiatives that would take place over the coming weeks. We then brainstormed ways to digitalise these moments whenever possible. Read on for our most successful ideas, along with a few tips we picked up along the way.

Maintain regular check-ins

Our staff has missed the ability to direct quick, one-off questions to colleagues sitting nearby. In its place, our leadership team is hosting hourlong Zoom calls—virtual office hours—so that people can join to ask questions or chat when needed.

We’ve moved our most vital pre-existing team meetings, such as our twice-weekly sales and customer success huddles, to Zoom. In addition, we’re checking in with each other more often and more casually too. For example, my team is meeting a few times a week for 20 minutes, just to check in with each other and give updates on our projects.

A Slackbot standup

We’re also moving a number of meetings into Slack. It’s the ideal tool for hosting daily stand-ups, providing updates and tracking progress. A weekly Slackbot reminder prompts my team to share our top priorities for the day. Those updates not only keep us aligned, but are handy to reference throughout the week.

On an officewide level, our #lon channel continues to be highly active. It’s a constant stream of thoughts, images and ideas—all with the usual London office banter!

Get leadership involved

When it comes to culture, input and buy-in from leadership is vital. We coordinate with local management in a private #lon-leadership channel, where the group discusses plans, initiatives and ideas for the wider office. Having the office leads driving our initiatives in tandem with the workplace team, and proposing new ideas to make remote life better, makes an impact like no other to their teams and to the wider office.

In normal times, we host quarterly fireside chats—45-minute, in-person Q&As—to offer transparency and ensure alignment between our regional leadership team and EMEA employees. Rather than postponing these, our internal communications manager, Sophie O’Donoghue, opted to host our most recent fireside chat entirely through Slack. Everyone in EMEA joined an #emea-fireside-chat-q1 channel, asked questions, got answers in real time, and reacted with emoji along the way.

More ways to keep remote teams connected

The Slack App Directory has more than 2000 integrations that you can use to do everything from automating routine tasks to running quick surveys or polls with the team. Here are a few we find particularly useful, or simply just fun, for teams of remote workers:

Polly: The ever-popular Polly integration allows you to gather, measure and act on feedback in a snap. Use it to run pulse and engagement surveys, daily standups, or run a quick vote on the topic for your next virtual happy hour/ emotional support group. 

Zork in Slack: Prefer to get to know your coworkers over a rousing multiplayer game...in Slack? Spend your lunch break bonding over the beloved interaction fiction video game Zork. A kind soul has provided instructions on how to set the game up using a Slack channel, just follow the link in the title. 

Disco: For those of us fortunate enough to be working, it's important not to let accomplishments go unrecognized. Disco makes it easy to celebrate people who are living your company culture and values, in real time. 

Keep up coffee breaks

When I work from the office, I often head to our local coffee shop with some colleagues as a quick break from work. In place of this, I’ve set up “coffee catch-ups” with a few people to keep relationships strong and make sure I’m not working non-stop all day. These can be done through Slack or on video call, whatever works best for you. Taking breaks throughout the day is important and healthy—it’s easy to forget when you can’t separate home and the office.

If you’d like to use this telecommuting time to broaden relationships at work, try the Donut app. Donut can pair any two people in a Slack channel for a virtual coffee and is a great way to get to know colleagues you don’t typically work with.

Don’t forget fun and games

We’re social creatures, and we’re missing our regular gatherings. It’s hard to replace drinking an ice-cold pint on our sunny office balcony, but we can do the next best thing: host virtual Gather Hours.

The idea of 30+ people on one Zoom call, trying to talk over each other, sounded chaotic. So we structured the event through a digital pub quiz. With drinks in hand and virtual backgrounds set, the host asked questions over Zoom and teams discussed their answers in group direct messages over Slack. Then, final answers were submitted through Workflow Builder, a tool that can automate form collection in Slack and route completed answers back to the host.

If you’d prefer something a little more plug and play, check out the Water Cooler Trivia app in the Slack app directory.

We’ve also seen our teams bond through games played entirely in Slack channels. Any team can give these a try:

  1. Through the keyhole: Ask your teammates to DM you a few images of their home. Each day, post these images in a Slack channel and ask people to guess who lives there.
  2. Guess who: Same format as the example above, but replacing pictures with fun facts. This is a great way to learn more about your teammates.

 

Find the right balance

Here at Slack, we’re fortunate to work with a tool that facilitates collaboration, communication and alignment among teams and across the entire business. While there are many fun ways to keep culture alive within Slack, these moments should not become a distraction. Working remotely doesn’t mean work stops. We still have a job to do and more than ever we need to be on the ball for our customers. Our objective is to find the happy medium; for our team members to feel engaged and connected through some light-hearted in-channel fun, yet focused enough so that they can do their best work.

The London office summer party

The Slack London summer 2019 social, held on a rooftop overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral

We don’t know how long we’ll be working remotely, but what we do know is that there is massive value in maintaining our fantastic culture that has been years in the making. I know we’ll come out of this experience having a greater appreciation for our tool, our team culture and most importantly, each other.

A photo illustration by Slack to accompany piece on remote work
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