Virtually Everywhere: Tackling the Challenge of Connecting a Remote Team

by Megan Shroy

Those of us who watched Mad Men found ourselves amused by the sheer amount of, well, daily banter.

From planning pitches over dirty martinis in Don’s office to after-hours group copywriting sessions to exchanging pleasantries at the Xerox machine, staff members at Sterling Cooper were constantly interacting—which inevitably lead to rapport, then trust and ultimately loyalty.

Peggy, Joan, Roger, Pete et al. developed real camaraderie from working together day in and day out.

Fast forward to the new age of advertising, a world in which virtual agencies are becoming commonplace.

Ready or not, the workplace is rapidly changing—and the days of water cooler conversations may be limited. 

And for good reason. According to Ann Bamesberger, an expert in workplace effectiveness and alumnus of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, virtual workers tend to be more productive and stay with a company longer when compared to their office-bound colleagues.

It’s no secret that Approach Marketing was founded on the idea of bringing together a team of seasoned and award-winning public relations professionals, all of whom work remotely.

From home offices to co-working spaces, we are located across the country—from Southern California to Chicago to Columbus.

By eliminating the costly overhead that many traditional agencies carry, we pass this savings directly on to our clients.

Additionally, our business model offers The Golden Ticket to staff: a flexible schedule and work-life balance. And a well-adjusted, happier workforce results in greater levels of productivity and higher-quality output.

But how do we build morale, prevent those all-too-familiar silos and create the feeling of a dynamic agency when we don’t all sit under one roof?

Here, we share our tips for establishing strong company culture regardless of the distance—based on our collective experiences and what we’ve learned along the way.   

Begin with strong leadership

Whether a founder, president, executive director, CEO or otherwise, a leader with a clear vision and expectations for the organization, a progressive approach to utilizing available technology and resources that empower staff and a keen ability to recruit the right kind of people to flourish in this unique environment is all paramount. This individual will set the tone and introduce the policies and practices to carry the company forward successfully.   

Hybrid is best

LinkedIn tells us that the richness of face-to-face communication allows for fast-paced and ad hoc interactions, which help to speed up decision-making and information flow in ways that have not yet been fully matched by purely virtual work environments.

Find ways to strike a balance between employees working from separate locations and opportunities to collaborate in person, which may include:

  • Quarterly team summits at the company headquarters
  • Annual retreats in an inspiring central location
  • Professional development at conferences and other industry events
  • Group planning or onsite work sessions for large-scale or higher-profile projects
  • On-location client meetings when appropriate and necessary

Provide the latest and greatest in technology  

Empowering employees with cutting-edge tools in this digital age will make or break their ability to engage with each other. Make communication—from idea-sharing to file-sharing—easy with programs such as:

1.    Box: We store all documents in the cloud so team members can access, edit, comment and share any of the files from their devices in real-time.

2.    Zoom: Among its many features, we use high-definition video conferencing and screen-sharing* for bi-weekly team meetings. Zoom also offers phone apps for iPhone and Android so anyone can join from any location so long as they have Wi-Fi. *For up to 500 participants

3.    Facebook secret group: For Approach team members only (added or invited by the group administrator), we post articles of interest, announcements, questions, ideas and reminders on a daily basis. Or, for more robust team communication platforms with expanded features, consider exploring Slack or Yammer.

4.    Office 365: Because everyone’s schedules, time zones and availability vary, having a shared calendar system is crucial for quickly scheduling meetings and knowing when someone is “on” and available for a last-minute phone or video chat.

Encourage varied cross-team engagement

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When a team member manages just one or two client accounts, it’s easy to get lost in a silo over time. Look for ways to pair different staff on different projects so they don’t feel isolated—and can benefit from getting to know, and trust, their fellow teammates.

Opportunities to encourage cross-team interaction include:

  • Identifying and keeping record of each team member’s skillset, strengths and interests to easily match people as new work arises.
  • When a new project presents itself, poll the team and pinpoint a few volunteers who are interested in getting involved. You may be surprised by who raises their hand. Plus, your staff may be eager to work with, learn from or get to know specific teammates, which may drive their interest in saying yes to certain projects.

Share some swag

It might sound like a minor thing, but agency-branded gifts can go a long way in helping virtual team members feel like part of the same organization. In many traditional brick-and-mortar settings, you’ll see company branding everywhere you look. This collateral, signage and swag is a constant visual reminder that people belong to something greater than themselves. Make a point to give the team custom-branded items they can use on a daily basis.

The key is to invest in pieces that are upscale, practical and desirable. Some of the Approach-labeled gifts we’ve given include:

  • Patagonia vests
  • Stainless steel coffee tumblers
  • Industrial-chic clipboards to use during client meetings and events
  • Stainless steel water bottles
  • Embossed thank you notes