Is strong team spirit possible when you work 100% remotely?
Three members of the InterNations team answer this question with a resounding “yes”. Miriam (Team Lead Community Engagement), Karsten (Team Lead Software Engineering), and Kiki (Feel Good Manager) believe that team bonding in a remote setting is different — but just as cool.
InterNations, the largest international community for people who live and work abroad, is a remote-first company. Even colleagues based near our Munich office mostly work from home. In part 2 of our series on remote work, three team members talk to our Team Lead Corporate Communications Jane about the benefits (and limits) of a company culture that’s created online.
1. How has team spirit changed since InterNations went remote during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Karsten: In an office environment, you develop more of a “tribal culture”. Every room has its own rituals. In an online setting, you lose this type of team spirit. But you get to interact more with people who’d normally be working in different parts of an office building.
Miriam: I don’t compare the new setup to office life anymore. There are certain differences. The chit-chat in the hallway and the laughs we had in the office kitchen — these are things of the past. We can’t create these kinds of memories remotely.
But, as Karsten just said, in our Munich office, different teams used to work on different floors, even in different buildings. There were many people I rarely got to see. Today, I feel closer to some of these colleagues. We’re in touch more often via Slack (our instant messenger) or video calls. That’s a definite benefit.
Kiki: For me, keeping up our team spirit online is a challenge that we’ve been able to tackle through hard work and care. We need to put a bit more effort into maintaining our bonds. And it makes the times we do see each other in person all the more special.
2. How does InterNations boost team spirit in a remote setting?
Kiki: We offer regular touchpoints throughout the working day for people to feel engaged and involved. We have virtual coffee chats and interest groups. During meetings, we make sure to have interactive presentations, dynamic hosts, and clear agendas, so everyone can prepare and get ready to contribute.
Karsten: We also have a budget for team-building events. For example, we’ve done an online escape room in the past. And twice a year, we all see each other in person during company-wide team trips. Last year, we went to both Austria and Croatia together. There are some people I consider close friends of mine, though I only got to know them via my computer screen. It was great to finally see them in person after two years going in and out of lockdowns.
3. Miriam and Karsten, you’re both team leads with employees based in several countries. How do you encourage team building in your teams?
Miriam: I lead a team of Community Engagement Specialists responsible for our InterNations Communities in Western Europe. There are three Community Engagement Teams altogether. Team members are spread across various time zones from NYC to Singapore.
To keep up with what’s going on in all the InterNations Communities worldwide, the three teams discuss work-related issues twice a week. On Monday, we share what we’ll be working on in the week to come. And on Friday, we check in with each other to celebrate the past week’s successes. These are only short 20-minute sessions, but they really make a difference by making us feel good about our achievements.
My own team consists of eight people, based in Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Zurich, Madrid, and Barcelona. Every morning, we say hello on Slack. We also bond via virtual after-work drinks or monthly remote lunches.
Do you actually have lunch together in front of your laptops?
Miriam: No, it would be awkward to watch each other eat. “Remote lunch” just means that it takes place around noon. We usually play word games together online. Everyone has a good laugh and leaves feeling energized. And thanks to these games, we also know a lot of random stuff about each other now!
Karsten: My team of software engineers currently also has eight members. They’re based in Ukraine, Turkey, Spain, and Germany. We have a virtual coffee chat every morning. Everyone can just chat informally until it’s time to start talking about work.
Occasionally, we also get together for social events after work, such as a candy tasting. Each team member told one of our product managers what their favorite childhood candy was and why. He then ordered the candy and sent snack packages to all team members. We tasted the candy together, and everyone had to guess whose childhood favorite it was.
That sounds like a lot of fun!
Karsten: Yes, it worked really well. We’ve developed concepts for social events everyone can take part in. It should be a sensory experience to include our blind team member. Others don’t drink alcohol, so we wanted to avoid beer or wine tastings.
4. Kiki, as our Feel Good Manager, you’re in charge of our company-wide online social events, such as our Christmas parties. How do you make people feel engaged during virtual events?
Kiki: My secret is … to have fun myself! So I make sure that we do something I’d also enjoy outside of work.
To come up with ideas, I brainstorm what we could organize based on the setting. For our most recent Christmas party, for example, I created a virtual trivia quiz around various holiday facts.
5. But where does team building in a remote setting reach its limits?
Karsten: Well, there are no more after-work beers. Apart from that, I don’t think there are any hard limits. Of course, we would’ve also had international colleagues in our Munich office. But the fact that our team members live in different parts of the world gives me a much more immediate insight into their everyday lives — for better or worse …
Right now, one of our software engineers is working from Kiev. Being in touch with him gives us a glimpse of what people in Ukraine go through on a daily basis. He sometimes lets us know he can’t make it to our check-in due to air raids. This is chilling for all of us. We feel almost paralyzed until he tells us he’s okay.
Miriam: I agree that it’s definitely possible to be close in a remote setting. What can’t be replaced so easily are the spontaneous office conversations. That’s just how it is. But I really believe that we can replace these with impromptu online meetings like taking a spontaneous coffee break together. We just need to get a little creative sometimes!
6. What do you miss about working in the office?
Karsten: Nothing, actually. I’m a big fan of remote work, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I love the flexibility. I love that I can just run a load of laundry during working hours and hang it up afterwards. If I wasn’t working from home, such chores would eat into my leisure time. I still work longer hours than at the office, though, since I no longer have my commute.
Miriam: I don’t miss much, either. Like Karsten, I really enjoy being able to set my own schedule. I’m not very productive right after lunch. So I take an extended lunch break and work longer in the evening. This has really improved my working life.
7. Do you think that your new work environment has also had an impact on your private lives?
Miriam: I like not having to rush to the office anymore. I now have more time in the morning to exercise or read.
But my social life hasn’t changed much. I’ve always needed a good balance between “me time” and time with friends. I don’t feel alone during the day. I’m so busy staying in touch with people online that I get my daily dose of social interaction.
And I don’t depend on my workplace to meet new people. I’ve lived in Munich for a while, and I have a circle of friends here. If I was new in the city and didn’t know anyone, I might want to go into the office more, though.
Kiki: I’m from Australia, but I live in Munich. For me, remote work has actually made it easier to stay in touch with friends in different time zones and hemispheres. I also have friends who now deliberately arrange lunch dates for those odd days when we go into our respective offices.
8. What do you personally consider the biggest plus of having a remote team?
Karsten: For me, the biggest advantage is that remote work has allowed us to hire some brilliant people. If we’d required all team members to live in the same place, we’d never have found this bunch of fantastic folks.
Miriam: I’ve gained confidence as a team lead. In a remote setting, I can be better prepared for my meetings. During a video call, I can just put a little script next to me to double-check what I want to say. That might come across as a bit weird in an in-person meeting.
Kiki: Traditional team-building events often follow the same format: meet after work, go to a restaurant, eat, have a drink or two. Now we need to make sure activities are engaging and accessible for all. This makes me think out of the box to make sure that everyone is included and can enjoy our online events.