The Ultimate Guide To Human Connection For Distributed Teams

The Party Scientist
15 min readJan 16, 2024

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Hi, it’s Jacques.

I put this together to help you accomplish two things.

One. Be part of the solution to stop the continual rise of loneliness: a major risk factor for depression & physical disease.

Two. Create a highly connected, mentally thriving, and psychologically safe team.

In this guide, you will find 35 practical perspectives on fostering connection from remote work pioneers and thought leaders.

You will find the latest research on loneliness and how it impacts your team’s performance.

Finally, you’ll get 5 recommended actions for operationalizing everything in this report: A 5-step checklist for applying social neuroscience to create a highly connected team.

I’m grateful you understand the power of human connection, which I believe to be the elixir of life.

Trailblaze on,

THE LATEST RESEARCH ON SOCIAL HEALTH AT WORK

As reported by The State Of Remote Work (2023)

  • 1 in 4 remote workers struggles with loneliness.

As reported by Cigna (2022)

  • Lonely employees have 5x more sick days & 2x more intention to quit in the next year
  • 65% of lonely workers report their mental health impacting work activities vs. 24% of non-lonely

As reported by Gallup (2022)

  • Employees that can strongly agree to having a best friend at work are 7 times as engaged.
  • In the U.S. workforce, only 2 in 10 strongly agree that they have a best friend at work

As reported by BetterUp (2022)

  • Low belonging scoring employees have 109% more burnout, 158% more anxiety and depression, and 313% stronger intention to quit than high belonging scoring employees

When employees have friendships at work, they’re more productive, engaged, and healthy. Oh, and they stick around.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVES ON REMOTE HUMAN CONNECTION

I asked 35 leaders the question: What is your best advice for reinforcing connection & psychological safety on your distributed team? You’ll find each contributor hyperlinked.

1 Kristi DePaul

CEO, Founders Agency, & HBR Contributor

Although we can’t physically be there for our colleagues, there are other ways of supporting colleagues from afar when they run into bumps in the road. Keep in mind that finding the most appropriate response will always depend upon the nuances of the situation, as well as the personality of the co-worker involved.

For example, if a colleague confides in you, take the time to listen and show that their feelings matter. Gently offer advice only when asked, and when you feel comfortable doing so.

It could be helpful to share your own story if you’ve been down a similar path. If you haven’t, I’ve found that offering a “cone of silence” for venting or simply being willing to lend an extra hand on projects can be wonderful ways of showing support.

2 Jakob Knutzen 🧈

CEO, Butter Video Conferencing

The concept is simple: an open, monthly standing invite in the team calendar, where individuals can opt in or out of participating on the day, depending on schedules.

We usually kick off with a super fast energizer or a check-in question, then create a number of breakout groups randomly and use one of Butter’s most awesome features, a Flashcard deck, with about 15–20 icebreaker questions to guide the chat.

We had themed Coffee Breaks in the past, but most often we would use a deck of cards about normal, everyday life to facilitate human connection and to bring our team closer.

3 Lavinia Iosub (Yo-soob)

Founder, Remote Skills Academy

It’s tried and tested: documentation.

A culture of high-quality documentation, from decisions, status updates, to policies, SOPs and expectations will help get the team aligned, avoid people feeling left out if they miss a meeting/take time off, and provide psychological safety.

They’ll be clear on what’s expected, when and how, and they’ll be able to spend most of their day focusing on doing their best work, not looking for information, files or wondering if they’re doing the right thing, at the right time.

4 Bridget Harris

CEO, YouCanBookMe

Find ways to provide feedback and oversight without it being stripped of the empathy, sensitivity and human skills all managers need.

5 Diana Amador, PhD

Senior Manager, Atlassian

Small gestures are amplified in remote settings. Our word choices, response times, video meeting styles, instant messaging replies, email sign-offs, and signatures create impressions.

They can enhance or wreck our communications with customers and co-workers.

6 Jessica Davies

Managing Editor, Work Life News

Set regular check-in times with direct reports to ask them for feedback on what’s working and what isn’t when it comes to their tasks.

I’ll then ask them for input on how we can improve those things, so they feel heard and valued. It’s then key to act fast on any changes requested, to avoid frustration building.

7 Kaleem Clarkson

COO, Blend Me Inc.

Loneliness and disconnection are major challenges that remote-first companies should prioritize. Promote not just professional connections, but lifestyle [hobbies] and intimate connections.

We advise organizations to build a social connection strategy around all three connection types [not just professional].

8 Lucie Zajíčková

Head of People Operations, Virtual Internships

Be intentional about creating space for connection within the synchronous time you spend together and with individuals on the team. Have regular 1:1s where you constantly map out the needs and expectations of each team member, where you continuously build a genuine working relationship and get to know them as individuals.

For team meetings, apart from traditional team-building activities, you can try hosting workshops on team profiles, team norms and principles, team culture, and retrospectives.

9 Mark Tippin

Director of Strategic Next Practices, Mural

Some of us formed management habits in a time when we could assume everyone was collocated. Serendipitous chit-chat around the breakroom and watercooler made up for a lack of organization and intention when it came to effective 1:1 communication.

As we imagine best practices for the future of management, we can’t ignore how remote and hybrid work requires intentional, ongoing non-work communication based in empathy and reinforcing positive accomplishments.

10 Chris Cerra 🟠

Founder, RemoteBase

Stop asking people shallow, meaningless conversation starters like “how are you?” Or “how’s it going?”. You have to be more targeted. Ask questions like “how have you been feeling since we last spoke? And what’s changed?” To get connected, you have to really care!

11 Valentina Thörner

Remote Leadership Consultant

Do those weekly or biweekly 1:1s with your direct reports. Make it about life, not work (you can check on work asynchronously). Nothing can substitute the connection you’ll create through regular meaningful conversations.

12 Lisette Sutherland

Director, Collaboration Superpowers

Connection happens when we pay attention to each other. The trick in the remote environment is finding new ways to pay attention to each other AND building an environment that meets everyone’s needs.

Team connection is about more than just doing fun things together. It’s about working well together. Solving problems together. Caring about what we’re working on. Liking the people around us.

There’s no quick fix to connecting in a virtual environment (or in person!). If we want a connection with our remote team, we must invest in understanding what our colleagues need to feel connected on a team — and crafting an environment in which everybody thrives.

13 Ali Greene

Author, Remote Works

It is important to look past the idea of only social connection. Instead, leaders should focus on tactics to cater to three levels of connection: connection to a company’s purpose or mission, connection to the work itself, and shared experiences and standard operating behaviors within the team.

Leaders can build this connection by ensuring goals are clear, highlighting the product roadmap internally, developing accurate job descriptions, and agreeing to a set of team norms.

These things will help people understand what to do and how to do it. When you remove this level of uncertainty from your day-to-day life, it can build a baseline for trust and psychological safety. From there, you can invest asynchronously or synchronously to develop social relationships.

14 Dr Beat Bühlmann

Remote Work Consultant & Professor

In every team, but even more in a virtual team, we need a “communication and collaboration driver’s license” clarifying what we do, what tool we use, what tool we DON’T use when etc.

15 Larry English

CEO, Centric Consulting, Forbes Contributor

One of the biggest things we’ve learned in 20-plus years working with remote teams is that vulnerability is the shortcut to trust. It’s critical to building relationships and culture, and modeling it is one of — if not the most — important qualities a leader can exhibit.

It teaches everyone that no one has all the answers, that it’s OK to not know something, and that they’re in a safe environment where sharing what you don’t know helps everyone improve.

16 Pilar Orti

Director, Virtual not Distant

Remember that people connect with each other in different ways, one of which is through the work. Something as simple as being able to check out at any time what other team members are doing can be a valuable source of connection for some.

So having a simple Task Board online (eg Trello), where you can all make your workflow visible can be as strong a point of connection for some as having a virtual coffee.

17 Chase Warrington

Head of Remote, Doist

My approach to the future of work is: remote-first, not remote-only; async-first, not async-only. Distributed teams get to intentionally create the space for human connection, which is an opportunity and a challenge.

The best distributed teams invest heavily in curating awesome team retreats and offsite meetings, and they deliberately build space into the calendar for virtual interactions, async and sync. But they also recognize that it’s the work that unites us and investing in excellent tools and best practices to make work collaborative and fun, is the best way to promote connectedness.

Leaders of distributed teams need to remember that being a remote leader takes an extra layer of empathy and intentionality.

Non-verbal communication comprises 80% of our regular communication, and when you can’t see or hear your teammates, you risk falling out of touch with the needs of your team. One of my favorite tools to combat this is Kona, a tool designed to provide leaders with an overview of their teams’ well-being in an asynchronous format.

18 Brian Elliott

Co-Founder, Future Forum, ex-SVP at Slack

Building connection is one of the most important elements of creating an effective team. In Future Forum’s research, people that had flexibility in where and when they worked were more connected to their teams, direct managers and company values than those who had to work five days a week in an office: giving people flexibility demonstrates trust.

The best practices we’ve found combine episodic gatherings — like quarterly offsites focused on team building — with regular practices, like the weekly social icebreaker to start a staff meeting and having everyone share their Personal User Manual.

19 Michael Gutman

Remote Work Expert & Consultant

The glue that holds remote teams together is made with awareness and intentionality. Having the awareness of other people’s work preferences, career goals, and success metrics and the intentionality to support their employee experience the way they want you to… just like you would want them to show up for you.

20 Srivatsan Padmanabhan

Co-Founder, GoFloaters

Two strongest pillars to reinforce connection and psychological safety are team bonding and open communication. From top down, team members must be encouraged to be vulnerable.

Weekly check-in meetings asking people to share their rose (success), bud (opportunity) and thorn (challenge) is a good way to encourage people to open up. Organize virtual team-building activities, such as online games or virtual happy hours, to help team members connect and have fun together.

21 Gary A. Bolles

Chair for Future of Work, Singularity University

Be intentional. Whatever you used to do in person — bumping into people in the hallways, getting social cues during random conversations — you and other team members now need to do deliberately when you’re distributed.

That may feel like “over-communicating” — but it’s critical if you want to keep connected to your team.

22 Darren Murph

VP of Workplace Design, Andela

The future of work will see culture built primarily outside of the workplace. This means that connection will begin with friends, family, and local community, and the overflow of that social reservoir will pour back into work.

Leadership must explicitly make it OK to celebrate connection beyond company walls, and simultaneously create a medium to share authentic stories with colleagues through digital and in-person channels.

23 John Riordan

Chairman, Grow Remote

As a remote manager, you need to empower your employees by enabling them to step outside of the company bubble and into the community bubble. Encourage them meet other remote employees.

A happy and empowered employee, actively engaging with other remote workers will be your best recruitment vehicle.

24 Mark Cruth

Modern Work Coach, Atlassian

If we want to create better connection on your team, help your people become more intentional on how they connect. I love to start off by having my teams create User Manuals that share how THEY work (what they like/dislike, how they prefer to interact, etc.).

Then take it to the next level and have the team build a Working Agreement on how WE want to collaborate and connect together!

25 ✨Mine (Kocadag) Dedekoca

Co-Founder, Remote First Institute

Ask them questions to show that you genuinely care about them. Before starting a meeting or asking for a task, ask them how they are feeling or what’s bothering them in their personal life. Ask about their family members, their pets by addressing them with their names.

People feel valued when you acknowledge their individuality and they will only remember how you made them feel.

26 John Chen

CEO & Author, Engaging Virtual Meetings

Look how you are “digitally bumping into each other”. At Microsoft, the first buildings were in the shape of an X so people would bump into each other in the middle. Online, look for bumping like email, slack, text, Teams, WhatsApp or others to connect with each other through out the day. Others run virtual meetings when not scheduled so you can click and drop in.

This bumping into each other builds connection between scheduled meetings and pays off in better communication and teamwork.

27 Darcy Marie Mayfield

Remote-First Consultant, ex-Stripe

People are all in the same storm but in very different life boats. When your team is working remotely, remember that trust is the glue that binds folks, no matter the distance between them.

Be sure to spend time both asynchronously and synchronously asking your people WHAT kind of support they need to be successful in their roles. It may sound simple, but taking the time to actually show that you care can make a huge difference in the happiness and performance outputs of your remote team members.

28 Jesse Chambers

CEO & Founder, wrkfrce

To feel fully safe at work, we have to know that sharing our true selves won’t lead to ridicule or retribution. Creating this kind of environment requires vulnerability and trust.

One simple practice that I adhere to, personally, is when working with remote colleagues or direct reports I always dedicate the first 10 minutes of any video meeting to “not working” — just catching up and really asking how someone is doing; what milestones their children are marking; have they tried Pickleball yet, etc.

At the organizational level, it is critical for leaders of remote teams to dedicate the budget (at least 3x per year) for the team to gather together physically — and to allow plenty of time in the agenda for social bonds to form, not just stay heads-down in a conference room the whole time.

29 Lona Alia

Head Of Revenue, SafetyWing

You create psychological safety when you say what you mean, and you mean what you say. Employees are like kids in that they can always tell when their parents are preaching one thing, but in practice doing another.

So as a leader, if you want trust you have to give it, if you want employees to be comfortable being vulnerable you also have to be vulnerable, and if you want others to receive feedback well, you also have to be open to receiving theirs.

30 Dónal Kearney

Head Of Community, GrowRemote

Regular 1:1s are vital to maintain an approachable relationship, so weekly/biweekly check-ins are invaluable — make them sacred, do not miss them!

To foster team spirit, a clear commitment to supporting each other asynchronously makes a huge difference. A culture of recognition and appreciation via email and chat goes a long way when everyone’s work is “hidden”.

Where possible, occasional in-person meetings (once a quarter) are a great way of strengthening the bond and opening up a different forum for connection and psychological safety — eg.

a facilitated group session.

31 David Spinks

Author, The Business of Belonging

Hire an internal community manager. We’ve seen the rapid rise of remote companies. Why haven’t we seen a rapid rise of internal community managers?

How can you expect to build culture and connection in a remote company if you don’t hire an expert in online communities to make it happen?

All of the things that community builders are skilled at can be applied internally: Designing online communication platforms like slack. Creating guidelines and values to guide online interaction. Sparking thoughtful conversation. Introducing relevant members to each other. Tracking and measuring community health and engagement.

32 Laïla von Alvensleben

ex-Head of New Ways Of Working, MURAL

Be transparent, authentic and vulnerable. Invest in caring and prioritising the people in your team above goals, profit or anything else — when hard times will come, that investment will be worth more than gold to build trust and sense of belonging needed to face the inevitable challenges together.

I do this by regularly checking in with my team and sharing what’s going on in my life: the good, the bad and the ugly.

33 Rita McGrath

Strategy Professor, Columbia Business School

Be alert to SCARF needs (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness) and use “reward” rather than “threat” activators for each.

An activator is a practice that causes another person to perceive themselves as being threatened or rewarded — if they are feeling threatened, they will tend to avoid the situation. If they are feeling rewarded, they will lean into it.

For example, if you critique someone, they may feel this is a threat to their “status” need. If you micromanage them, this is a threat to their “autonomy” need. If on the other hand you praise someone publicly, this would be a reward for their status need.

Personally, I try to put into practice “catching someone in the act of doing something good” and rewarding the behaviors I want to see repeated.

34 Iwo Szapar

CEO, Remote-How

1. Encourage open dialogue by setting up regular one-on-one meetings with each team member to discuss their concerns, challenges, and successes.

2. Provide training on any tools or processes that your team needs to use and ensure both in-office and remote team members have the support they need to complete their tasks.

3. Celebrate project milestones and individual achievements by recognizing them publicly during virtual meetings or through company-wide announcements.

35 Liam McIvor Martin

Co-Organizer, Running Remote Conference

In leading remote teams, over-communication is critical, ensuring everyone has access to the information they need to make informed decisions.

Synchronous time is also essential to build rapport and trust within the team and to mark transitions in the business journey. This is why we hold yearly retreats, inviting all team members to engage, connect, and align on our shared goals and vision.

CHECKLIST TO TAKE ACTION & APPLY SOCIAL NEUROSCIENCE

You have reviewed their perspectives and perhaps you’re inspired. So let’s go over how to operationalize real connection.

1 Make it a habit.

Don’t wait for the offsite. Devote time during your weekly meeting to reinforce connection & safety.

2 Lead the way.

You set the social norms. By being closed, you’re revoking permission for people to be open & real.

3 Leverage music & movement.

Quality of connection is predicted by physiology. Low-energy states do not foster deep connections.

4 Invite personal disclosure.

If you don’t know your team member has cancer, you’re not on a team. Share your human experience.

5 Check✅ all the boxes with a social health ritual.

This is your team’s weekly ritual, comprising a sequence of exercises to elevate joy & belonging. Want inspiration for your team ritual? You can request to try mine which uses 5 exercises.

CLOSING WORDS

Surprise. I got you, didn’t I? This was not about remote connection. It was about personal happiness.

The one thing happiness researchers tell us… is that a life filled with positive connections is a happy healthy life. Having committed my life to creating experiences about deeper connection, I have found this to be true.

My hope is you take these perspectives and apply them to all your communities. Not just your workplace. Because your happiness is on the line!

Every human you meet is innately wired for human connection. There is no stronger antidepressant!

You, with your presence, vulnerability, and joy, can directly revitalize and de-stress people in your life.

This is a power. For yourself. And for others.

But unlike most powers, this one translates directly to your emotional well-being.

Thanks for joining the human connection movement!

— Jacques

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The Party Scientist

Human Connection & Belonging Strategist | Professor of Shared Joy | I help leaders reinvent how they connect their people and build community