I first started teleworking 19 years ago, and have worked out of my home ever since, in all sorts of configurations:
- the only remote worker on the team
- a team that’s entirely distributed
- teams mainly located in 2-3 sites
- teams on 2 or 3 continents
- solo projects.
So I’ve seen a lot of successful and a lot of not-so-good configurations for teleworkers.
One of the challenges of being a teleworker is the issue of celebrations and recognitions. It’s hard to find something individualized that fits each team member, and it’s easy to forget the remote contingent when planning the “We Shipped It!” release celebration, even when the remote contingent played a strong role in the accomplishment.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for ways to do celebrations and acknowledgements for remote employees so I could reward my own teams. There are some pretty decent ideas out there, but most didn’t seem to resonate with me or my software developer peers. So I started assembling my own list.
Acknowledging teleworkers’ contribution to a big accomplishment with a line or two in a mass “Thanks, folks!” email message while the local contingent goes on a harbor cruise or out to dinner or to a movie to celebrate sends a strong message. Especially when that happens during a workday while the teleworkers are expected to just keep mushing along, like any other normal workday except with fewer chats from on-site coworkers. Yes, I’ve experienced this, including attempts to keep the celebrations quiet because remotes don’t feel left out of something they don’t know about. Pro Tip: They know and they do.
Seriously, if you’re fond of your teleworkers, that’s probably not the message you want to be sending.
And seasonal parties, summer picnics, and weekly wine-fests? Sometimes seems like “Working remotely is reward enough!” so no need to even think about including remote workers in these celebrations unless they just happen to be on-site.
I’ve been there and done that on the receiving end. Or been told, “Go take two hours and do something at the same time we’re watching our movie.” When presented like this, it’s not the same, not at all, and I sure don’t feel rewarded because it’s an isolating experience with no connection to colleagues, not a bonding experience.
For major milestones and even small celebrations, swag gets handed out. Small laptop accessories, stickers, little mementos, flags, the occasional T-shirt, whatever. Freebies for the employees and free marketing/branding for the company. Remotes often get overlooked for these little items, because they’re not there for the party favors and besides, shipping things to them is a hassle. On one memorable trip to visit colleagues on a different continent, we carted 15 baseball caps from that summer’s group picnic to a remote site where we had 15 employees on the extended team. One of the people I was traveling with came from the main site and they brought them in their luggage. Was there a hat for me or for the other five who worked remotely in the US? No, of course not.
Seriously, the swag problem is a no-brainer. If you have 25 employees, then you get swag for 25. Not 20 who go to the party and those 5 other folks who you never see but are voices on the phone and people who do pull requests and code reviews. When the celebration is done, put the swag in the box and mail it, along with a “We missed you! Too bad you didn’t get to see Avery bowl – 7-10 split Every.Single.Frame!” (or whatever) note.
Of course, the first and best way to include remote folks in celebrations is to actually include them. Bring the team together regularly after a big milestone and hold celebrations then, along with planning for the next steps. That way everyone’s there for the experience and the team is automatically strengthened.
But don’t hold off celebrating things, big and small, because “we’ll be getting together in a month.” To be meaningful, the celebration has to be timely. When far-flung folks can’t be there for a timely celebration, be it a holiday party (any holiday’s a good time to celebrate) or a milestone, the show still goes on because that connects the team. So yay, we shipped! Celebrate it! And tell everyone that we did celebrate because building a culture that celebrates accomplishments and shares success is a good thing. Put up pictures on a company board. And ask the remotes to join in with theirs!
And that, right there, is the actual goal: celebrations build team closeness. Check your actions against that as the motivator, asking yourself: Knowing what I know of this remote worker (you do take time to just chat with each worker, nearby or far away, right?), how can I use this to connect rather than exclude?
First, don’t hide the celebration and pretend it doesn’t exist. Treating it as a shameful secret heightens the feeling of separation and second-class citizenship, whether or not there’s some sort of alternate compensation. If there’s a party or celebration coming up, let the remote workers know, “Hey, we’re all going canoeing next week to celebrate our release. Friday, 2-5pm”. At least they’ll know where everyone is.
And if it makes the celebration organizer feel a bit guilty to have this as the full sum of the conversation, well, that says that the remote worker should get something too…. So at the least, follow it on with “You’ve worked hard on this too, and we’re sorry you won’t be able to be there. So take a couple of hours off to go see a movie or a ballgame or kayak on the river on us next week and send a selfie!” or something like that. If you have a display of pictures from these celebrations (electronic or on a wall somewhere) , make sure it includes the remote workers’ celebrations too.
This basic, simple format meets all the goals. Your remote worker
- Had her accomplishment recognized
- Had an opportunity to celebrate in a way that left the team still supported
- Had an event that aligned with her activities, interests, and schedule
- Had her celebration recognized just like everyone else’s
- Gave others another topic for informal chat to bring the team closer together as people, not just voices on the phone
All with just a slight adjustment on the negative scenario above – in some ways syntactic sugar. But also, with the pictures, actionable.
Sometimes generic ideas “Go do what you want!” don’t quite cut it, so here are some specific other ideas as well:
- Dinner on us!: A gift certificate for the remote worker and her family, which acknowledges the impact of the milestone on not just the worker but also the family.
- Movie/Concert/Sporting Event on us: Again, with tickets for two and/or family.
- Holiday concert: In lieu of the generic holiday party or summer barbecue, maybe there’s a local seasonal music performance (Spring in the Park! 4th of July Blues Festival, Summer Art Festival).
- Surprise! It’s always been a simple morale booster to get a surprise package with thoughtful recognitions – a mug and some hot cocoa or coffee or tea for a winter celebration, seasonal food, simple things, and the seasonal party swag.
- Coffeeshop get togethers: If your team is going out to lunch or a meal, end it at a coffeeshop or other IM location and invite your remote workers to join in then from a local equivalent, or even their own kitchen or back yard. You can time this so that it adapts to different timezones – morning coffee, afternoon drinks, evening decaf. Connect via IM or voice chat.
- Togetherness via Technology: If your team does monthly informal birthday celebrations or other similar milestones, put them on Skype or Hangouts or your favorite IM program, and everybody sing to the birthday folks! If an in-office holiday party with caroling, send the music and join in the songfest. Halloween? Everyone dons a mask and takes a picture then arrange a “who’s who?” guessing game. Arrange for cupcakes or candy apples to be delivered separately, ideally timed for the morning of the party.
- Personalized greetings: Put together a chart or certificate with a personal acknowledgement and send it out. Doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, just “Thanks for making a huge contribution to the coolest project ever!” with screenshots, and then write a note, “Dave, the graphics wouldn’t’ve been this awesome without your attention to detail – THANKS!” Frame and send. Or for local employees, do the same thing, but drop them off after hours, so when they come in the next morning, they have a “We belong to the team!” moment.
- New toys: If the team is going on an active outing (picnic at the beach or park), send a related toy (flying ring, beach ball, whatever) or gift certificate (local cinema, spa, bakery), again with a “Create your own special moment!” theme.
- Magician of the month: When someone does something amazing or unique, send them a superhero cape or a magic wand or something to celebrate. Ask them to send a picture back in their favorite place, with them doing magic things! Highlight that in the group’s communications channels (slack, photo board, etc.)
Some people really don’t like to celebrate, whether on site or remote. Personally, I don’t like to expense personal meals, even when traveling, so telling me, “Go buy yourself lunch and expense it” just isn’t going to happen. That’s OK, don’t force it, but do acknowledge their contributions and make sure they get swag.
These ideas really take just a little bit of thought, and even less action. But it takes paying attention to detailsto make sure your far-flung team goes from good to gelled to great. Because the team that accomplishes great things together also celebrates them together. It just wouldn’t feel right to ignore Alex who lives in Minot, even if the rest of us are in Tallahassee – we’re a team.
The converse is also true: If it feels fine to celebrate without acknowledging remotes’ contributions, you’re sending the message that they don’t really matter. And they know it.