The office water cooler has long been the icon for informal communication among managers and employees, helping to boost morale and sometimes leading to new ideas. However, with more people working remotely, business leaders are challenged to keep that water cooler communication with people who may be hundreds or thousands of miles apart. The savvy ones are doing these five things.

Be a connector

Start each virtual meeting with the opportunity for small talk so people can get to know each other and find points of connection. Morag Barrett, founder, and CEO at business consultancy SkyeTeam and co-author of The Future-Proof Workplace, says informal chit-chat can have a big impact on the social bonds between team members. "Ask them what they do for fun and when they are at their best." Try a different opening question for each meeting to keep it fresh and fun.

Sweat the small stuff

When you share the same workspace, it's easy to swing by a team member's desk to catch up, wish them a happy birthday, or suggest they leave early on a Friday afternoon. Replicating that informal interaction with virtual team members isn't as easy. Be sure to share office news--for example, if someone is getting married or just completed a significant personal goal to be celebrated--so remote workers can feel informed. "Set a calendar reminder if you need to, but share the office news or simply check in regularly," Barrett suggests. "This ensures you are not simply calling your remote team members when you need something."

Strive for inclusiveness

If you are having bagels served at a breakfast meeting in your time zone, find a way to get appropriate snacks to virtual attendees in other time zones. "Taking a little time and effort to ensure an inclusive approach will differentiate your leadership and build team bonds," Barrett says. It may sound hokey, but sending a care package really shows just how much you care.

Take time to connect

Face-time with virtual team members is generally limited, so there is a tendency to cram meeting agendas full of business items. But, it's important to include time for team building. SkyeTeam leaves "white space" in physical meeting agendas that team members can use to get to know each other better. "Team members can be sent off in pairs or small groups to explore the city where the meeting is being held and simply chat," Barrett says.

Use the best tech

Use virtual meeting platforms that allow attendees to register and upload photos so everyone can "see" who is participating. When using Skype or other video conferencing solutions, make sure everyone turns their camera on. As Barrett notes, "While you may not like seeing your image on a screen, it really makes a difference for others. We build relationships with other humans, not just anonymous voices on the end of a phone line."

With some attention to detail and the appropriate technology, you can make your out-of-office employees feel engaged and connected. By focusing on the needs of these virtual workers, you can improve everything from performance to retention of workers who aren't immediately in the line of sight.

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