Zoom meeting with 9 people from VMG Studios

2020 has started off with a bang. From the U.S. nearly going to war with Iran, to Kobe Bryant’s shocking death, to President Trump’s impeachment acquittal, to the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe.

It’s a strange time. And it’s only just beginning.

COVID-19 has completely shifted the way we live, the way we work, and the way we interact with one another (hello, social distancing).

As a small business owner, I’ve not only been concerned with the financial welfare of my company but also my employees’ mental and physical health.

How are they feeling? How can we change our processes so we can all work from home? But most importantly, I’ve been worried about how we can remain a team.

Here at VMG Studios, we pride ourselves on our company culture. Our dynamic culture is one where team members collaborate, share knowledge, communicate and most importantly support one another. It’s made up from our values and beliefs shared by our team.

VMG has built a personality through inside jokes, shared experiences, and an open collaborative work environment. Since we’re a small team, we feel more like a family – a family that works hard and plays hard, challenges one another, and cares about the well-being of one another.

Our employees are now all working remotely for the first extended period of time, myself included. Video chatting doesn’t compare to the relationships that are built and ideas that are exchanged when working next to each other. I needed to find a way to keep our company culture alive. That’s easier said than done when there is also a lot of anxiety and fear around the pandemic. 

Here’s how we are doing it:

Daily video check-ins

Prior to COVID-19, our creative team had daily standup huddles at 8:45AM to talk about the day’s assignments, projects, and to simply have a quick check-in about life. It’s a nice way to bring everyone together since we offer flexible working hours and some people sneak in early in the morning. Besides this, for the last 15 years, we have always started the week off with a staff meeting which we end by going around the room saying what we are grateful for.

Luckily, these routines don’t have to change. We are fortunate to live in a technological world that enables us to be connected wherever we may be via video chat. Because of how many different video chat platforms there are – from Microsoft Teams to Zoom to Amazon Chime to Skype for Business – there are plenty of options to choose from.

With the shift in how our entire team communicates, we’ve since added an afternoon huddle.

In this meeting, we’re focusing more on each other rather than our projects. We ask three questions to each team member:

  1. How are you feeling both physically and emotionally?
  2. What is one cool thing that happened during the day or something you learned?
  3. Are there any roadblocks that are preventing you from doing your job?

While many team members talk to one another throughout the day, not everyone interacts with everyone. These questions give our virtual team a chance to share a bit about their current lives, and gives us all a chance to check-in and see some friendly faces. 

Zoom video chat between two men with one man smiling and pointing to a lightbulb above his head

Creating a live office

I work closely throughout the day with my Executive Assistant. We are used to working side-by-side, so I was worried about productivity. With our Pro account, I added a “Zoom host” so I could create a meeting room that I keep open all day so we could have a live remote office.

In the morning, I start a video chat that my EA or sales and marketing team can join at any time. As they come online, they can essentially join the workspace.

In the same way, I set up a “Zoom host” that we call “The Virtual Pit.” It’s a place where our designers, animators, and editors, who are working diligently on their own tasks, are available for quick questions and collaboration.

I’ve talked to several people who have had a difficult time getting into their workflow or feeling motivated outside of their normal environment. A virtual office, however, gives employees a constant reminder that work and productivity are their focus.

Keep up with traditions

Building relationships when you’re not in the same room with someone can be challenging, and if you’re working remotely, you’re not going to have the luxury of being brought into impromptu, in-person conversations or joking around about the fun things happening in the office.

We use Microsoft Teams for one-on-one communication and Zoom as our virtual office, one-to-many. It’s our online version of the “water cooler” (at VMG it’s the kitchen lounge)—where random conversations happen about news, jokes, and family.

I believe that culture is something that organically evolves every day with every shared interaction. 

With that, it’s important to keep up with company traditions/trends.

One thing our team enjoys is the weekly meme contest. At the beginning of the week, two pictures are sent out to the group, like this:

2 memes one featuring a man using a banana phone and the other featuring a bearded man looking at a La Croix

People pick their meme, fill in their text of choice, and then we vote on our favorites. The top 2 winners then get to pick a meme for the next week. It’s simple, it’s silly, it involves a lot of inside jokes (and often memes that are pictures of our co-workers), but it’s also a lot of fun.

Once again, thanks to technology, it’s possible to keep this tradition alive via chat platforms. We use Microsoft Teams to send out the week’s memes and vote on our favorites. We even have a thread dedicated to Memes and Jokes.

Start new traditions

Stress and frustration levels are high as we try to figure out how to function smoothly, solving one problem at a time, and adopting new tools. And I am sure there are others on my team who are as emotional as I am sometimes. It is important that I help find ways to keep our spirits high.

One of my daily routines has turned into a team building experience. Every day for the last year, my alarm would go off at 3PM and remind me to do 8 sets of squats. If you happen to be in my presence at that time, I would have you join me.

And that’s when it happened. I was on a video chat when my alarm went off and I had my assistant virtually squat with me.

The next day, I reached out to the greater team and put it on the calendar. Now, at 3PM each day, a group of us jumps into our Zoom Room for a mini workout break. Different teammates join every day.

This helps break up the workday like it would in an office setting where you might get up and walk around to say hi to various coworkers (while getting your steps in).

Group of people on a Zoom video call doing squats.

And it’s actually more than just an exercise break – it’s a fun, non-work-related way for us to connect. We’re all watching each other doing squats which was pretty funny. We even had a co-worker record a video on his phone to show us the proper form to do a squat, which was so cute. With this birthed a new tradition that helps us stay connected and keep each other accountable.

While your new tradition doesn’t need to be exercise-based, finding common ground between you and your teammates could spark a fun brain break.

In fact, my squat break has become contagious, and that brings me joy. My operations manager, who runs the team huddles (which includes up to 23 people), has announced a Zoom virtual background contest.

Zoom background content for VMG Studios team working remotely

Moving forward with your virtual team

Building culture in an office usually consists of doing things like dressing up for holiday parties, pizza parties, walking to your favorite neighborhood coffee shop (ours is Mercury’s Coffee Co.)  together for a to-go cup of joe, taking a teammate out for lunch, or going out for a beer after work.

You can still keep that kind of culture alive even if your team isn’t used to working remotely, it will just take a bit of extra effort. But when done with intent, you can feel as cohesive as if you were sitting in an office together.