In the old world of work, we found friends, sports leagues, shopping friends and people to drink cocktails with at the office after work. The work of the work was only part of the reason we showed up. We also went somewhere.
In a remote or hybrid work environment, work and social connection are more split, affecting both our work and personal lives. Unfortunately, we will all have to meet our next romantic partner or golf buddy somewhere else. But this distance also affects the quality of the work we do and how connected we feel to our work.
“You can hang out with people you like,” says Helen Horstmann-Allen, COO at fastmail, a privacy-focused email provider. “And you can do great things. But when you do both together, you really feel the meaning of life. All the things that happen in offices — the snack area, coffee, stationery, and swag — are about creating that sense of connection. Feeling connected to a group creates a deeper sense of meaning in our work.”
In order to establish a deep and meaningful connection between a remote or hybrid team, someone – perhaps everyone – needs to deliberately think about how to make this possible. Certainly in remote workplaces, it won’t happen on the way to and from meetings, in the elevator, in the break room, or because you often walk past someone’s desk. You’ll have to make it happen.
This is a brave new world, and to some extent we are discovering it together. I asked people who lead remote and hybrid teams, those who built tools to facilitate the connection between disparate teams, and those who discovered unique solutions to their advice. Here are their tips.
1. Make communication transparent
“We try to encourage everyone to use public channels for all conversations,” said Peter Thompson, co-founder and CEO of cloud file service provider LucidLink. “We want to keep everything as transparent as possible.” His leadership team agreed from the start that to build a connection in a remote team, overcommunication would be imperative.
“We try not to use email,” he explains. “We use Slack. And we try to encourage everyone to use public channels for everything.”
So, unless someone is coordinating lunch or there is a privacy issue surrounding a topic, things — even important business topics — are discussed in the open. “People who come to the company tell us they’ve never been to a place that’s so open about some of the things we talk about.”
This makes everyone feel involved and trusted, he says. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, it’s available, go check it out.’ Everyone is part of the discussion.”
2. Lean on employee resource groups
“Employee resource groups (ERGs) are playing a new role in hybrid work when it comes to connectivity,” said Paaras Parker, chief human resources officer at HR software maker Paycor. These socially oriented groups are usually led by volunteers who bring together people with similar passions and organize online meetups, chats or activities. More than ever, these groups have become an important way to build connections, especially among people in the company who are not collaborating on projects.
“People have good connections with people on their teams,” she says. “But it’s hard to know people in the wider organization.”
These groups bridge that gap.
“Many companies have a group of working parents, a group of young professionals, an LGBTQ group or a group of people of color. People volunteer to chair these groups and curate experiences for their employees. It creates an informal way for people to connect with each other. This is a good thing for companies to re-enter now,” Parker says. “They help people see that they can really put their whole selves to work.”
3. Create a collegial atmosphere
Are you still friends with people you met in college? There is something about learning together that creates a deep connection.
Marko Gargenta, CEO and founder of PlusPlus, an in-house training software maker he founded after creating Twitter’s Twitter University, uses that idea to create a corporate culture. It started at Twitter because he saw that some people had in-depth knowledge of topics that would benefit others. He started tapping them to give workshops and share that knowledge.
Those 30-minute workshops were informal, personal and hugely popular. “One in five engineers taught regularly,” he says. Those continued as the world went remote, but they shifted to canned videos. They didn’t have the same impact. “People wanted human connection,” he says. “So we started turning the pendulum back to a live connection. Now they’re happening via Zoom, but they’re very in sync.” That has worked well.
“If you look at ancient Greece,” Gargenta says, “Plato started The Academy. It was the place where people who pursued ideas or pursued mastery came together, creating a sense of culture. This pattern of people pursuing mastery , creates community, it shaped ancient Greece, and all kinds of innovations came out of that.
“It’s no different for companies,” Gargenta continues. “If you create a watering hole for people seeking knowledge, it creates communities of practice, which shape the culture of organizations. With hybrid teams, this makes a lot of sense, especially now that we all crave human connection.”
4. Post personal profiles
In our current social world, we often only know people from their profile picture on Facebook, Twitter or TikTok. And strangely enough, this creates a sense of belonging to people we may not know very well. We could even connect with a complete stranger based on their photo and profile.
Fastmail’s Horstmann-Allen recommends making online profiles an essential part of your company’s intranet, the Slack channel, or whatever forum teams use to communicate. In addition to asking people to post a photo, she asks them to write a light profile showing who they are when they are not working.
“I love gardening,” she explains. “So I posted a photo of my garden so people can ask, ‘Helen, have you planted anything this season?’ Other people post pictures of their pets.”
This way, when you see a new face in a meeting or on a project you’re involved in, you can feel like you know them, even just a little, before you start a Slack, Zoom, or other conversation. ways of talking begins.
5. Formalize informal online social gatherings
“To encourage people to be casual and informal, you need to lower the stakes,” said Steve Gottlieb, CEO and founder of virtual workplace lounge water cooler. “If you go to Slack and say, ‘Hey, I’d like you to guide me,’ that’s very progressive.” But having a more casual online setting where people gather for social reasons creates opportunities to make those connections. “When you see someone you like [in an on online gathering] and they’re free, you can say, ‘I just wanted to introduce myself.’
It’s hard for many people to reach out to people in a high-stakes online environment, he says. So consider creating a low-stakes online meeting place.
There are plenty of ways to create casual hangouts online, including tools that allow people to congregate virtually around the water cooler, for coffee dates, or all by acciden
t. We looked at some of them last year.
6. Create an intentional exploration space
Vinay Hiremath, Co-Founder and CTO at Asynchronous Video Company Loom, says creating an online place for people to discover each other has done wonders for his company’s remote teams. Team members use the company’s video tool to create short videos about things like their plants, pets, or interests and post them on the company’s private platform. Then they discover each other through the same interests or just wandering around.
“We have a houseplant tour that is trending,” he says. “There’s also a tour for skincare routines that do it right.” For each, people introduce and post – on video – their plants or skincare routine, tagging it with the name of the tour. The tags bring those tours together so you can easily see your co-workers’ plants or self-care routines.
You might learn something. You definitely learn something about other people in the company.
Asynchronous video tools like Hiremath’s Loom are popping up in droves to meet the needs of hybrid teams who want the personal connection of a video call without the hassle of scheduling. Other startups include: claap, easyUp, super normaland Knowand major collaboration technology vendors, including Slack, Cisco, Zoom, GoToMeetingDropbox, Asana and Trello also join the asynchronous video action.
7. Meet in the Metaverse
Chris Savage and his co-founder at Wistia, a video hosting platform for marketers, stumbled upon an idea that offers a glimpse into the future of connectedness in the workplace. After some studies found that there were few numbers on how connected employees felt to the company, they held a hackathon to brainstorm how to solve this problem. The hackathon itself was a great way to connect people. But one idea that came out of it was to give everyone in the company Oculus glasses and invite them to meet in the metaverse.
“People were skeptical,” he says of the experiment. “But most of them were surprised by how much fun it was.”
Meeting other people in the metaverse is an unusual experience. You’re an avatar, so people don’t see your face, which helps people relax, Savage says. Yet you have a sense of presence. You can be next to some people while other people feel far away. Sound is also spatial. But the best part is that there is something to do there – just like when you get together in the real world.
His company plays games there so they can chill out together. “The game that’s my favorite,” says Savage, “is miniature golf. It’s fun. But part of what makes it so interesting is that you have something to do while you hang out. You can talk about anything, but you don’t have to. not talking all the time. In Zoom it feels weird just sitting together.”
Part of the success of the effort, he says, was that everyone was allowed to do it. “We’ve told people to feel comfortable playing with it during the workday,” he says. “If you have an office, people hang out. There is a lot of permission for things that don’t work. People smoke or drink coffee, whatever their thing is. You can’t do that with a remote. It’s just work, work, work. The goal was to give people permission to do something that isn’t work during the workday.”
Another reason he thinks it’s a success is that the company has made an effort to familiarize people with the idea. “We started by planning a few afternoons where people with more experience would play games with different people,” he says. “And that evolved into anyone who wanted to do a mini golf tournament.”
So maybe if remote and hybrid businesses make up for it, we can meet our next golf partner or shopping buddy at work after all.
Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.