Remote Working: Thriving in the Face of a Social Desert
Working remotely doesn't have to mean working alone.
I'll start by stating the obvious. The toothpaste is out of the tube, the genie is out of the bottle. Working from home is not only possible but could very well be better for both the employer and the employee. The discussion about whether WFH should become the norm is still ongoing with various captains of industry wading in. In my community, the prevailing opinion is generally favourable with reports of better mental health, lower environmental impact and greater productivity. Personally, I love working from home and I'm lucky enough to work for a company that gives me complete autonomy over where I choose to work. You know, like a grown up.
It turns out that connecting with people at work is not only a good thing for our health, it's downright essential for our professional performance.
With that being said, there are some downsides to the home-office lifestyle. For me, the lack of socialization is a little sub optimal. As a reserved introvert, I thought the lack of mindless pleasantries with people would be an acceptable casualty in the shift to remote work. It turns out that connecting with people at work is not only a good thing for our health, it's downright essential for our professional performance. If you've read 'Nine Lies About Work', you'll know that the relationship between members of a team is a great predictor for performance of that team. How can you have a relationship with your team if the only time you talk is during a highly structured morning stand-up or over an email?
But it's not just the team we need to connect with. As we converse with others we naturally share news and ideas. Something resonates with you and a solution comes to mind or you offer a perspective and unblock someone who's been struggling. A casual chat during a coffee break reveals a kindred spirit who becomes a long-standing friend. These interactions are often random yet so important to the human experience. Networking is also hugely important for many seeking opportunities or guidance. However, building team relationships and networking is not an excuse for the likes of Sir Alan 'Huge Commercial Property Portfolio' Sugar to drag us all back into our cars for the daily commute. Instead, we should be finding ways to connect whilst still enjoying all the benefits that WFH brings us. Here's a few things you and your organisation could do to fill those social gaps.
I recently attended Brum.js for the first time. Not only did I learn something new but I also managed to build new connections with experienced technologists in the Birmingham area. Additionally, it was great to meet a bunch of recent bootcamp recruits. Each had a unique story to tell and a differing perspective to those who took the traditional route into the industry. Find out what's happening in your local area. Many events are free or super low cost. If you're struggling to find a meetup near you, why not start one of your own? Ask your company about sponsorship or use of a space.
Company 'Collabathon' Days
Pre-COVID, we all used to groan at the idea of 'mandatory fun'. I remember turning my nose up at the idea of spending my free time with people I'm obliged to be around for 8 hours a day. Work from home has actually inverted this for me. It's delightful to see these people and build those connections without the distraction of the daily workload. You'll meet people who work in other departments that you may have never seen before. Conversations could lead to new and interesting cross-functional projects. This could be implemented in the form of an offsite hackathon followed by drinks and a buffet.
For the smaller, local team, it's essential to spend as much time bonding as possible. Gathering the team into one geographical location can be justified by planning a project or refining your ways of working. This gives people the opportunity to open up and exchange stories. This is even better if it's paired with a naturally social event like dinner. Don't do it too often though, dragging a geographically diverse team around the country can get a bit wearing. My current employer achieves this by holding a quarterly 'Tech Huddle'. The event lasts most of the day and allows us to keep abreast of our goals and our progress. At the end of the day, we can wander around chatting with the wider department in a more relaxed, social way.
Virtual Team Chinwags
Block out an hour of time each week for the team to get together on a video call and just chat. Find an icebreaker, ask the team to share an embarrassing photo or ask them about their hobbies. This is an opportunity for the team to learn about each other and build trust. Eventually, this meeting will find its own momentum and people will naturally drop into conversation.
##Ad-Hoc Video Calls Make a habit of not scheduling video calls where possible. Obviously you should continue to schedule the regular rituals. However, would you schedule a meeting to get an opinion on best practice in the office? No. well then why would you schedule that kind of conversation in a remote setting? If you have an issue, need help or you want to get a decision, ask your colleagues if they can jump on a call right now for a couple of minutes. Cameras should stay on as much as possible. It's tempting to have these kind of conversations over email or IM. Don't! Text based conversations lose most of the social fluff for efficiency. Keeping calls short but having them often gets the benefit of face to face communication whilst minimising video call fatigue. This normalises the idea that you and your team are available to each other and are working towards a common objective.
Hopefully, building some of these practices into your work routine will help you and your team to collaborate better as well as continuing to make meaningful connections in your industry. What have you done to maintain social connections while working from home? Any top tips? I'd love to hear them.