In the past few months, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders around the country forced many of us to panic-pivot and work from home, with mixed results. Some people love the newfound freedom and five-second commute; others miss office colleagues and lunchtime conversations.
When employees at the Dallas-based start-up SPOTIO began working remotely in March, Lane Buckman, the director of team and customer experience, wanted to encourage fun ways of staying connected. In addition to offering a virtual happy hour with trivia once a week, she encouraged her office to participate in an “MTV Cribs”-style contest where everyone did two-minute videos showing how they work in their home space, or a tour of their house, or whatever they wanted to share. It created an opportunity for lighthearted connection beyond the transactional day-to-day of productively checking boxes during a stressful time. Buckman manages her team twice a day at check-in meetings and like many uses Slack to communicate throughout the day. She also sets reminders on her calendar for individual check-ins and longer conversations to keep a sense of connection.
With some companies encouraging employees to stay home until 2021 and beyond, a big question is how to keep employees engaged and emotionally connected.
Switch up the way you check in
“I think staying emotionally connected with colleagues or students has been first about acknowledging that the adversity people are facing right now comes in lots of different forms,” explains Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang, author of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. With so many facing social, emotional and physical anguish, she’s found it important to factor in how people are experiencing this time differently. In some cases, that means switching from long group conversations to shorter, one-on-one sessions. She’s also started sending written notes and letters.
Jamie Perkins, who works in marketing for a high-tech data storage company in San Jose, CA, had never worked remotely before March. She says having a daily call at 9 a.m. helps her keep a routine by having a dedicated time to start the day. “I’m the kind of person that needs structure to feel motivated, so this daily morning call really helps me stay connected to my team and my work,” she explains.
Teresa Douglas has been working remotely for a decade in various managerial positions, and is the coauthor of Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams. A resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, she currently works for a company with employees throughout the U.S. and Canada. For coworkers she’s known for a while but no longer works with directly, she schedules a monthly check-in as a part-social call, part-information exchange “as a way to keep the relationship warm.” For those she works with more closely, she uses instant messaging to check in. Pre COVID, her company had virtual happy hours and days where someone would give a presentation on a topic and anyone could join the discussion.
Put updates and feelings in writing
David Heinemeier Hansson, CTO and partner of the remote software company Basecamp, is the coauthor of several books, including Remote: Office Not Required. Basecamp has been working remotely for nearly two decades. As a company, Basecamp uses a variety of approaches to get people to share something about themselves beyond work, and twice a year, employees have normally joined together for a week at company headquarters in Chicago.
Heinemeier Hansson says the key to encouraging connection among staff members is making sure everyone feels as though they have a sense of what is going on.
“The number one thing you have to accept is that working remotely requires writing [because] you can’t get all the schedules to align all the time in the same way you could if you had everyone in the office,” Heinemeier Hansson explains.
At Basecamp, that means going beyond line-by-line chats and having automated check-ins where staff members spend a few moments on Monday morning writing down what they plan to work on for the week, which is then posted on a virtual bulletin board for others to see. In doing so, the written updates encourage everyone in the company to create bonds and interactions through the open-office communication.
And, at the end of each day, staff members take a few minutes to write what they handled during the day—not just what they got done—because even with the best of plans, “your intentions go out the window and you end up working on something else,” says Heinemeier Hansson.
As we look toward a new working world, being thoughtful and intentional about how we stay connected means effectively moving beyond watercooler conversations and office kitchen small talk. In doing so, we can create work environments that more readily promote flexibility, creativity, and productivity. A final tip from Harvard Business School Professor Huang: “It’s really about thinking and changing your mindset so connection is not just about physical proximity.”
Ana Homayoun is the founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting and the Life Navigator Middle School Program. She is also the author of several books focused on executive functioning, social media and teenagers. Follow her at: @anahomayoun