In the old world of work, we found friends, sports leagues, shopping buddies, and people to have after-work cocktails with at the office. The work of work was only part of the reason we showed up. We also went to be part of something.
In a remote or hybrid work environment, work and social connection are more bifurcated, which impacts both our work and our personal lives. Sadly, we’ll all have to meet our next romantic partner or golf buddy elsewhere. But this distance also impacts the quality of work we do and how connected we feel to work.
“You can hang out with people you enjoy,” says Helen Horstmann-Allen, COO at Fastmail, a privacy-focused email provider. “And you can do great things. But when you do both of those together, you really feel the meaning of life. All the things that happen in offices — the snack room, coffee, stationery, and swag — are about creating that sense of connection. Feeling connected to a group is what creates a deeper sense of meaning in our work.”
Attaining a deep and meaningful connection among a remote or hybrid team requires that someone — perhaps everyone — think intentionally about how to make it happen. Particularly in all-remote workplaces, it isn’t going to occur on the way to and from meetings, in the elevator, in the break room, or because you often walk past someone’s desk. You will have to make it happen.
This is a brave new world, and, to some extent, we are discovering it together. I asked people who head remote and hybrid teams, those who have built tools to facilitate connection among disparate teams, and those who have discovered unique solutions for their advice. Here are their tips.
1. Make communication transparent
“We try to encourage everyone to use public channels for all conversations,” says 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 at the outset that in order build connection in a remote team, overcommunicating would be absolutely necessary.
“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 around a topic, things — even high-stakes business topics — get discussed out in the open. “People who join the company tell us they have never been in a place that is so open about some of the things we talk about.”
This makes everyone feel included and trusted, he says. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, it's available, go look at it.’ 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,” says Paaras Parker, chief human resources officer at HR software maker Paycor. These socially focused groups are usually headed up by volunteers who gather people with similar passions together 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 don’t work on projects together.
“People are having good connections with people on their teams,” she says. “But knowing people across the broader organization is tough.”
These groups bridge that gap.
“A lot of companies have a working parents’ group, a young professionals’ group, an LGBTQ group, or a people of color group. People volunteer to chair these groups and put together experiences for their associates. It creates an informal way for people to connect. These are a great thing for companies to reengage with right now,” says Parker. “They help people see that they truly can bring their whole self 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, a maker of internal training software that he founded after creating Twitter’s Twitter University, uses that idea to create company culture. It started at Twitter because he saw that some people had deep knowledge in topics that would benefit others. He started tapping them to give workshops and share that knowledge.
Those 30-minute workshops were informal, in person, and wildly popular. “One in five engineers were regularly teaching classes,” he says. Those continued when the world went remote, but they shifted to canned videos. Those did not have the same impact. “People wanted human connection,” he says. “So, we started dialing the pendulum back toward live connection. Now they happen over Zoom but are very synchronous.” That has worked well.
“If you look at ancient Greece,” says Gargenta, “Plato started The Academy. It was the place where people chasing ideas or mastery congregated, which created a sense of a culture. This pattern of people chasing mastery creates community. It’s what shaped ancient Greece, and all sorts of innovations came out of that.
“It’s not that different in companies,” Gargenta continues. “If you create a watering hole for people seeking knowledge, it creates communities of practice, which shape the culture of organizations. On hybrid teams this is very meaningful, especially now when we all crave human connection.”
4. Post personal profiles
In our current social world, we often know people only by their profile picture on Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok. And, oddly, this creates a sense of connection to people we might not know all that well. In fact, we might make a connection with a complete stranger based on their photo and the profile that goes with it.
Fastmail’s Horstmann-Allen recommends making online profiles an essential part of your company’s intranet, Slack channel, or whatever forum teams use to communicate. In addition to asking people to post a picture, she asks them to write a light profile that shares who they are when they aren’t at work.
“I love to garden,” she explains. “So I posted a picture of my garden so people can ask, ‘Helen, have you done any planting this season?’ Other people post pictures of their pets.”
This way when you see a new face in a meeting or working on a project you are involved in, you can feel you know them, if only slightly, before starting a Slack conversation, Zoom call, or other ways of conversing.
5. Formalize informal online social gatherings
“In order to encourage people to be casual and informal, you need to lower the stakes,” says Steve Gottlieb, CEO and founder of virtual workplace lounge Watercoolr. “When you go onto Slack and say, ‘Hey, I'd like you to mentor me,’ it’s very forward.” But if you have a more casual online setting where people are gathered for social reasons, it creates opportunities for making those connections. “If you see someone you like [in an on online gathering] and they're free, you can say, ‘I just wanted to introduce myself.’
Reaching out to people in high-stakes online settings is difficult for many people, he says. So consider creating a low-stakes online gathering place.
There are lots of ways to create informal gathering places online, including tools that help people get together virtually around the watercooler, for coffee dates, or completely by accident. We looked at some of them last year.
6. Create an intentional discovery space
Vinay Hiremath, co-founder and CTO at asynchronous video company Loom, says that creating an online place where people can discover each other has worked wonders for the remote teams at his company. Team members use the company’s video tool to create short videos about things like their plants, pets, or interests and post them in the company’s private platform. Then they discover each other through like interests or simply by wandering around.
“We have a houseplant tour that trended,” he says. “There’s also a skincare routine tour that’s doing well.” For each of those, people introduce — on video — their plants or skincare routine and post it, tagging it with the name of the tour. The tags pull those tours together so you can easily see your co-workers’ plants or self-care routines.
You might learn something. You will certainly get to know a bit about other people in the company.
Asynchronous video tools like Hiremath’s Loom are cropping up in droves to meet the need of hybrid teams who want the personal connection of a video call without the scheduling hassles. Other startups include Claap, easyUp, Supernormal, and Weet, and major collaboration tech vendors including Slack, Cisco, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Dropbox, Asana, and Trello are getting in on the async video action too.
7. Meet in the metaverse
Chris Savage and his co-founder at Wistia, a video hosting platform for marketers, stumbled onto an idea that offers a glimpse into the future of workplace connectedness. After some surveys revealed low numbers around how connected employees felt to the company, they held a hackathon to brainstorm ideas on how to fix it. 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 goggles and invite them to meet up in the metaverse.
“People were skeptical,” he says of the experiment. “But most of them have been surprised by how fun it has been.”
Meeting other people in the metaverse is an unusual experience. You are an avatar, so people don’t see your face, which helps people to relax, says Savage. Yet you have a sense of presence. You can stand next to some people while other people feel far away. Sound is spatial as well. But the best part is that there is something to do there — just as there is when you get together in the real world.
His company plays games there so they can hang out together. “The game that has been my favorite,” says Savage, “is mini golf. It's fun. But part of what makes it so interesting is that you have something to do as you're hanging out. You can talk about whatever, but you don't have to talk all the time. In Zoom, it feels weird to just sit together.”
Part of the success of the effort, he says, was giving everyone permission to do it. “We told people they should feel comfortable playing around with it during the workday,” he says. “When you have an office, people hang out. There’s a lot of permission for stuff that isn’t work. People smoke or drink coffee, whatever their thing is. With remote, you don't get that. It’s just work, work, work. The goal was to give people permission to do something during the workday that isn’t work.”
Another reason he believes it has been successful is that the company made an effort to get people familiar with the idea. “We started by having a couple afternoons scheduled where people who were more experienced played games with various people,” he says. “And that evolved into everyone wanting to do a mini-golf tournament.”
So maybe, if companies do remote and hybrid connections well, we’ll be able to meet our next golf partner or shopping buddy at work after all.