Of the many things people have struggled with during the past year, isolation is one of the biggies.
For many of us, the office was a place for social interaction, where the monotony of everyday tasks could be broken up by discussion of Married at First Sight Australia and Friday drinks provided a fixed end point to the week.
The Atlantic wrote recently about the consequences of losing these sorts of casual friendships: “The depth and intensity of these relationships varied greatly, but these people were all, in some capacity, my friends, and there was also no substitute for them during the pandemic. Tools like Zoom and FaceTime, useful for maintaining closer relationships, couldn’t re-create the ease of social serendipity, or bring back the activities that bound us together.”
This is not something to be taken lightly. The benefits to seemingly superficial interactions can be immense - and the consequences of doing without them quite literally deadly: social isolation has been found to increase the risk of premature death by almost 30%.
It’s also a problem for companies. We’ve written in the past about the difficulty of building trust while working remotely - and a big part of that is that people struggle to collaborate without establishing some sort of social relationship.
This is particularly difficult for those who have started work at a new job since the pandemic response began. Social interaction helps new starts adapt to the company culture and feel more comfortable asking for help.
At Desana we’ve always been a remote first team - but we’ve more than doubled in size since March last year.
Despite working together for months now, many of us have only ever met virtually (leading to a rather strange Slack discussion the other day about who’d seen whose bottom halves and which members of the team might be merpeople).
Socialising remotely has therefore been vital for strengthening collaboration and cohesion, as well as, you know, having fun.
With that in mind, here’s some activities we’ve tried while all working remotely.
Meet up when you can
We’re going to talk a lot here about the various possibilities over Slack and Google Hangouts.
But for getting to know each other in a short space of time, you can’t beat meeting in person.
With team members scattered across Edinburgh, London, Bristol and Stockholm, meeting as one company is always a challenge - even when there isn’t a global pandemic on.
We managed a meeting with most of the team back in August when restrictions allowed; the benefits to being together and - for some of us - meeting face-to-face for the first time were innumerable, both in terms of getting everyone on the same page but also for making it easier to collaborate now we had some common reference points when we all returned to our little boxes on video call.
The benefits were so significant that when the world allows, we hope to get the entire team together for an all-company offsite.
On the slightly less grand end of the scale, individual team mates have been making the effort to meet up with their nearest colleagues for socially distanced walks and, well, erm mainly walks. After all, getting outside every day is important.
Like many companies, we have an end of the week call. But this year we're hoping to run a social every month that’s a wee bit different.
By this point we know you’ve all done a million Zoom quizzes and are sick to death of them. But the options out there are increasing as a result of this last year and it’s worth taking another look. More and more companies are offering an online version, from popular games (including Cards Against Humanity, the definition of NSFW) to mind-broadening talks and guided meditation.
Thus far we’ve done a virtual escape room and a Valentine’s themed pictionary - but there are many plans brewing, including bake alongs and arts and crafts challenges.
We’ll keep you posted as to how we get on.
Company socialising can also take place asynchronously. We’ve all seen how mass video calls can end up with two or three extroverts speaking and everyone else listening in, like really bored peeping Toms.
One way we start conversations across the company is through our weekly song congas. Never heard of a song conga? Here are the rules:
- On the company communication platform of your choice - Slack, Teams etc - state a theme (like “Favourite Christmas song”, “Artist you would most like to see live” etc) and say a song that fits that theme.
- Then tag someone and they have to add another song that fits that theme.
- And then they tag someone else. You’re probably getting the idea...
It’s a good idea to avoid themes that are too linked to a particular genre; the idea isn’t to create a little clique of 80s Rock enthusiasts. You want to ensure everyone feels like they can participate, regardless of musical preferences or knowledge.
It’s a way to share music, yes, but it’s also a way to get people to share stories and memories, from teenage crushes to hometown stories.
One last tip: try to also keep the themes suitably wide, both so that everyone can participate and nobody feels under pressure to tell their colleagues intimate details of their lives. Think “A song that made you choke up”, as opposed to “The song you listened to while balling your eyes out and eating Ben & Jerry’s during your last breakup”.
Another method of asynchronous communication is of course making the most of your company communication platform. Having a channel (or several) devoted to things outside work helps to mimic the watercooler chat of working in an office and suits those whose communication style is more written than verbal.
We’ve got a few channels dedicated to non-work purposes. #spout is the original, for sharing everything from film recommendations to horrifying pictures of beans on weetabix.
It then spawned an “offshoot” #sprout (note the ‘r’), focused on sharing pictures of our houseplants (it’s possible we’ve reached peak millennial here).
Then we got #get-crafty to share the creative efforts of the Desana team, from concrete lampshades to generative art (fortunately no sourdough yet).
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. If you were in an office, people would be having casual conversations all the time in break rooms and kitchens. When working remotely, you just have to be a bit more intentional about it.
Some team members are particularly good at making sure they put time in the diary to catch up with others and get to know each other better.
But to make it a little bit more intentional (and so that no one gets left out), we also use Donut which randomly pairs people up to have a (virtual) coffee every two weeks.
It’s a great way of ensuring that people talk to people outside their immediate colleagues - and makes it a bit more acceptable to debate the merits of instant vs ground coffee during company time.
I'm doing week one but it's actually week two.
What's all that about? What are we going to do?
I'll tell you what we're going to do: we're going to pretend that it is week one.
We've got a rare chance to go back in time; a second chance to reset.
Our first week one was great but let's make the second week one
a week never to forget.
Ok, I admit it: this is a bit of a weird one but it’s become something of a tradition here at Desana. At the end of each week, someone is randomly selected to write a poem (usually motivational) about the next week. They then share the poem with the team during Monday’s standup. I’m not quite sure how this happened...
It’s become like a strange Christmas Eve family tradition: it doesn’t make any sense to anyone else, it’s embraced with various degrees of grumbling - and somehow things wouldn’t be the same without it.
Lest you think we’re some sort of modern-day Bloomsbury Group masquerading as a startup, I should make clear that there is no threshold of ability. All offerings, no matter how torturously rhymed, are embraced.
We’re not advising that you start forcing your colleagues to start spouting sonnets. But the point is that something that starts as a silly joke can gently (or not so gently) snowball into something that becomes a shared point of reference.
Of course, it helps that we’re a small team - and we’re by no means claiming that everything we do is perfect.
We haven’t quite reached Mythic Quest working-from-home levels (watch this and weep at how your workplace Zooms will never be this damn good).
However, we do believe in encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work - and a part of that is allowing them the space to actually get to know each other as people, and not just feel like they have to be some perfect work robot.
And if that involves giving them the space to share pictures of their sourdough starter, then so be it.
How have you tried to socialise as a team? What’s worked (and what hasn’t)? Let us know.