Workers who have been recently pushed into the world of full-time remote work may be going through a tough transition. Staying sane in this new isolated world can be tricky. Interacting in a non-work related open environment with teammates can be just the ticket to save the most frazzled of nerves.
The water cooler was the proverbial gathering place when everyone was co-located. This is where we would talk about our kids, the latest TV series, or some great idea we had. With everyone sitting at home we have lost that inherent co-located benefit.
Does it matter that we don’t have a built-in system for people to gather? Yes! People, for the most part, are social animals. Sitting at home alone is very isolating. Sure we have meetings, but sometimes those are more draining than uplifting. All work with no breaks can break the strongest of wills. Not only that, but there are proven benefits of having casual conversations. It builds team relationships, increases productivity, and creates an enjoyable atmosphere.
So they are important! But who should be having these conversations? Everyone (that wants to)! Even better if you are mixing people between different disciplines & departments. Some may resist, seeing it as a waste of time. The best you can do is create the space for the conversations to happen, but forcing people to participate would give this initiative a negative foothold.
This is a scheduled chat with one other person at the company to talk about non-work related things. At Zeal we call these “Sups”. We randomly pick two people to chat together then shoot out a message. It is up to the individuals to pick a date and time that works for both of them. They are usually about 30 minutes long and completely optional.
This is another scheduled meeting where many people interact with each other. Topics should again be non-work related. This optional meeting can be as long as an hour sometimes. People should feel free to drop in and out as available. Zoom has this really neat “breakout rooms” feature which allows for smaller groups to form if too many people join.
Depending on the work being done, you can have people pair up or parallel. This is more common with code developers, but may apply to other work as well. Pairing is where two people are working on the same thing together, while paralleling is where two people are working on different tasks while able to quickly bounce ideas off each other. Finding good remote software to accomplish this is important. Tuple solves this for us very nicely.
How does pairing/paralleling apply to water cooler type moments? These moments can happen more naturally. Usually when starting or ending a pairing session I like to chat about non-work related things. Some people aren’t as open to it and that is a perfectly acceptable stance. But I have found even the most work focused people tend to open up over time.
We have certain ritual meetings that we follow for our work, including; daily standups, iteration planning, retrospectives, etc. At these meetings we allow for some off topic updates. In our daily standups, we bring up anything we have found that is interesting in our world. In some of our client retrospective meetings we get updates on interesting places people have been or anything else that is unique to them. We cap the time spent on this so the rest of the meeting can focus on the intended use of the time, but these small updates can go a long way in maintaining connections between everyone.
Most everyone has some sort of company wide chat system to allow quick communication to happen between people. We currently use Slack to solve this for us. The great thing with Slack is the channels you can create to focus conversations around given topics. We use this as another way to promote relationship building. Along with our work related channels, we also have things like “Interestings”, “Off-topic”, “Funny”, and “Show your work”. These channels are open to everyone and allow a little space to post things everyone can see without the interruption of a video chat.
The isolation of being at home, possibly all alone, can take its toll. Why not create some sort of shared online entertainment space! This can be left up to the team to figure out what, but having a few ideas to start can get the creative juices flowing. Here are some quick ideas: book club, movie night, board games, or video games.
Having scheduled/regular meetings are great, but anxiety and loneliness do not follow a schedule. Depending on the make-up of your team, having volunteers who are willing to drop what they are working on to have a quick chat can be a mental life saver. For this to work you need to have a few team members who are willing to volunteer. That way if a particular volunteer is in a place where they can’t drop what they are doing (an important meeting for instance), there should be someone that is.
Setting this up should be handled delicately, so no one feels pressure to do something they are not comfortable with. Opening the discussion in an email or chat with having direct responses can alleviate any undo stress. Once the volunteers are established, have the volunteers come up with a common way for everyone to reach out when needed. That can be a dedicated chat room, direct messaging, or whatever works for them.
Another unscheduled virtual water cooler idea is to have an open video chat room. Depending on the size of your team, having a Zoom room where someone can just pop in when they have a free moment (or hang out in while they work). If more than one person finds themselves in the room together, then an organic conversation can spring up.
“Show & Tells” shouldn’t just be for grade school. I love seeing how amazing my teammates are. Usually this is limited to the work they are doing at our company. What I find more interesting is what they are doing outside of work. “Show & Tells” focusing on things outside of work are a great way to learn more about your teammates and build stronger relationships.
This voluntary meeting should be open for anyone to show anything they are proud of. This can be as quick and easy as showing off a new pet to a presentation about a side project they are working on. Some of the “Show & Tells” have included: home construction projects, DIY mushroom growing, new family members, simple (and complex) craft projects, and custom software applications, to name a few.
This could be as simple as just sitting down together via a virtual conference room and chatting about whatever fancies the group. Or you could implement any of the other ideas like show & tells, gaming, or Netflix watching.
I wouldn’t implement all these ideas. Focus on a couple that might work well for your organization. Try them out and adjust as needed. Having strong relationships with my co-workers is an easy win to help keep me sane. Hopefully you will find something here that can help you and your team become stronger together.
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