code-for-a-living April 13, 2020

Socializing with co-workers while social distancing

As we increase our social distancing efforts and have fewer people around us, building connections and socializing becomes ever more important for our mental health. We spend a lot of time at work and a decreasing amount of time socializing outside of it, so turning some of that work time into a social time can serve two purposes. For it to be effective, though, you can’t just push socializing initiatives alone.

Here at Stack Overflow, everyone who used to go into the office (like your humble narrator) is into their sixth week of working from home. We get it; without the random bump ins in the hallways, the casual conversation at the coffee machine, and the lunchtime chatter, building connections with coworkers is tougher. But a lot of us at Stack were working remote already, and we’ve been able to build an office culture without an office. 

As we increase our social distancing efforts and have fewer people around us, building connections and socializing becomes ever more important for our mental health. We spend a lot of time at work and a decreasing amount of time socializing outside of it, so turning some of that work time into a social time can serve two purposes. For it to be effective, though, you can’t just push socializing initiatives alone. 

We asked around our veteran and newbie remote workers to see how they kept in touch with their coworkers. 

A coordinated effort

In a physical office, your office managers or human resources coordinators would be letting everybody know about the various social events in the office. Maybe they’d put up some fun flyers around the office, or tell everyone in person as they ran into them at the coffee makers. Maybe you’d find out from your coworker grapevine. When you’re remote, you don’t have that passive information gathering system. 

In an all-remote environment, active communications of sponsored (or even informal) social events becomes more important. But daily emails can be overwhelming; our workplace operations manager, Cory Neal, limits it to once a week. “If you’re constantly getting emails from someone, it makes it easier to ignore them.” 

Even before everyone was trying to work from home, we had multiple offices across multiple timezones, plus remotes around the world. We had office managers in NYC and London, and smaller offices in Munich, Austin, and Denver, which all fall under the remote umbrella. To solve for this, the office managers handle the events closest to their respective timezones, and feeding all events into a shared calendar. It’s no poster in the break room, but it does provide some passive discovery for us. 

Chat apps to the rescue

We all spend a lot of time in our chat apps during our daily life. Whether you curse or praise the day Slack or Microsoft Teams was preloaded on your work machine, we’re using them almost constantly. 

Which is to say not all of your chat channels at work need to be about work. For example, we have a ton of Slack channels devoted to socializing:

  • #stack-gamers
  • #coffee
  • #homeowners
  • #listeningroom
  • #cooking
  • #fitness
  • #bicycles
  • #babbies and #furbabbies
  • #breakroom
  • #filmandtv
  • #chess-heads 
  • #plantlife
  • #creations
  • #cars 
  • #photography_club

Personally, I’ve been spending most of my social chat time in #cooking. Now that I have the time, I’m baking bread. I shared pictures of said bread for a little bit of connection to your co-workers. It’s something that I might have otherwise shared when bumping into people by the coffee machine. There’s a lot of us hungry for news about the coronavirus situation, and there’s a lot of us who want a break from the constant deluge of news about it. Give your teams a specific room to chat about it if they want, quarantining (ed note: *groan*)  it from those who don’t want to hear about it. 

Even in the normal team and other work channels, a little hello when you start work can go a long way to creating that feeling of starting a day with your coworkers. Instead of waving when you walk into a shared office, wave when you enter your shared channels. We lose a lot of non-verbal cues by working remotely, so casual contact takes more effort when working remotely. 

You can encourage more contact by adding games to your chat apps. Trivia works well. So do conversational/politicking games like Werewolf or Mafia, where you can set up channels to discuss choices and play asynchronously. In fact, there’s a surprising number of games for Slack and Teams.

Face time

Hopefully, if you are working from home, you have a pretty good internet connection. That way, you can set up regular video calls with people on your team. Regular video calls aren’t quite as good as being in the same room, but they’re close. In fact, because we’re remote-first, it’s not uncommon (pre-social distancing) to see a meeting with multiple people from the same office take place entirely on video chat. Even now, some shy folks don’t like turning their cameras on, but it can help make everyone in a meeting feel like a real person, while conveying some of the non-verbal cues that are part of normal conversation. Medi, on the Marketing team, remembers a time when her team had an end-of-day check in system. “We would go around, ‘I am green at home, I am yellow at work, annoyed with the vendor.’”

For smaller meetings, encourage a little more digression and personal chatter. This might be the only time folks get to see each other, so pad a little bit of leeway into every all-remote meeting. Start with icebreakers and have everyone go round robin and share answers to a pre-picked topic—describe your weekend in one word, what are you binge watching, how do you plan to cut your hair. Better yet, set up coffee break meetings on a regular basis to catch all the water cooler banter in a virtual setting. 

At Stack Overflow, since everyone has gone to remote/WFH full time, we’ve set up several large scale video chat social hours. We have a standing remote lunch call for the people who miss sitting at the same table every day. We have Friday remote bev bashes, a long-standing tradition that’s grown now that no one is in the office. Heck, we’ve even set up a Stack Overflow cooking show so our employees can make the most of their sudden and constant proximity to their kitchen. And for those that opt-in, we have a Slack Roulette that automatically matches three people for a half-hour chat, regardless of their locations. 

Like the specific hobby channels above, we have a number of affinity groups for people who want to have a protected space for minority facets. These can be organized around anything: demographics, gender and sexual identity, religion, neurodiversity, family status, cultural aspects (like sober living), and more. It’s important for us to continue to have these spaces for our people, even when those spaces go virtual. A full video chat version of these was easy enough; they were always partially virtual. 

Having more than just a purely professional relationship can build comradery and unify your team. If you get to know and actually like the people that you work with, it makes it easier to collaborate. And in a time when many of us are working remote full-time for the first time, collaboration is more important than ever. 

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