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Saurabh Mhatre
Saurabh Mhatre

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Bringing back informal communication in remote work

Overview

Hell everyone,

Since the past few years, most of the software engineers and engineering teams across the world have started working from home and are slowly adjusting to remote working culture. Remote engineering has brought in its own set of advantages and challenges as well. Even companies across the world are trying to adapt to these new changes.
One thing which we all surely might miss is having casual conversations with colleagues, discussing random side-project ideas with them or hobbies and even favourite web series/movies we watched last weekend.

I recently came across an interesting article about informal communication in a remote environment from Gitlab's remote working handbook which is a massive 2000+ pages resource for learning about good remote working practices. Shared below are a few key points that I personally found interesting from the article:

1. Reasons for having informal communication at the workplace

Remote workers who are all-work all the time can risk facing burnout or loneliness. One of the best ways to combat loneliness and burnout is through relationship-building by prioritizing regular social interactions via informal communication throughout the workday, week, and month.
Informal communication is important, as it enables friendships to form at work related to matters other than work. Those who feel they have genuine friends at work are more likely to enjoy their job, perform at a high level, feel invested in the company, and serve others within the organization.

For all-remote companies, leaders should not expect informal communication to happen naturally. There are no hallways for team members to cross paths in, no carpools to the office, etc.

At the same time we should also keep in mind that while some people thrive on spending time to get to know others, others are annoyed by non-work-related texts and messages. Informal communication among diverse team members requires a high level of empathy.

It's helpful to be transparent and considerate about communication preferences from the employee's end so that managers and teammates can know and respect everyone's boundaries.

2. Ways to foster informal communication in a remote environment

Below are a few of the ways we can create to foster informal communication referenced from Gitlab's handbook. All-remote companies and employees can iterate on these and implement them as desired.

  1. Social call: A series of optional calls once a month on a Tuesday, to which everyone in the organization is invited. Have no set agenda, but items can be added to the linked document. This is just a time set aside for everyone to talk openly and where everyone is a moderator.

  2. Contribute Unconference: An in-person, annual week-long event where we can bring the entire company together in one location to get to know each other better.

  3. Group conversations: Few times a week the company can get together virtually to discuss an area of the business. Slides can be provided for context but not presented.

  4. Coffee chats: Working remotely leads to mostly work-related conversations with fellow team members, so everyone at all remote companies can be encouraged to dedicate a few hours a week to having social calls with anyone in the company.
    It's a great chance to get to know who you work with, talk about everyday things and share a coffee, tea, or your favourite beverage. Most of us surely want to make friends and build relationships with the people we work with to create a more comfortable, well-rounded environment.

  5. Coworking calls: These video calls are scheduled working sessions on Zoom where team members can work through challenging tasks with a coworker, or simply hang out while each person works on their own tasks. This recreates a productive working session we might have in-person in a traditional office setting but from the comfort of our own desk.

  6. Social hours: Informal social calls can be organized within immediate teams to get to know each other on a more personal level.

  7. Local meetups: Co-located team members can be encouraged to organize their own meetups, whether it's a coworking space or getting dinner together.

  8. Channels for informal activities: Slack/Discord channels for informal communications can be added throughout the company, whether it's a team-specific channel or a channel dedicated to sharing vacation photos with other team members.

    Companies can have a #gaming Slack channel where fans of video games and digital board games can connect. Coordinating shared gaming sessions is a great way to informally connect with team members and collaborate toward goals outside of work.

    #music_making channel can be a place where artists can come together and collaborate synchronously or asynchronously to make music together.

    Personal Addition: We can even have a #jokes/memes channel where people can share jokes or memes with others.

  9. Zoom calls: Not only do we get to know our coworkers better by seeing them in real-time during video calls, but we also get to know their pets and families too. This visual engagement helps us relate to each other on a more personal level, so when we meet in person, we already know each other.

  10. Collaborative virtual quizzes: A collaborative quiz tool like Kahoot can be used for virtual team-building activities. Employees can split into smaller breakout groups on Zoom to get to know each other and answer the questions. Employers can incorporate some friendly competition by offering a prize for the winners.

3. Leading with empathy

Each work-related call can begin with an earnest, genuine "How are you?", or a similar and appropriate introduction.

It's important to remember that everyone is facing a battle that we know nothing about, and in a remote setting we should actively listen.

The above point is my personal favourite from the handbook 😁

4. Using emojis to convey emotion πŸ˜„

Though emojis have commonly been reserved for personal conversations that occur outside of the workplace, all-remote employees can feel comfortable using them in everyday discourse with team members.

Perception has shifted on using emojis in professional settings. In Slack alone, north of 26 million custom emojis has been created since the feature was introduced. In all-remote settings, where you may never meet a colleague in person, leveraging visual tools to convey nuance in tone, emphasis, and emotion can lead to more empathy and a tighter human connection.

5. Celebrations and holidays

A team that is distributed across the globe creates opportunities for many celebrations. Different countries and cultures celebrate in their own way, enabling team members to gain an understanding of key dates and events that matter to colleagues. A culture that encourages a team to thoughtfully express their celebrations on company calls is a healthy, inclusive one.

There are a lot more things to share but I want this article to be just a summary and not the exact replica of the original resource. If you would like to add a few more informal activities which your organisation undertakes, then please add them in the comments so that others can learn about them as well.

That's it from my end for today. See you all in the next article.

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