This article is part of my virtual work culture series.
After my companies went virtual in 2017, it took a significant amount of time to learn what worked and what didn’t for myself and the team. Following two decades of being in traditional office spaces and the routine of seeing staff daily, it was quite a shift culturally, but the company adapted, and now amidst COVID-19 we are adapting once again.
Surely as a virtual company, this new scenario should be relatively simple, right? Not exactly.
Yes, we were already well-versed at using Zoom and instant messaging, but there are significant changes I and my team have made, both culturally and operationally, to adapt to the new world of sheltering in place.
As I reflect on what we’re doing now that is new, I realize that everything has to do with getting and staying connected to colleagues, or with ensuring I was still able to disconnect when I needed to.
I’m not one for chit chat during the work day. In fact, in the early days of my company I’d avoid going to our kitchen area for fear that I would be sidelined by random conversations and not meet my work goals for the day. I’d speed in, grab my coffee or lunch, and bee-line back to my desk.
Over time I realized the value in those kitchen chats. I got to know more about my teammates, their personalities, families, celebrations or what was bothering them that day. And impromptu conversations didn’t just happen in the kitchen, they were spawned in our open work pods and in between meetings as we’d leave or enter a conference room.
Once we went virtual, I missed the intangible aspect of work culture. I realized that ideas and bonds are formed in between the scheduled structure.
To solve this in our new virtual work culture, we put the following into place:
- Video conferencing vs. phone calls - with video always on
- Instant messaging (first Slack, now Teams)
- Monthly in person team meetings for a full day - with time for socializing and bonding
- Weekly huddles on Fridays to talk about work priorities and resources
- Team challenges, such as walkathons, to stay connected outside of work and foster engagement
Post shelter-in-place, it was clear that more connection and support was needed.
I am more sensitive to the fact that employees have kids and spouses at home now, whereas before they had a more quiet work-at-home environment. Now there is online school and meal planning and chores to contend with, not to mention the added worry and stress in uncertain times, and concern for family and friends. There is also likely at least one other adult at home who is also trying to work remotely, quite possibly for the first time, making our current situation challenging.
So we decided to institute some new ways of connecting for now:
- Weekly town hall meetings to talk about emotions, issues & opportunities related to shelter-in-place (no work talk)
- Dedicated channel on Teams called “Sharing, Caring and Wine” to hold videos, memes, news, articles related to COVID-19
- Bi-weekly Wine Downs - virtual hour on Friday afternoons to share a glass of wine or favorite beer (not mandatory)
- Virtual team building with a guest facilitator to help ease stress and connect as a group (probably monthly, but this is new)
While I’ve been working virtually for a few years, I’m noticing the impact of shelter-in-place on my focus, bandwidth and energy.
In the old days, in between zoom calls that I took from my dining room table in NYC, I’d go out for meetings and meals. I liked meeting colleagues for networking, mentoring entrepreneurs, attending learning events and industry gatherings. Those local activities involved transportation - a subway, Uber or walking - and what I realize now is that the transit time was my opportunity to disconnect from work for a few minutes. I’d spend that time listening to podcasts, reading a book, catching up on family calls, or just daydreaming.
Over the past several weeks I’ve learned that having a full day of zoom calls feels very different than what I previously experienced.
Perhaps my schedule now is more typical of those that already work from home, since not everyone lives in a city, or has the flexibility to schedule in-person meetings as frequently. However, for those that aren’t popping around the city going to meetings, I imagine the in between times are now filled with family needs and new shelter in place demands.
Here are some changes I’ve made in the last month to proactively disconnect:
- Block out breaks on the calendar. Whether that’s 10 minutes between zoom calls to use the restroom and refill my glass, or an hour to make lunch and read, that little break helps me maintain focus and energy.
- Quick recreational activities to switch up my concentration. For example, I do a puzzle in another room or skip rope for 2 minutes to feel refreshed.
- Leave my laptop in the dedicated work space to avoid the temptation of opening it and continuing to work during meal time or in the evening while watching Netflix.
*Side note - I made a bold move about 2 years ago to remove work email from my phone so I only check it while on a laptop. I highly recommend this tactic, for two reasons: 1) I’m able to disconnect from work more easily, and 2) my email volume has been cut by more than half since the small backs and forth while on mobile have been eliminated.
So whether you’re new to working at home, or this is old hat - please know that this is a special time with unique challenges.
We must work even harder to connect with those we care about - including teammates. Provide the space and time to talk about more than work tasks so that there’s a deeper level of understanding and kindness. And at the same time, protect yourself and your valuable energy and focus by proactively disconnecting.