The Human Element in Remote Teams
2020 was the year where Remote Work proved itself as a business saviour in numerous fields. It showed that when a raging global pandemic is in place, people could do their job effectively in their living room as they did in their offices with slight adjustments. I was going out with friends, telling them how I've been right about working from home and that I'm not surprised they managed to adapt so quickly.
On the contrary, I've noticed a pattern throughout my friends and relatives that started working remotely, which seemed problematic. Most of them felt that they lacked this so-called "human contact" at their Work. They didn't have the office coffee machine or water-cooler where they usually catch up with colleagues on various topics. There were no inside jokes around the office, no mini basketball or darts, no gatherings or team buildings. There was only work. Emails, Slack messages, and Zoom meetings were the most ice-breaking small talk before a request or a brief is delivered. As a remote worker for almost four years now, the most common question that I was getting was
"How do you manage this feeling of disconnectedness at work?"
And the answer is more straightforward than most anticipated.
Humanising Remote Work
For almost two years, I was reading and researching how I could improve my work relationships. As an extrovert, loneliness at the workplace felt like hell at times. I love to bond with the people I work with. I thoroughly enjoy learning about them, their interests, the place they're from - their culture, so on and so forth. Yet for a long time, I couldn't find the right way to do it - at the end of the day we're at Work, and scheduled calls are for solving company problems, not for discussions about the favourite local dish of you colleagues or how good you've become at playing Call of Duty. But that did not mean that such talks are forbidden.
With time, I managed to find a solution that dulled down loneliness and disassociation at Work. It played a significant factor in why I decided to continue working as a remote product designer, and in all honesty, it was reasonably easy to implement.
The Boatmen on the Volga by Ilya Repin
Building Stronger Bonds in Remote Teams - Step by Step
1. Schedule a Monthly One-on-One
First of all, I always aimed to strip such calls of a plan and focus on keeping them more personal than work-related. Usually, Slack messages or ad-hoc calls can almost always solve work-related issues, but that's not the case when we talk about human relationships. People love to talk about themselves, and I enjoy listening to trivial topics like the favourite type of coffee one has or what they got for Christmas. I aim for simpleness - I want to know how the other feels, their average days, and similar things that will let them open up and feel accepted and listened to.
2. Do some activity together
Let's assume that you've already spent some time with a colleague of yours and you've discovered similar interests. Maybe you're into gaming? Why not do some raids in WoW or whatever game of choice? Perhaps you're into coffee or carpeting. The point is that you can find many similarities with people as we find similarities with the colleagues at an office job.
3. Send stuff to each other
While it is impossible to bring doughnuts to a remote team, sending small gifts is still a viable option. At my current job, I've asked for the addresses of a couple of colleagues of mine to send them cards for the New Year or get them something small as an act of gratitude. People strongly appreciate gestures like this, especially in a Remote environment, because it's very unusual/
While the steps listed above are not a setting stone for success, having a similar mindset for communication in a remote environment is almost always a guaranteed win due to two simple reasons. The first one is that most remote teams do not communicate with one another beyond work topics. While this isn't a bad thing itself, almost all humans enjoy the attention, kindness and interest of others, and if you do it correctly, your positive attitude will stand out with ease.
The second reason is a bit more philosophical - we're kind to others because it brings us joy and sets a base for a similar emotional response. There is nothing harmful in this "hidden" expectation of reciprocity. The saying of "Treat others the same way you want them to treat you." applies in all fields of human interaction.
I believe that when we feel disconnected in a remote team, it's our sole responsibility to search for change. Whether we're in an office space or our living room, we're always human, and we all enjoy the attention of others. While it's a tad more complicated and requires an initial push, one could still build stable, long-lasting bonds with colleagues from around the world - an opportunity that was merely impossible 20 years ago. So keep a positive outlook on the relationships in remote teams and remind yourself that you have at least half of the responsibility for the relationships between you and the people you work with.
The music of Cabaret Nocturne
Why Do We Interface? - A very interesting micro book by the talented Ehsan Nourhalesi
The muddy cat paw prints on my car's windshield
The smell of peppermint tea in the evening
The laugh of my wife
The professionalism of my therapist