It’s been four months since Pigeonhole Live went fully virtual. As a tech company with a lean team, the transition was a smooth one. Thanks to our arsenal of collaboration tools, we were already paperless, and despite some of the teething issues (a.k.a some of my colleagues suffering a bad case of cabin fever during lockdown), we were able to continue business as usual.
But as the months passed by, I began to feel a very odd emotion. Despite talking to them every work day, I started to miss my colleagues. I started to feel lonely.
There is a new normal that we’re all adapting to, and part of that is a struggle to find a new form of human connection in our workplace. While business as usual is able to take place, that human connection was missing. It wasn’t without lack of trying. Managers encouraged videos to be turned out during meetings, and we had more calls - way more calls - to continue talking and engaging with each other.
This missing human connection can have serious effects on the workplace, affecting employee engagement, increasing absenteeism by 37% and lowering profitability by 16%. Workhuman CEO Eric Mosley even calls the lack of human connection “the real killer of productivity”.
“People who feel lonely become less committed to their organisation. This means they care less and performance suffers as a result,” said Professor Sigal Barsade of The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Not to mention the actual impact of loneliness on a person’s mental health. Mental health experts share that individuals experiencing a decline in social connectedness are vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behaviour, and even suicidal behaviours.
An EY study revealed in March 2019 that 40 percent of employees feel isolated in their role. How much has this statistic changed since the pandemic?
Reimagining the workplace
When you adapt a company to “business as usual”, there’s a greater focus on ensuring that work can be done. This may seem like a very obvious statement, but it assumes that when you are at the office, or your workplace of choice, you spend every second at the physical place of work, well, working.
What actually happens looks a little more like this:
And this is natural. Anyone familiar with the Pomodoro technique, a time management trick used by productive lifehackers, knows that scheduling regular breaks is an essential part of the process. Tech giants like Google and Facebook are well known for creating workplaces full of things that are not work-related -- ping pong tables and massage parlours and an indoor rock-climbing wall. To work effectively, you need to have the space to also not work. And while teams have transitioned well to remote-work, the capacity for remote-not-work is diminished.
Where’s my virtual rock climbing wall, boss?
The beauty of remote-not-work
Remote-Not-Work are activities amongst colleagues that are not work-related, but are essential to maintaining the social fabric of the company. They are replacements to coffee breaks or water-cooler chats in the pantry, team lunches, and even randomly walking past someone’s desk and commenting on their new potted plant. They are both the intentional social gatherings and the micro-interactions that make up the day.
When I sat down and took stock of my social interactions, I found that remote-not-work was severely lacking. The Pigeonhole Live team uses Slack as our main messaging platform, and since shifting to a complete remote-working arrangement, it became our only communication platform. That means that while the frequency of messaging increased, the frequency of social messaging decreased.
Instead of having lunch with my colleagues, I had lunch with my partner. And if I needed a snack break, I would walk to my own kitchen - ten short steps from my computer, and take whatever was in my pantry. No one was there to have water-cooler chats with me. Attempts to talk to my husband about work stresses failed, because he didn’t have the context to empathise or help.
Something had to be done.
So what can be done?
1. Special interest groups
Create online groups on your collaboration platform for groups of people who have shared interests. This allows employees to connect in different ways internally, and also to enrich their lives as they work remotely. Within the Pigeonhole Live team we have a Slack channel created for musicians to share videos of their progress, and a separate group for fans of the online game Skribbl.io.
2. Create a space for spam
Spam here doesn’t mean anything malicious or persistent ads. It refers to anything interaction that is not work related, and perhaps doesn’t even fit into a particular group. Like the junk drawer of online interaction, this one space could be a good way for people to feel comfortable sharing whatever messages, memes, or content they like with the team, or the whole company for smaller organisations. Having an ‘anything’ space could lift the pressure of communicating the right way, and just let connections happen.
3. Schedule (and make time for) water-cooler chats
It’s annoying to have to schedule something that used to be organic, but water-cooler chats bring an element of connection that is missing from remote work and is well worth the extra effort. So reach out to colleagues that you usually talk to in the office, or those you’ve hardly interacted with, and get on a quick call to talk about anything but work.
If you need a little more help, the Pigeonhole Live team uses a Slack integration called Donut. The integration helps randomly connect colleagues for a virtual coffee, and even prompts with a random question like “What was your most epic childhood Halloween costume?” and “What’s your most used emoji?”
4. After-hours special events
If you’re a strict detractor of spending time with colleagues after hours, this point isn’t for you. But for those who are used to grabbing a quick drink with colleagues before heading home, it’s time to start those up again - virtually. Tell your family that you’re in a “meeting”, pour yourself a drink, and get on a call. If it helps, find an alternative space to hold these “meetings”. The shift from a work space to a casual space can help mentally detach yourself from the day’s happenings.
If you’d like more exciting team activities, try some of these fun activities with your colleagues that can be organised virtually. The Pigeonhole Live team gathered a few escape room enthusiasts and attempted a tricky virtual escape room made up of Google sheets, websites, and tons of puzzles. We even found a secret expert puzzler amongst our midst!
It’s easy to hang your head and go: “Things just aren’t the same.” You would be right. Building a human connection virtually doesn’t quite match an in-person connection right now. A video call isn’t quite like sitting across the table from each other. But maintaining those connections still matter, not only for an organisations productivity and engagement, but also for employees’ mental health. As we go through our varying degrees of quarantine, mental health experts remind us to stay social. After all, a company’s health is its employees' mental health.