The General Problem
While working in remote conditions, many interactions with co-workers can feel very transactional. This is not terrible, but far from inspiring. The casual water cooler talks don't happen anymore, and many people are burnt out from the “Team Social Hour" meetings. We have all had at least one of those well-intentioned meetings that wound up feeling more like an awkward middle-school prom night where nobody really knows what to say.
We address this by making positive collisions happen with a purpose. Even the water coolers have a purpose; to get some water! An entire, $350 million privately funded city - the Downtown Project in Las Vegas - was built with this principle in mind. For those that don't have hundreds of millions yet, here is an example of what I have done in my real job, with real success.
The goal was to foster a better relationship between our analytics engineering team and our reporting team. Something less transactional than engineers providing an post-implementation email confirming that the data is tracking as expected and maybe signing off wishing the other team a nice day.
The research included looking into top-down initiatives from the larger org. Something that everyone would like a small part in. For our org, one goal is to migrate analysis from user visualization tools to more advanced data warehouse queries with the new technologies that a lot of money went into. This is where my opportunity was. Without having much knowledge of this new frontier, it would force us to have discussions and exchange ideas. Perfect!
Putting the plan to action
started with an email invite stating that I (from the engineering side) don't know much about this new frontier but I would be spending 1 hour every two weeks to learn it and anyone that wanted to join could. This did two things. First, it positioned our call to be a safe environment where nobody would feel dumb/vulnerable. Second, it was stressed that this was a optional call, meaning only those with genuine interests and desires would be on the call (positive energy). The next intentional part was to create the ideal group size
of 4-7 people. Fortunately, this worked out pretty good for my case but the point is to not just invite your entire contact sheet! We want to make collaborative discussion happen with short energetic bursts, not a lecture hall.
The results so far have been really good. My life has not drastically altered as a whole, and I still do not have $350 million dollars... HOWEVER, it only took two calls to work it's way up to being recognized by senior leadership with the thanks given by the reporting team. While that kudos has come and gone, the ice has started to thaw between our two teams and the small chit-chat of the water cooler has been revived through purposeful calls that help foster a stronger sense of belonging between the two teams. We are in this together.
My takeaway is that the general problem was not a lack of data, it was a lack of connection in a remote work environment. This is recognized by many but unfortunately I have not seen any general "Team Social Hours" work with great success (but at least the intention is there!). Giving some sort of purpose gives people a goal to work on together. Think about this with your friends outside of work, not your close friends, your social acquaintances. You would most likely ask this group to get together to do something with purpose such as going kayaking, visit a winery, or some other purpose-driven activity that aligns with shared interests! Some of those people will then wind up being your closest friends, but not many relations start there so don't expect your work colleagues to either. Have tactical purpose behind your next "social" meeting that aligns with the interests of the people you invite and make it an enjoyable experience. Smiles work great for building culture.
What successes have you had fostering purposeful culture in a remote world?