What we're doing to keep conntected while a pandemic is pushing us apart

August 20, 2020

Team building

We had a plan for the pandemic. It was quickly put together, but it was a plan. As a remote-first tech company we naively assumed we would be okay. After all, we still had jobs and are used to working remotely. Yet, eventually, we too starting suffering with the onset of grief, mental health issues, fatigue, and many other side effects to such sudden shift.

While we are set up to operate as a remote-first company, many of us worked together out of the same office at Kamloops Innovation. This sudden loss of physical interaction and a general priority shift in people's lives, left a noticeable gap in our team culture. Not only are we spending more energy taking care of ourselves right now, but it's also a lot more difficult to stay in tune with the emotions of others.

Both of these add an additional energy cost and are contributing to fatigue. On top of that, in person interactions have the added benefit of providing space for collective energy. If one person comes into the office happy, they can lift the mood for everyone else as well. This is really hard to achieve effectively while working remotely.

We can try to predict and plan for emotional challenges, but until things are happening in real time, there's no way to know how we will respond. We can play the blame game, ‘we failed to see...’, ‘we should have done...’, ‘I can't believe we didn't notice...’ but that's not productive. The best thing we can do is to be aware of and continually assess the emotional climate and be willing to adapt and change courses as is needed. Trying to follow a predefined script can add more, not less stress to a situation.

As we grew through experience, we returned to the chalk board to revisit some of our practices with the goal of maintaining a positive team experience and want to share some of them with you.

Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol

We've always been a remote-first company and on top of that we don't place restrictions on our work schedules. This allows everyone to schedule their work around their life instead of their life around their work. People work from anywhere they want, across time zones, or out of sync with ‘regular’ working hours, providing flexibility to meet family needs, carry out cultural practices, or pursue physical activity when the mood moves.

We believe this approach results in better productivity and happiness across the team, but it's not always easy and takes a fair amount of deliberate effort. For this to be effective we need to have good communication and documentation skills. We use two main tools for this—Slack and Notion.

We use Emojis in our Slack statuses to provide an indication of our availability or online status. It's a handy way for others to know when they're likely to receive an immediate answer to something. It can also be comforting to know you're not alone in the (virtual) office. During otherwise normal working hours we might indicate we're temporarily stepping away from the computer. These are some common Emojis you'll often see in our Slack:

  • 🏃‍♀️(going for a run)
  • 🌯 (having lunch)
  • 🐕 (walking the dog)

We also like to find ways to deliberately be available and signal this to the rest of the team. They may have been holding off messaging you about something because you appeared occupied. Indicating availability gives them permission to interrupt you.

The power of play and humour in healing

We also use Slack to connect in different ways. We have a #general channel for all things, a #tsr-community channel, and a #random channel.

The #tsr-community is used to facilitate our Donut meeting and is a place to call out kudos to others. Donut is a bot that randomly assigns people in groups and encourages them to schedule a 30 minute ‘donut meeting’. We get to rotate through who we chat, allowing us to spend time with everyone on the team. It gives us an opportunity to learn what makes each other tick and to check in to see how they're doing. We also have a daily optional reoccurring ‘Coffee Break’ Zoom meeting which is a ‘water cooler’ break anyone can participate in.

The #random channel is a place to share interesting articles, funny memes, pictures, music playlists, recipes, etc. It's where we share non-work related passions. For example, Jonathan's passion for experimental cooking. We can bond over common interests or find inspiration to explore new things.

Or when Lindsey shared a creativity quiz. Turns out we have a lot of Visionaries on the team.

A sudden loss of physical interaction between the Kamloops folks made us realize sporadic ‘water cooler’ conversations are an important part of our daily routine. They provided a space for our minds to recharge and for team members to learn more about each other. The conversations in the #random channel are valuable but there is something special about the connection you get from face-to-face interactions. A lot of subtle feeling and emotion is lost in asynchronous messaging.

Learn openly and celebrate wins big and small

To keep everyone connected across projects, we try to work in the open whenever possible. We talk about what we're working on, what we're stuck on, and what we just learned. When someone is stuck we ask for help in an open channel—not privately. Someone else might have just encountered the same issue and can help you solve it or can add a valuable alternative perspective.

This system is vital in destigmatizing struggle and showing people failure is not something to fear. We believe mistakes are good because they mean we're pushing our boundaries, and learning and growing. Learning openly allows us to learn together. We all learn differently and knowing how each of us learns helps us communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Another bot we integrated into Slack is a one that allows us to anonymously call others out and celebrate someone else's achievements. Being deliberate about doing this publicly lets team members pause to recognize a coworker on a job well done. We also have a place for this in our weekly team meetings—you can never have too many places to provide positive feedback!

🎉 @chrisfosterelli deserves some Kudos! Why?
Identifying a spear fishing attempt, and educating us a bit on email security!

Have the courage to give and receive feedback

Learning and growth is something we value. We use weekly 1:1's to prioritize and actively pursue these opportunities. We personally use these as a weekly opportunity to check in, provide feedback to each other, set goals, and realign. We keep it relatively informal but do set an agenda and take meeting notes. Through these we make sure we find meaningful work because we believe excellence is achieved when you believe in what you're doing and the value motivates persistent commitment.

We Are Stronger Together

At Two Story Robot our internal Vision Statement is to ‘uncompromisingly surround ourselves with exceptional people to solve impactful problems.’ We use this to guide team decisions and actions and as the lens decisions are made through. A lot of time and thought went into this seemingly simple phrase (an interesting process worthy of a blog post of its own) but there's actually a lot to unpack there.

At its core it means growth and impact come from within. We believe providing a space where everyone feels comfortable being their authentic selves is what allows us all to show up and do great work. Positive team culture is the key to a successful business.

Social distancing and collective suffering became the norm seemingly overnight. Grief, mental health issues and fatigue are on the rise. If we can grieve collectively, we can also support each other collectively. Sharing stories and learning together is incredibly powerful.

We'd love to hear how you are coping. How are you staying connected? What new wellness practices have you adopted?

Share your ideas with us on Twitter or Facebook and let others know your tactics for addressing the challenges of current times. Even though we are all remote, we can still work and grow together.