It’s been a year since the pandemic shutdowns started, and people are still out there making lists like “6 Ways to Make WFH Feel Less Dystopian” and “8 Things You Can Do to Combat Zoom Fatigue.” Like this is some temporary journey we’re all on, and we just need a little advice to help us until it’s over.
Fact is, we’re not ever going back to the before times, and that’s not such a bad thing. Many companies are contemplating a future that looks different, with less money tied up in commercial real estate and more freedom to hire the best people for the job, no matter where they live.
A McKinsey survey of executives found that the pandemic significantly accelerated digital transformation in the workplace, and the workplace of the future — in many cases — will be at least partly remote. We’re likely to be one of those workplaces, and we are being intentional about how we maintain our culture along the way.
At Lifeblue, we believe in going beyond inclusivity as a goal. We aim to achieve a sense of belonging, and that starts with caring and with empathy, whether we are in the same room or not.
Work From Home Essentials
Ask yourself: Why does your company exist in the first place?
Your day needs rhythm and routine.
If your home office is 20 steps or so from your living room, there’s a decent chance you need help setting boundaries to keep you from working all day, every day. As much as we may have hated commuting, the routines we established gave us boundaries and set the tone for our day.
I’ve been making the short trip up the road every morning to get Starbucks for my family. Thousands of stars later, I know all of the baristas by name, and I consider them my work friends. More importantly, that 15-minute round trip signals the start of my workday — and if I haven’t emerged from my office by 6 p.m., the dogs start scratching at the door. Their dinner marks the end of my workday, most of the time anyway.
Setting an alarm to trigger your new routine can be helpful, especially if the routine includes getting up to do a 15-minute Peloton meditation or stretching exercise, or even just a walk around the block. If you’re planning on building a new routine, keep it simple; too much change, too fast, is not good for you. (That’s scientific fact.)
Sometimes, physical stuff helps.
One of the challenges we faced was trying to re-create the experience of our annual Hack Week with our partners at Heifer International. Typically, our entire company sets up shop at Heifer’s headquarters in Arkansas for a full week of intense focus on a series of projects. The work matters deeply, and so do the relationships we build.
Aside from all of the logistical challenges of conducting Hack Week remotely, we knew we wanted to try to re-create the idea of wandering into one of the work rooms and being able to grab a snack or even being able to run off to dinner with colleagues. So in the days before Hack Week began, every team member at Lifeblue and at Heifer received a care package with snacks, a Hack Week T-shirt and a gift card for use during a group dinner, at which each person ordered food to be delivered for another team member — sort of a secret Santa game, but with sushi.
The unboxing videos of the care packages, the recognition of the T-shirts on screen, the have-you-tried-the-cookies-yet exchanges over Zoom kept the vibe going when Zoom fatigue could have taken over.
“That made it feel more special,” said JD Busch, who organized Hack Week 2020 for us. “Even though we are a digital company, there was something physical we had in common.”
Be prepared and communicate well, on purpose.
That includes communicating clearly about how you will be communicating. Don’t send pieces of information about a work project by email and others by Slack or text.
The goal should be to help you organize your thoughts and your work by creating what JD calls a “Hierarchy of Moments,” an instantly recognizable system of communication that helps people prioritize for the benefit of the team and its work.
“Using all of the communication tools that are available feels like having 900 tabs open,” JD said, sounding like someone who had too many tabs open at the time. “Close all but three of them. Everyone gets lost if you don’t.”
And do your homework. If you are organizing a brainstorming session, get your virtual white board ready to go before the meeting. Anticipate the stakeholders’ needs and the participants’ questions.
“It needs to feel collaborative and off the cuff, yet in order to collaborate, you have to schedule it,” JD said. “More and more, the tech world is making it much easier to be spontaneous.”
Forced mirth is necessary.
If we’re being truthful, office parties aren’t great for everyone. In the before times, all of your introverted colleagues (and some too-busy extroverts as well) may have resented the scheduled shenanigans to celebrate this one’s birthday or that one’s anniversary.
But the casual micro-interactions and one-off conversations we’re missing out on were vital to building a strong team, to creating networks of individuals who are invested in one another. At first, we tried scheduling a regular happy hour via Zoom, but the effort fell flat. Too many people one on screen, when only one at a time can talk. Too much pressure to bring something to add to the show.
Instead, smaller groups generated randomly are better for creating interpersonal connections. We recently sent UberEats cards to a new team member and four others, each from a different area of the company, and invited them to a Zoom gathering for lunch. Five people who may not cross paths during the course of the day got to enjoy a new-hire lunch and share war stories and bits of our company culture.
“When there are too many people in a Zoom, it’s too easy to fade into the background and start multitasking,” JD said, sounding like someone who may have done so himself before. “When there are five people in a room, it feels right. It becomes more collaborative.”
No matter how your company moves forward, the best strategies for company culture aren’t the ones that are built with the how in mind. How solutions are tactical. Instead, focus on strategies built around why.
In our case, people are the why.