In a Remote World, In-Person Must Become Interpersonal

As companies close down communal work spaces, they must create virtual ones.

Written by Anderson Chen
Published on May. 16, 2022
 In a Remote World, In-Person Must Become Interpersonal
Brand Studio Logo

In April 2022, advocates for remote work scored a victory when Elon Musk, the potential new owner of Twitter, proposed a radical idea: The company should turn its barely-used global office into a homeless shelter. It was a major sign among many that the remote tide sweeping through the industry — shuttering offices across the country and enabling tech workers to sidestep return-to-office plans — signaled a new era of virtual work.  

But with corporate America’s paradigm shift came a new problem: isolation and burnout. 

More than two years into the pandemic, remote work has become the expected norm for job seekers and employees; the living room and the conference room are now one and the same. As these personal and work lines blur, however, increased feelings of stress and loneliness have become side effects of this newfound freedom. 

Though an overwhelming majority of the American workforce surveyed by GoodHire in 2021 preferred working at home, a report by Owl Lab showed that over 78 percent of those who’ve returned to the office at least once said they felt more included there. 

Remote workers traded long commutes for convenience and flexibility, but at the cost of one of the best resources that offices offer: easy interpersonal connection. The good news is that remote-focused employers can use a lot of strategies to help.

Just as businesses adapted to a scattered workforce two years ago, they must now link them together on a more authentic personal level. Built In NYC sat down with five tech companies that found success in implementing new social measures to make their remote cultures shine. While they can’t always replicate the analog moments of in-person coffee breaks, they’ve found ways to restore real human connections in a mostly digital workspace. 

 

Allie Schwartz
VP People • Mantra Health

 

Mantra Health is an online mental health clinic.  

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

The key to creating connection in a hybrid remote workplace is interaction. Often times we think if we get folks together on a Zoom call or as a team, that’s enough. But there’s quite a difference between everyone sitting in a room watching a presentation vs. working together on a task, or having an opportunity to learn about one another. When you think about what’s lost from in-person lunch or coffee dates, it’s those small moments when we get to share ourselves. That can absolutely be done remotely, it just requires a bit more planning and creativity.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

At Mantra, as our team was scaling from 14 to 40 people, we held a virtual offsite with the goals being to learn at least one new thing about someone we work with, and to share at least one thing about ourselves with our teammates. We did small group boundary breaking via Zoom where folks met with their teams and had a chance to answer more intimate questions about their histories and lifestyles. We also ran a virtual scavenger hunt where folks were broken into teams in break out rooms and given a list of items to find in their homes, each of which represented one of our company’s core values. Once they found the item, they had to share its story with the group. 

For example, one of our core values is “We take care so that we can care for others,” which is a value centered around putting our oxygen masks on first. A great way to take care of ourselves is by taking time off and going on vacation. As a representation of this value, we asked each team member to find something in their house that they purchased on vacation, show it to the group, and share its story!

When you think about what’s lost from in-person lunch or coffee dates, it’s those small moments when we get to share ourselves.

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team? 

Our team’s response to our virtual offsite was incredibly positive. Most said they were skeptical coming in of how much about one another they’d actually be able to learn in the absence of being face-to-face, but everyone agreed that they were surprised just how engaging these activities can be when we all show up super game and willing to open ourselves up! Doing our offsite while we were scaling was such an important step in bringing folks together who may not have a chance to meet organically otherwise.

 

 

Karen Mascavage
Vp of People • Mulberry Technology

 

Mulberry is an e-commerce product insurance company.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

The key to fostering real human connection in a remote environment is to create opportunities and virtual places for people to share experiences and get to know one another. It’s more challenging to build relationships organically in a remote environment than in person. There just aren’t the same opportunities for casual interactions and conversations as there are when grabbing a coffee or a snack and talking about weekend plans, or discovering common interests. We need to be intentional about creating social spaces for those types of conversations to take place.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

At Mulberry, our employee connection initiative starts right away as part of our onboarding process. Each new hire gets a cross departmental buddy, who sets up a number of small group virtual coffee chats. By pairing people in different departments, it helps build the foundation for company unity and eliminates social silos by team or department. 

 We continue to facilitate those connections by creating virtual spaces for casual interactions to take place so people can get to know each other better, build relationships and, in turn, build trust. We do this through monthly virtual events hosted by different departments, and by creating social channels in Slack. We have a number of channels specific to hobbies and interests, as well as general channels for everyone, like #coffee-table-talk, where a new question is posted every two weeks. People also share stories and pictures, which have been so much fun to see! Often those stories spark great side conversations and keep communication going.

We need to be intentional about creating social spaces for those types of conversations to take place.

 

What impact has this initiative had on your workforce and culture? 

Our social and employee connection initiatives have been super impactful in our employee engagement. We can also see it in the activity and likes in our recognition Slack channel #taqueria (HeyTaco). Employees celebrate each other's wins, give shoutouts, and express thanks in the form of tacos. The praise is tied to our company values, which are: people first, do what matters, we over me, learn, act & adapt and be a driver.  

 As a result of creating social opportunities and getting to know each other virtually, we see more support and celebration throughout the organization. As we champion one another and cheer each other on, we continue to grow and cultivate a strong remote culture.  

 

 

Megan Means
Senior Manager, People Operations • Eden Health

 

Eden Health offers primary and mental health care for employers.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

For us, the key to creating these real human connections is to prioritize creating the space and time to socialize with coworkers virtually and in person. This starts Day 1 through a robust virtual new hire onboarding program that allows new employees across different teams the time to form bonds that often last well past onboarding. 

We then make sure to have team offsites and virtual happy hours on a regular basis, along with an annual company-wide offsite. We also facilitate mentorship programs for those that are looking for career guidance, especially across different job levels and teams. Even small things, like establishing “Celebration” Slack and GChat Groups to provide real-time updates that the entire company will want to recognize, are really helpful in helping employees connect with each other in a real, human way that allows their personalities to shine!

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

I believe creating a thorough and structured new hire onboarding program for remote work was an initiative that has been invaluable in ensuring people joining feel instantly connected to other employees and our mission. We have new hire cohorts every two weeks and every person starting goes through the same program and series of meetings for three days. The sessions culminate in a one-on-one meeting between the new hire and their manager, where the manager walks through a detailed 0-to-90 day onboarding plan. This is particularly important for remote employees because it ensures the new hire connects with the right people and finds purpose in the work from the get go. In addition, we implemented a buddy program to establish cross departmental connections and support.

We also take a step back each quarter to think through trends we have seen cohort over cohort to ensure that the program is continuously improved upon over time.”

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team? 

We initiate a new hire onboarding survey for every cohort and continue to receive very high ratings in terms of the overall feeling and experience for our new hires. Launching a survey per cohort allows us to track – and take action on – specific feedback and data points at different moments in time. We also take a step back each quarter to think through trends we have seen cohort over cohort to ensure that the program is continuously improved upon over time.

 

 

Ummey Karim
Senior People Ops Manager • Talkspace

 

Talkspace is an online therapy company.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

The use of intentional and unique events is how we stay connected. When we host events that are for the entire organization, everyone is excited to attend!

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

The variety of our events is what makes them so inclusive. This means hosting events during hours that parents are available, celebrations for personal and career milestones, awareness for causes that we’re passionate about, cohort-based learning, skills refreshers for leaders and goal-centered ERGs.

When we host events that are for the entire organization, everyone is excited to attend!”

 

What impact has this initiative had on your workforce or culture?

These events are a great way to network, learn and listen to other colleagues you normally have fewer interactions with. We led a bi-weekly project management study group this year, which resulted in employees collaborating cross-functionally to achieve a common goal. We’ve also hosted many internal employee-led events: nature meditation, vision boarding and progressive muscle relaxation. These events have helped provide a platform for employees to connect on a personal level.

 

 

Angela Mekosh
Director of Talent • Pursuit

 

Pursuit is a software development training platform for low-income communities.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

Creating opportunities for small group activities, or one-on-ones that are built into our regular work week, is key. We have a weekly staff meeting, and once a month we plan a group breakout session that varies every time. Activities have ranged from a scavenger hunt game to working sessions. The smaller groups make it much easier to hold conversations over Zoom, and we have found that although the games have a positive effect, the most impactful activities allow staff from teams that don’t normally work together to collaborate and solve a problem.

It feels less isolating to know that others on different teams have the same issues and want to solve the same problems.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

One of our founding principles is that we are one big team, so we’ve applied that principle into revamping some of our work culture. We had several working sessions that aimed to define what our culture is and what it should be. During those sessions, we were able to pinpoint that our meetings, both the frequency and general practice of them, were in need of an overhaul. We took the feedback from staff and modified our practices, which resulted in “Focus Fridays” — a no-meeting afternoon.

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team? 

The feedback from the team has been extremely positive, not only because it gave people the opportunity to revamp a cultural practice, but also because they were able to work in big cross-functional teams and learn more about each other. It feels less isolating to know that others on different teams have the same issues and want to solve the same problems. That builds a connection point that a simple happy hour isn’t able to do.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via associated companies and Shutterstock.

Hiring Now
Basis Technologies
AdTech • Software