And we’re excited to say our posts have sparked some interesting conversations. People write to us sharing stories about what worked (and what didn’t work) when they went fully remote — whether it was during the pandemic or a decade ago.
We’ve also received a lot of questions. Namely, from new-to-remote leaders who want to foster a better sense of community among their distributed teams.
Even after almost 20 years of being fully remote, this is something we’re still working on at Cloud City. While we have a few things to say about the topic, we have even more to learn from others.
The importance of community in the workplace
Whether you’re part of an in-person team or a fully remote consultancy, forming connections with your colleagues and clients is important. It’s an exercise in recognizing our common humanity.
We are not just Slack handles, email signatures or bodies at desks. We’re people. People with passions, interests and experiences that make us unique.
The more you know about someone’s life — they have three kids, three rescue dogs or they’re obsessed with Les Miserables — the easier it is to understand and empathize with them.
There’s a lot of room for miscommunication in the workplace. We’ve all spent hours overanalyzing an email from a boss or client. (Why did they say “thanks” and not “thank you?”) Someone on our team (who has asked to remain anonymous) said it once took them over an hour to write a three-sentence Slack message.
When you have some understanding about the person on the other end of the email or direct message, it’s a lot easier to avoid these frustrations.
But the biggest challenge — even with in-person teams — is that not everyone wants to bond the same way.
The stereotypical examples of happy hours, networking events and weekend retreats don’t work for everyone. On our team alone, some folks don’t drink, some deal with social anxiety and others have obligations that make it hard to drop everything for an off-site event.
When writing this post, we had a lot of conversations as a group and with our Twitter bubbles about team-building wins and fails.
What struck us is that many of the success stories that worked for remote teams could also help foster community in a hybrid or in-person working environment.
The key seems to be making the activity something that could be done on each person’s own time and terms, rather than forcing them to fit into a mold that might not work for them.
Here are some of the gems we uncovered. The last one has us especially excited.
The bonding power of music
Music came up a lot in our conversations about team-building wins.
No, we’re not all frustrated musicians (though some of us are). Instead, we’re merely human beings with brains that science says have likely been wired for music. Studies show music may help us form deeper social bonds. It can also help increase sensations of belonging and reduce bias.
Which explains why almost everyone we talked to had a team-building success story — whether in-person or remote — that involved music.
One of our consultants said he worked on a project where the team had a Slack channel for musicians to collaborate on tracks. Someone would lay a beat and send it to the group. Another person would add a guitar track or vocal loop. By the end of the week or month or whatever, something resembling a song would emerge.
It was like a modern-day Postal Service. (And if you don’t know what we’re talking about, play The District Sleeps Alone Tonight on Spotify.)
Even among the non-musicians, almost everyone had a story about using apps like turntable.fm to get to know their colleagues. We also loved learning about Music League, a website that allows groups to build a playlist around themes like “songs that get you on the dance floor” or, our personal favorite, “best political campaign songs, wrong answers only.”
You not only end up learning about your colleagues’ tastes in music, you also get insight into how each person interprets a theme, which can provide even more juicy details about their personality.
Using food to foster community
Food was the second most popular theme in our group bonding conversations.
Many people had positive memories of potluck lunches in the office. But others also recalled feeling forced to eat foods they didn’t like or trying to explain celiac disease to a colleague who brought in homemade pasta salad.
Again, it seemed that most people wanted to bond over food — but on their own terms.
One of our engineers worked at a company that had a Slack channel dedicated to recipes and food pictures. We also heard good things about food subscription boxes, virtual cooking classes and wine-tasting lessons that the individual could personalize to their own tastes and enjoy at a time that worked for them.
We also highly recommend Breadwinner, a recent project Cloud City helped develop. If Breadwinner can help our designer connect with his conservative family, surely it can bring any team closer together!
Creating “mandatory funtime”
Of all the ideas that came up during our brainstorming sessions and Twitter conversations, this one was the most intriguing.
It’s based on “The Great Eventually Consistent Mandatory Funtime [Team] Offsite,” a concept developed by Twitter’s Ronnie Chen.
During a deep dive into the psychology of happiness, Ronnie learned that when people are given extra money, they tend to spend it on splurge items. But when they’re given extra time (a day or afternoon off, for example), they tend to spend it on duties and obligations.
So she created a “Mandatory Funtime” day. Twitter employees were given a day off of work, an undisclosed allowance and told they had to spend both doing something fun.
There were a few rules. You couldn’t spend your time or money on work or chores. The activity didn’t necessarily have to be something new to you, but it had to be novel enough to feel special. Finally, however you spent your day, you had to capture five photos or selfies to share with the team.
You can imagine the possibilities this opens. Encouraging people to pick something they’re excited about — something they’ll actually enjoy and want to share with others — is so much more inclusive than forcing them to participate in ropes courses, trust falls and other well-intended-but-awful team-building exercises.
There’s a whole lot more to say about fostering community in the workplace
We know these conversations about remote work and team-building are only the tip of the iceberg.
We’re always down to hear how other teams are fostering community in their workplace, be it remote, hybrid or in-person. We also love hearing from other engineers and consultants about what works for them.
To keep the conversation going, we created a Twitter thread where you can chime in with your thoughts and comments.
We look forward to hearing more!