In a co-located company it is easy to take for granted how many opportunities there are to get to know your colleagues as humans, there’s the water cooler, coffee maker, lunch cafeteria, weekly happy hours, company picnics, movies, holiday parties, the list is endless in all the tiny ways we learn and bond with each other.
When you work for a remote, fully distributed company, this becomes something to actively solve. One way to partially solve this problem is to do what many distributed companies do. Invest heavily in one or two big events a year where everyone travels to the same city, alternates between drinking caffeine and booze and spends every waking hour together for a week. I’m not knocking this by the way, this is great, it’s fun and everyone holds on to those crazy fun moments for six months or a year until the next one.
But now what do we do? Covid-19 has pushed everyone to be a remote company and, simultaneously, prevented everyone from this one proven solution to connect with each other.
Even without travel disappearing overnight, teams function better when us humans know and care about each other personally (spoken from a true introvert). The answer is to treat these social events as part of work.
In a co-located company you do these things because it’s almost impossible not to. You go to get a drink, there’s a person, you have to eat lunch, so does everyone, you need to decompress a bit, there’s a bar with a great happy hour a block away. In this environment, it’s easy to view these things as almost, in the way of the actual work, and they can be if that is all you do.
In a distributed company everything veers sharply the other direction. You can code, or write emails or documents, plan things in spreadsheets and an entire day goes by the next time you come up for air. It’s absolutely wonderful for doing individual work (once you teach yourself how to be disciplined in your home).
But, in this environment, the system can also be less than the sum of its parts. If everyone is moving in their own individual direction, you lose that extra magic that is capable of moving mountains. Instead, everyone is just running around pushing their own mole hills and ignoring the bigger picture.
Now, you can invent processes and meetings and check-ins. You can do scrum and hire black-belt project managers who know how to burndown chart and write JIRA tickets and email. This would work in an emotionless void and the trains would run on time.
Or, you can play video games.
The real solution here is a vast array of tiny things. You can do random Slack coffee chats (for extroverts), morning team coffee, afternoon team tea (for the Brits), the trick is to do two things. One, do things that expose people to others outside of their immediate area. Two, do things as a team, with the people you work with every day.
The second one is where video games come in. If you are already meeting as a team once a week or every other week set aside half an hour as a social call. This is a step in the right direction. If you find it hard to force a social chat on the team, playing a game is a great way to get things moving.
In my case, the entire team shares video games as a hobby but there are also games with a very low barrier to entry.
Here are some ideas.
1. Drawful 2
Right now Drawful 2 is free on most platforms to help keep people sane while we shelter-in-place. It also only requires one person to have the game and everyone else can join via a phone or tablet. I recommend getting it on Steam, it should run on a standard Macbook, that will make it easy to stream the game over Zoom while everyone follows along on their phone.
2. Jackbox Party Pack
Jackbox makes a ton of low barrier-to-entry games like trivia games and other party games that can all be played with a phone.
3. Overcooked 2
This is veering heavier into gaming territory but Overcooked is just a great experience trying to work together as a team. If you have a Nintendo Switch and want to give this a try, check out my article on how to get setup to stream on Zoom. The downside here is the game maxes out at 4 players, but there is still opportunity to yell at your teammates from the peanut gallery for any spectators.
4. Mario Kart
Since you’ve got your Switch setup to stream, Mario Kart is a great game to try a company or team tournament. Remember those dart or ping pong table tournaments you would have in the office? This is the remote version of that. This can get expensive, as every participant has to purchase a copy of the game. For the non-gamers something like a tournament is still an opportunity to tune into something social and cheer on your teammates.
There are a ton of other games that would work in this way, many on your phone with low overhead. We have just started scratching the surface of how to embed this into work. Right now, as a team, for whomever wants to participate, we try and set aside an hour once or twice a month to play a new game and catch up with each other.
Now that we’ve been doing it for a few months, I’ve noticed that everyone genuinely looks forward to these times together and hopefully we are all learning a little bit more about the humans that we work with everyday.