If your company has been making the move to a remote-first culture, you’re probably already aware of the many benefits of asynchronous communication. Async communication is the driving force behind successful remote teams—it’s the secret ingredient to team productivity. It creates better focus and better responses, it improves both documentation and transparency, and it leads to healthier, happier employees. Yet, asynchronous communication can also feel dry, transactional, and lonely. By its very nature, it necessitates that we miss out on “real time” exchanges which create camaraderie and build connection. So, how can remote and hybrid teams balance the functional efficiency of asynchronous communication with a basic need for meaningful human exchange?
The Head of Remote at Doist, Chase Warrington, recently participated in Running Remote, the world’s largest remote work virtual conference. He was part of an “Ask Me Anything” session about async communication, and while he anticipated questions relating to useful remote tools or remote best practices, most of the questions were about maintaining the “human” element in an async workplace. This is an issue many of us are concerned about right now. The first thing we need to understand is what we really mean by this “human” element. Generally, when people are concerned about async work lacking humanity, what they’re focusing on is the fact that in an async environment you just don’t get the same social interactions that you get in an office. You don’t get those casual desk-side chats; you don’t get to enjoy social coffee breaks; you can’t pop out for a spontaneous lunch with a colleague. But none of those things mean you can’t have a strong team culture, create camaraderie, or foster meaningful connection. Many people associate team culture with friendships and connections that exist outside of work – but the truth is, that’s not at all necessary to have a strong team culture. A successful team culture is simply one where people are able to work together efficiently and happily. While it’s always nice when coworkers forge strong friendships outside of work, socializing is not a prerequisite of a strong team culture. You don’t even necessarily need to “like” your coworkers (though it helps!), but you do need to respect and trust them, and vice versa. You do need to be able to communicate with them successfully, and while you don’t need to be best friends, you do need to share a sense of inclusivity and connection. Of course, building trust and inclusivity are much easier in an office environment, where you can all sit around a table, talk to people in person and look them in the eye. But the good news is that many of these “humanizing” experiences can easily translate into an async environment. So how exactly can you do this?
Even async workplaces need to have real-time meetings sometimes, so when these are necessary, humanize them via video conferences. Video meetings got a bit of a bad rap during lockdown, when the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue reared its ugly head, but as long as you aren’t over-collaborating, video meetings can be a great way to work together and foster human connection. Seeing people’s faces is a key ingredient for building rapport—and while seeing a face through a screen might not be as good as seeing it in real life, it’s the next best thing. It reminds you that your coworkers are real, living people—not just the recipients of all those emails you send every day, or the sender of those Slack comments you’re always replying to. Plus, seeing someone’s face while you’re hearing their voice provides valuable emotional context which helps make communication feel more meaningful and engaging, and ultimately more human.
Going for coffee, having lunch together or enjoying post-work drinks are normal ways for office employees to connect, and thanks to the normalization of our virtual world it’s never been easier to recreate these social events digitally. There are all kinds of Remote team culture—from virtual wellbeing classes, to company bookclubs and creative competitions. These types of social events can be very effective in creating connections between employees who don’t often work together—and if it’s important to you to have some sense of socialization at work, it’s definitely a good idea. However, any type of social event must come with a clear caveat: unless they’re scheduled as part of the “official” work day, attendance must be optional. There’s nothing worse than feeling obliged to sit through a virtual happy hour when all you want to do is log off and get out of work mode—or when you have important work you need and want to do. That means that not only will you be feeling resentful during the so-called “happy” hour, but you’ll have to clock in extra hours to make up the time you lost, too. While some people enjoy the social aspect of work and are keen to make friends, others see work simply as work, and prefer to keep their socializing separate. Make sure employees know social events are truly optional, and there’ll be no consequences if they decide they don’t want to attend. Of course, creating connections and building trust is enormously important, so there will probably be some social events and activities you want everyone to attend. If that’s the case, make them part of the workday, and not an extracurricular activity. Go one better and abolish “working lunches” too—if your company really values human connection, it will be part of the official schedule; you won’t try and shoehorn it into a legally protected space for rest.