Are you working from home? You’re not alone. The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has closed workplaces around the world, and many people are adjusting to their new lives as telecommuters.
While dialing into the office has some benefits—no commute!—it can also feel isolating, especially for people who are used to the informal social interactions that are a hallmark of the office environment. But remote work does not mean that those interactions have to stop. Here, four experienced EDC telecommuters share their strategies for staying connected.
1. Incorporate Small Talk into Virtual Meetings
Rachael Kenter, a prevention specialist with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, says that integrating light conversation into meetings is one way to help people connect. Kenter, who works from her Midwest home office, says that most of her team is virtual.
“In a face-to-face meeting, you often spend the first few minutes chatting about your kids or about the weekend,” she says. “But in virtual meetings, it often feels like you have to dive right into the content as soon as people arrive.”
This lack of personal conversation can make people feel disconnected, even when they are speaking directly to each other, she says. However, it’s an easy problem to fix.
“Take some time at the beginning of a virtual meeting to have some small talk, even if it’s only about the weather,” she says.
Kenter also offers advice for meeting moderators: open up the phone line or meeting room a few minutes early, so that telecommuters who arrive ahead of schedule have time to chat.
2. Use Multiple Collaboration Tools
Telecommuters now have a rich assortment of communication and productivity tools at their disposal. Using them can help overcome some of the isolation that arises when everybody is working remotely, says Andrew Brown, a Web developer in EDC’s Information Technology Department.
“Having a place for your team to collaborate—whether it’s Skype, Slack, RingCentral, or something else—is really important,” Brown says. He calls out the utility of the chat features in these tools, which allow people and groups to share ideas quickly.
Brown has been telecommuting from his East Coast office for six years, and although he uses these tools to stay connected with his EDC colleagues, he admits that working remotely creates some challenges. For example, although the chat feature of these tools allows the quick sharing of ideas, sometimes information gets lost.
To remedy this, Brown recommends that people supplement text-based chats with video calls. Video is also a best practice for meetings, especially when more than two people are present.
“You pick up a lot in a virtual meeting when you can see the people you’re talking to,” Brown says. “So have your webcam on whenever possible, and then it feels like everyone is on the same page.”
3. Learn to Overcommunicate
Shanna Russ, the dissemination manager for the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands at EDC, says that overcommunication is key for staying connected.
“When you work remotely, knowledge doesn’t get around to everyone the same way it does in the office,” she says. “So don’t assume that everyone knows something if you don’t say it.”
Russ, who has telecommuted for three years from the Washington, D.C., metro area, says that her work style has changed since her time of working in the office. She tries to be proactive in her information seeking. Her advice? Don’t wait for people to tell you something that you need to know. Connect with them directly, and ask them for it.
“My experience is that people say, ‘I’m so glad you asked. I meant to tell you,’” Russ says.
Russ also believes that teams should be open to changing how they collaborate and communicate, and that telecommuters are well-positioned to drive some of those innovations.
“Staff get used to certain ways of doing things in an office environment. And now that everyone is at home, it may not work to do the same things anymore,” Russ says. “We have to be willing to make mistakes as we try new things.”
4. Stay Social
The transition to remote work can be especially difficult during times of general stress and upheaval. But that transition can be made more smoothly when staff have a social tradition to build on.
Naomi Hupert, an education researcher who telecommutes to EDC’s New York City office, says that planning virtual social times has helped her colleagues stay connected despite the work-from-home transition. This week, she scheduled virtual happy hours at two different times to see what works best for parents who are juggling homeschooling. Last week she tried out morning coffee meetings, where many of her colleagues hopped on a video call to talk about anything but work.
“Nobody is going to the gym; nobody is eating out,” Hupert says, "So we just talked about what people were doing, their favorite series for binge-watching, and things like that."
Although Hupert has worked remotely from the West Coast for 16 years, she still feels a close connection to her colleagues—some of whom she has known for 30 years. She says that the group has a strong tradition of socializing outside of work, and that she makes a point of visiting the office regularly to keep those bonds strong.
With everyone now working remotely, Hupert says that while the nature of the social activities will have to change—they don’t have to stop.
“Sheltering in place is stressful,” says Hupert. “So just having a space to share what card games you are playing and what podcasts you are listening helps. These conversations can be about nothing important, but they do really help you feel connected.”