Being intentional about ad hoc conversations in a remote working environment can lead to more creativity and productivity.
Interactions between colleagues can boost creativity and spur great ideas, but how do you create the same magic in a remote environment?
In an office environment, there are more opportunities for in-person collisions to happen. Offices are often designed specifically with this aspect in mind. Recently I was impressed by the number of energizing, spontaneous conversations I had with my colleagues when I visited our San Francisco and New York offices: whether around the lunch table, sitting down for a short break between meetings, or while heading to the library. How could I recreate this feeling in a remote setting?
Setting the tone with new hires
With new hires, leaders have the opportunity to set the culture around creating collisions right from the start. They should encourage new members to set up 1:1 meetings with every engineer on their team, as well as provide them with a list of important folks from outside the team that they need to meet. As an aside, engineers on your team should ideally have regular 1:1 meetings amongst themselves.
Throughout these initial 1:1 conversations, new hires should end every conversation by asking who they should connect with next. This is a huge step towards building a network at any company, but especially at a new company. Your top talent will appreciate connecting with others and building their organizational network. This should also come in handy for future projects.
Leaders should also encourage new hires to write and share a 90-day reflection document, looking back at what they have learned so far, where they would like to spend more time, what has surprised them the most, and what opportunities have they noticed so far. This marks a good way to follow up on the connections they have built so far and stir up interesting conversations with more tenured staff that can share their own perspectives on some of the points brought up in the reflection document.
How leaders can create intentional collisions
Engineering leaders need to be more intentional about creating collisions on their teams and providing the space for their engineers to have spontaneous conversations. I have found that regular 1:1 time between engineers is the equivalent of two officemates taking an ad hoc break during the day to chat, or bounce ideas off of each other over lunch. The conversations that happen here are priceless.
Furthermore, it is our responsibility as leaders to work more openly and transparently, especially in a remote environment. This includes sharing more ideas through Slack or other collaboration tools, avoiding direct messages, defaulting to public channels, sharing draft proposals very early on, sharing context as often and early as possible, and inviting all stakeholders to meetings. Not only does this set the right culture on a team, but it increases context sharing and allows folks to provide feedback earlier in the process.
A habit that I’ve recently adopted is writing weekly team snippets every Friday. These snippets tend to be highly informal and don’t take longer than 20 minutes to write, but I have received great feedback from the team on the value they add. Typically, these snippets will include:
- What’s top of mind for me
- What I’m reading
- What I’ve learned this week
- What has surprised me
- A fun fact
For this to be a successful habit, I’d highly suggest time-boxing it to 20 minutes or less, otherwise, it could quickly become another tedious task on your to-do list.
Encouraging interpersonal relationships
With the big shift towards remote work during the pandemic, a lot has been said about the breakdown of interpersonal relationships. During my seven years of working remotely, I have found it possible to build strong interpersonal relationships with your peers if leaders are deliberate about it.
The easiest and lowest friction way of doing so is to allocate the first five to 10 minutes of a team meeting for non-work conversations and keeping it open-ended. Let folks chat through whatever is on their mind, whether it’s their weekend plans, their kid’s hockey game, or the new video game that they’re excited about. This is the real-life equivalent of folks getting to a conference room a little earlier and chit-chatting until the meeting begins. Remember that leaders have to be intentional about creating these moments in a remote environment.
Another approach is an optional happy hour/coffee chat meeting that occurs during business hours. I have iterated over this concept a few times in the past and have found that setting it up during business hours makes it more inclusive and increases attendance. These typically work best when they happen towards the end of the week, ideally on Fridays, as they provide a good way for the team to unwind and make it easier for folks to come up with topics to chat about, such as their weekend plans or how their week went.
Finally, leaders should always prioritize getting to know their direct reports on a more personal level through 1:1 meetings. A weekly remote 1:1 is a great opportunity to build and improve your interpersonal relationship with your direct reports.
Creating more collisions in a remote environment enables your team to be more creative, more productive, and more energized. It is important for leaders in a remote environment to be intentional about their engineers colliding with their peers.
In my experience, explicitly setting the tone with new hires, being more intentional about creating time and space for team members, and investing in interpersonal relationships helps build engineering teams that have high output and impact while feeling fulfilled and happy.