The One with(out) Remote Socialising

I spent a few days last week at GOTOpia which was an awesome remote conference. One of the talks was about how GitLab organises their remote asynchronous work. According to Abubakar, one of the most important aspects of building trust in a remote company is having informal meetings where people can get to know each other on a more personal level via videochat. The things you do in an office while getting coffee or having a lunch break together.

I thought a lot about this since then, especially about the trust aspect of this. It has really hit a nerve for me. I’ve been feeling a bit weird about meetings that span multiple teams in the past few weeks but couldn’t figure out why. I’m not a person who easily opens up to people, I guess it takes me a while to trust someone. Which is due to bad experience and due to my anxiety disorder. I’m constantly worried I might say the wrong thing and people will speak badly of me behind my back. So talking to someone I don’t really know puts me in a low-level state of anxiety.

And I feel like I don’t know a lot of my colleagues from other teams anymore. There are some I have seen in the few department-wide update calls that we have had since then, and nowhere else. There are some who I have seen in a few Learning Hours, Sprint Shows and CoPs but without them having participated in the conversation a lot. And there are a hand full of people who regularly participate in informal calls or to whom I have a level of connection that we just sometimes make private calls. But that’s really just a few people outside of my team.

So participating in anything where there is not just my team and those few people puts me in this low-level state of anxiety. That’s not good. And I know people whose brain acts less anxiously than mine might not have this problem at the level I have, but I am pretty sure that communication in general gets worse the lesser you know someone. And I have talked to some others now who agree with me.

So … what do we do now?

I have started a Slack channel for homeoffice coffee breaks in April. 7 people have participated in any calls in this channel in September. I talked to some others, they don’t see the messages about calls until the call is over or they are always deep in something that they can’t leave. And they don’t start calls on their own because they want to spend their breaks with their families or they feel weird about starting a call in a public channel. And I have no idea about the people that I haven’t heard from since March because, well, I haven’t heard from them since March.

Some people meet in the office. But some of us can’t get to the office for reasons that I fully understand.

Abubakar said later that they have topical channels for informal conversation because it’s easier for people to talk about something they are interested in, like family, pets, hobbies. At our company, people don’t like channel chaos. So that’s out for us.

What else can you do? Can you enforce informal communication? That feels kind of invasive. Might people be more willing to participate if management emphasises how valuable they think it is? Does management even see this? Is it easier to set specific time slots for those informal calls so people can plan their day accordingly? Is that weird? It’s not something you would do in an office, but we are not in an office and we can’t see how occupied other people are when we want to have a coffee chat. There is no way to meet randomly. Unless you use those Slack bots that connect 2 people but then you still need to start a call or something.

I don’t have any answers, I just know that I feel less connected and thus more anxious every week. I hope people will do more remote stuff once the weather gets worse. But I’m not overly optimistic.

To end this in a more positive way: I didn’t have a plan for this Friday’s Learning Afternoon and I jokingly complained to a colleage that I don’t know which of the 100 things on my 17 to-do lists I should do and she replied that I should do number 7 from list 3. I decided that my Trello board is list 1, the last braindump in my bullet journal is list 2, so my “To Read” bookmarks folder was list 3. The 7th item on the list was a broken link, but I found it by searching for the title. It’s about productivity in a bullet journal so I’m going to spend the rest of the day learning/thinking/reading about productivity in its various forms. That was a fun way of deciding on a topic!