Way back in March, I surveyed each employee (Atom) at Atomic Object. I tried to get a sense of how we managed to quickly shift from working 100% on-site to 100% remote in a day, with very little notice. (The answers included Discord, Slack, and 1:1 check-ins.) Surely our speedy office exodus was enabled by our shared assumption this would only last a matter of weeks.
Well, nine months on, we haven’t been back to the office, and we’re still finding ways to make it work. In some ways, Atomic is thriving. We’re all grateful to be employed with full paychecks, and our work allows us to be productive safely. In a recent Gallup poll, Atoms rated their engagement at record highs and placed Atomic in the 98th percentile of engaged workplaces. Still, the majority of us would prefer to be back enjoying the best Atomic work perk: one another’s company.
I’ve heard (er, read) about lots of ways Atoms are making work work in a weird time. But there’s less feedback on what’s making a difference. So, at the risk of pestering all seventy of my colleagues twice, I asked a variant of the question I did in March: What is helping you keep working remotely, nine months in?
This time, the answers changed in some surprising ways.
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
When I asked every Atom back in March what most help them transition, the responses were tool-heavy. Discord, Zoom, and Slack seemed to be the secret weapon in our remote work arsenal. When I ran the survey again, I saw that folks still valued tooling, but it seems workplace relationships helped sustain remote workplace success.
In fact, I received a much broader set of answers this time. Here’s the full list in descending order of frequency (click to enlarge):
This list might give you ideas for keeping your work fresh and sustainable during this long winter.
Working from Home for the Long Haul
Some of those ideas are pretty unique to Atomic. But I see six themes that are more universally applicable to employees, teams, and company leaders looking to support their colleagues in a hard time.
1. Outfit the New Office
There’s a big difference between sitting on a plastic folding chair for a single workday and sitting on a plastic folding chair for months. (I was horrified to learn one of my colleagues had, in fact, sat on such a chair for weeks of eight-hour days at the beginning of the pandemic.)
When Atomic’s leaders realized we were in for a long haul, they hired a company to deliver everyone’s office furniture to their homes. In survey responses, Atoms said this was a big deal. The most appreciated items included chairs, monitors and desks. Some employees even adopted the office plants to make sure they made it through our absence.
There’s a reason companies invest in sturdy, ergonomic office furniture for employees. Those same principles apply when folks are working remotely. These small, practical fixes can provide outsized value as we slog through. And since everyone has unique needs, support ad hoc upgrades. As one Atom said:
“My day-to-day experience improved the most when I got a quality external microphone. I was finding I needed to speak pretty loudly to be heard when I was just using the laptop mic.”
2. Keep Old Traditions Alive
As much as we all roll our eyes whenever Managing Partner John Fisher tries to get us to sing the same jingle during each of our quarterly company meetings, traditions like that create culture. So many of them evaporated when we scrambled to begin working remotely.
Little by little, enterprising Atoms found ways to stoke the flames of these old ceremonies. We used to gather around the kitchen island for Standup every morning; now we do it grooving to Dylan’s song-of-the day on Zoom. We used to crowd into a noisy restaurant for dinner and drinks at the end of a quarter; now we spread out among various colleagues’ backyards and roast hotdogs around a campfire. Finding ways to do what we used to do in the ways we can still do it makes us feel like we’re still ourselves, and it roots us during a chaotic time.
3. Foster Social Bonds
So many respondents reflected on how they had to be more deliberate about feeding work relationships in WFH times. Now that I can’t pass Sivhaun and ask about her nail polish when it catches my eye, keeping up with her is a decision rather than a byproduct of working in an office together.
Happily, survey respondents noted that they value their collegial relationships and how they’re worth the extra effort. Atomic has designed some social opportunities, like hosted Jackbox Game Night and Virtual Pair Lunches. But many respondents said they found themselves scheduling regular check-ins with people they didn’t want to lose touch with. One Atom said,
“Hanging out or playing video games while in Discord w/some work friends has really helped me stay connected and recharged while I’m not meeting any of my friends in-person.”
4. Clarify Boundaries
Before this year, few of us expected to respond to the stressors of a global pandemic by… working too much? In the “homing from work” epoch, the lines between time you spend on your job and time you spend trying to stay sane blur.
Those of us lucky enough to have dedicated office space credit our sanity to shutting the office door when not working. But respondents noted other ways to shut the metaphorical door on work — even in cramped quarantine environments. These include closing the computer and keeping it closed after a workday, inserting a break for lunch or exercise during the day and sticking to it, restricting work websites and apps during relaxation time (and vice versa), and even changing the dimness of your home’s lights when work is done. As one colleague said:
“Re-establishing that mental separation of work and not-work has helped me make more time for other hobbies and general decompression that’s necessary in these incredibly stressful times.”
5. Plug Communication Gaps with the Right Tool
In the before-times, when someone asked a question aloud, someone from across the room would wheel their chair over to lend a hand. These days, there is no ambient communication to rely on diffusing information like: Who is struggling? Who is celebrating good news? Who is stuck on a problem and doesn’t know whom to ask? Who got a haircut?
Atoms credit a panoply of tools with simulating co-location. Respondents matched different types of communication gaps with a carefully-selected tool:
- A team discord server addresses ambient team chatter.
- Sharing calendars helps keep everyone informed of who is doing what, when we can’t look over our colleague’s shoulder.
- Phone calls work better than Zoom when discussing more personal matters.
- Google Drawings, Shuffleboard, and Miro recreate the pairing-on-a-whiteboard experience.
- One team even started running team “talk shows” on Zoom with guest speakers to introduce the project team to new stakeholders on the project, in a time when it’s impossible to perform site visits.
6. Care for Others and Yourself
Finally, Atoms I surveyed appreciated the ways they’ve been taken care of by others and found ways to care for themselves. Employees said they appreciated their manager’s flexibility (e.g., working non-standard hours, providing and explaining FFCRA benefits to care for family members). They also felt secured by Atomic’s leaders’ transparency in sharing the company’s financials, hosting open Q&A sessions, and displaying empathy when someone was in a hard position.
Self-care came in many forms as well: adopting mindfulness practices through apps like Headspace or journaling, taking up a new hobby to stimulate a potentially dull phase of life, opting to take meetings outside to get fresh air.
And then, pets. I’ll leave you with my colleague Jarek’s confident answer:
“I think the most helpful practice for me has been frequently snuggling with my cats.”
From us Atoms and furry teammates, we hope you have happy work year.