Maintaining Connection With Co-workers Through A Pandemic

The last 12 months have changed the way we work. What does that mean? How has work actually changed? And how have the last months changed how we feel about work?

We’re Busy But Less Connected

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index is a practical source of real data. It’s the result of over 50 studies involving more than 30,000 people in 31 countries. The Index shows that meeting time is up 148% over the last year. We are spending less time on heads-down, focus work than we were before the pandemic.

Microsoft’s Outlook service reports that users sent 40.6 billion more emails in February 2021 over February 2020. We’re spending more time writing and reading emails than before. Usage of chat-based communication is up 45%, and people are collaborating using Docs 66% more. People in the knowledge industry are using digital tools much more than they were before.

Additionally, many new digital tools were born and will continue to emerge as a result of the pandemic’s impact on the knowledge-worker industry. Remember videoconferencing in 2019? It was terrible. The sound and video quality were awful. Options were few and expensive. We all avoided videoconferencing if we possibly could.

In 2021, Zoom and webcams are second nature. Atomic has used a variety of tools to kick off projects with many different clients in a completely remote context. A friend has created and launched a virtual sticky note tool that finally solves the problem of capturing live feedback remotely. We have definitely learned and adapted to a new reality where co-location hasn’t been possible.

A Need for Human Connection

In spite of all this, the Index reports that most knowledge workers are feeling isolated and disconnected from co-workers. They are communicating less, and knowledge is becoming siloed across organizations.

Although digital tools have improved drastically over the past year, they haven’t improved our ability to connect while not being together. We aren’t communicating more in spite of being more “connected.” We can say “the future of work has changed” all we want, but whatever we’re doing hasn’t helped us fill a need as human beings for connection. This dissonance leads me to believe that the future of work isn’t remote and that we will struggle with a hybrid work environment.

Striving for Connection at Atomic

At Atomic, we also face this challenge of an overabundance of resources but an inability to connect in person. Since March of last year, we’ve equipped our teams with home office furniture, monitors and peripherals, and all the digital tools you could imagine. But if the above assertions are true, that doesn’t mean that our people are thriving or staying connected.

Our Director of Product, Micah Alles, recently calculated that 16% of our employees have never worked in an Atomic office facility! Many of these new employees are single and in their 20s. According to Microsoft’s Work Trends Report, that means that those folks are struggling more than most. I feel for them: new company, new colleagues, sitting at home alone every day at the beginning of your career.

As we look forward to working together in our offices again, we’ve been taking additional measures to stay connected, especially with these young teammates. We’ve treated the safety precautions of the pandemic as a constraint on what we’re able to do. Here’s a quick list of things we’re doing to stay connected:

Updated practices:

  • 1:1 meetings by phone instead of Zoom – Zoom fatigue is real. Phone calls allow folks to take a break and go for a walk while meeting. I’ve also taken these 1:1 meetings to outdoor, socially distanced walks where appropriate.
  • Standup – We used to gather together to see one another’s faces in our offices at the beginning of the day. For the last year, we’ve been meeting briefly on Zoom for announcements, but Zoom meetings quickly got annoying and stale. Standup wasn’t helping us stay connected. In Ann Arbor, we started playing a curated playlist of music at the beginning of the meeting. Some days we shared what we were grateful for, and some days we had a quick icebreaker question. Other days folks showed up to show-and-tell about something they were passionate about. So far this year, we’ve seen amazingly intricate lego sets, coffee roasting, bread baking, PC Gaming rig setups, and a miniature greenhouse buildout. We also have a day of the week designated for giving team members public recognition of a job well done.
  • Quarterly Financial Results Meetings – We’ve tried a bunch of different things. We meet all together as a company (75 people on Zoom) to hear from our CEOs, then we split off into office-specific Zoom calls. We review financial results and celebrate (remotely) the great work we’ve all done. At different times, we’ve sent everyone snack boxes or other fun stuff to show our gratitude for their hard work. We’ve also gathered to play online games together after the meeting.
  • Backyard Gatherings – Under normal conditions, we had office happy hours called “Spindowns.” During the pandemic, we switched to hosting backyard gatherings where a limited number of folks could gather around a fire pit and enjoy each other’s company after work. We had many of these across the company at different times and places over 2020 and 2021. It was so refreshing to connect with others (sometimes for the first time!) in person at a safe social distance.

New practices:

  • Atomic Toast – Led by Joe Chrysler, many of us gathered on Fridays on Zoom early in the pandemic to toast one another’s great work. It was a fun time in which people could unwind and share kind words about a co-worker’s awesomeness in front of others.
  • AtomiTalks – We usually have an internal conference every 18 months, but it was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. We looked for a way to replace some of the connection and bonding that conference usually creates. We came up with the idea of “AtomicTalks” – virtual fireside chats that took place on one Friday afternoon a month over the course of Q4 2020. They took place near the end of the workday so that the end of the event lined up with the end of Atoms’ weeks. The talks were Q&A/interview style on a number of different topics related to the company’s history and economic philosophy. Most of the content came from long-time employees, but we also invited an outside speaker. These talks turned out to be really fun and an opportunity for us to get to know each other around a specific work-related theme.
  • Quarantunes – Our Grand Rapids office organized mini Zoom concerts put on by employees and streamed to the entire company over Zoom. These concerts were a fun interlude during the week that helped us stay connected with each other and discover new talents in our midst. Designer Kim Wolting even made a concert poster for each person!

Looking Forward

These efforts don’t mean that we’ve weathered the pandemic perfectly as a technology company. We’ll have reconnection and trust building to do when we reconvene in our offices. But I hope it shows that we’re a caring bunch of people who are doing their best given the many constraints imposed on us by reality. I can’t wait to be back in the office every day with my colleagues. Until then, we’ll keep pushing to stay connected with one another despite the difficulties.