Staying Socially Connected in a Socially-Distanced Office

Article summary

As I write today, we’re in our fifteenth week of all-remote work at Atomic Object, and we don’t expect to return to our physical space any time soon.

This is tough for us. While some companies are embracing remote work and using the pandemic as an opportunity to downsize their physical footprint, in-person collaboration is a foundational part of Atomic Object’s DNA. From the tools and practices we prefer to the people we hire, we’re most comfortable when we get to share physical space.

We’re committed to returning to our offices and our normal way of working when it’s safe and feasible to do so. However, for the well-being of our employees, clients, projects, and culture, we’re working hard to thrive in an all-remote context.

As a manager, being remote from my team has been one of the toughest aspects of this pandemic. As the weeks of remote work stretch on, I’ve felt more and more disconnected from our project teams — and really depressed about it. Recently, I’ve added two new practices to my routine that help fill the gap and restore some of the connection that was lost.

Catching Up

Because of our flat company structure and self-managing, team-centric office structure, my co-manager Jeff and I share more than forty direct reports between us. This works because our Delivery Leads and Career Development Managers do a lot of the tactical heavy lifting on performance and career management.

When we’re all together in person, I get a lot of information (and a lot of fulfillment) from management by wandering around and the chance encounters that happen day-to-day. From quick project check-ins to new ideas to personal updates, we share a lot around the snack table and in impromptu conversations as we move around our open office. Working remotely, we don’t get these same ad hoc opportunities to connect.

As a substitute, Jeff and I have started doing half-hour catchups via Zoom with each of our team members. Our goal is to do these monthly with each team member. It’s not a small time commitment, but the payoff has been huge. My work feels more fulfilling, I’m more aware of project status and able to help with needs across the office. And Atoms once again have a touchpoint with and opportunity to voice their thoughts to office leadership.


Reaching Out

Expressing encouragement and gratitude is another important feature of our office culture and my personal leadership style. When we’re in the office together, it’s easy to share some nice words in passing or via a nice handwritten note left on somebody’s desk.

As the weeks wore on in quarantine, I realized that I really missed the opportunity to connect in this way. I ordered some Atomic-branded postcards and envelopes from MOO, and I keep a stack of them on my desk at home, along with several books of stamps. This makes it easy to dash off a note for a colleague, client, or connection as soon as I think to do it.

This small gratitude practice has a lot of power to keep me focused and happy in my work. These physical, tangible little surprises are meaningful to the recipients, and the (short) walk to the mailbox is a helpful interruption and opportunity to reset and refresh during my days filled with screen time and Zoom meetings.

These practices have made a noticeable difference in my quality of life as an involuntarily remote worker. They help me keep connections alive with my colleagues and clients, and they help me remember the meaning and purpose of my work.

If you have similar practices or additional ideas for keeping relationships strong during remote work, I’d love to hear about them!