This year, a lot changed about the way we interact socially, and especially at work. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, we moved the majority of our employees to working from home in early March. Since then, we realized that maintaining and continuing to build the team during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders would be essential, and it would take extraordinary additional effort and planning.
Our leadership, HR team, and our “Fun Committee” have all invested in trying to maintain team spirit and culture (Fun Committee is a group dedicated to planning exciting events for the team). They planned online events and virtual hangouts in place of the in-person social gatherings we would normally have, and they asked questions to get people talking to each other more often online. Some things worked to get people to interact and see each other more often, while other things failed to get any response.
Now, as some businesses look to return to their offices, social distancing will still have an impact on gathering together for team building events like an after-work happy hour or a chat in the lunchroom. But with the possibility of additional quarantines in the future, we’re looking to the opportunity of virtual spaces to lift our team spirit. And we’re sure we’re not the only business looking for ways to build our sense of community while socially distant. So, we want to share what has worked and what hasn’t for team building during this strange moment in our history.
Switching Out In-person Events for Video Calls
Early on, we realized that with shelter-in-place orders shutting down other businesses and ways for people to gather socially, working from home would mean that many people would probably struggle to feel connected to each other on a regular basis. That, and the fact that in the absence of a lunchroom or our office’s communal kitchens, employees no longer had a way to socialize with each other if they so desired. Nothing can replace the ability to connect with someone in person, but we decided to try using technology to our advantage while remaining socially distanced.
This took the form of regularly-scheduled video “hangouts” listed on our company-wide calendar. These meetings are scheduled on different days, at varying times, to accommodate teams’ differing schedules and to ensure that employees can take advantage of their most productive times of day without sacrificing their opportunity to socialize. Backblaze employees who were hired and onboarded after the shelter-in-place orders began can meet other people outside of their teams. Also, employees who have been remote pre-COVID have more opportunities for social interaction with their on-site peers.
Throughout hosting different video hangouts, we learned that it best worked for calls to represent a specific social interaction that would happen in the office.
Enjoying a “Brewtiful Morning” Online
Back in the office, many of us enjoyed chatting with each other while brewing our morning coffee. The coffee debates are fierce—Death Wish Coffee, Peet’s, Henry’s House of Coffee—all have loyalists. Now that the majority of the company works from home, our Office Administrator, Judith, hosts a “Brewtiful Mornings” coffee break on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings that lasts for about half an hour.
Attendance is usually small, which might seem as if the events aren’t popular. Actually, our team says that the small group of people on a call allows them to connect more directly in conversation. As anyone can join the calls, the group changes and people are able to connect with someone new each day.
We also learned that keeping an event going that might only serve a few employees at a time still has great benefits, as some employees prefer to only interact with a few people at a time. While the low attendance at the event might have felt like a failure to bring our team together at first, we realized that it’s an accommodating space for our employees with different communication styles.
Brian’s Office Hours
Backblaze Co-founder and CTO, Brian, hosts weekly office hours on Wednesday afternoons, as do several other members of the Engineering team. However, while other Engineering office hours may cover more technical topics, Brian’s office hours cover a range of topics from why dogs aren’t allowed in our data centers to his opinions on building a business with venture capital vs. bootstrapping and the cutest cat videos ever seen on the internet.
The format ranges from a group discussion to an informational presentation from Brian, but his openness, transparency, and willingness to answer almost any question has made his office hours both educational and entertaining for the employees that attend.
When quarantine began, Judith implemented virtual yoga and meditation sessions, led by a local instructor, twice a week. Unfortunately, after about a month into quarantine, these sessions were canceled because of low attendance.
The main reason these sessions did not get much participation was because shelter-in-place had just begun at the time and people were still adjusting to their new lifestyles. Between kids and work, it was difficult at first for employees to adjust time for self-care into their schedules. It was also hard to accommodate remote employees’ schedules since they live in different timezones.
Because of this experience, we learned to give our employees some time to adjust to their new schedules before initiating classes or social events. It’s also important to check in with employees to learn more about how their self-care priorities might change over time and create events that they’d like to attend. Finally, we recommend having these classes at different times throughout the week in order to accommodate different schedules.
Keeping the Conversation Going on Slack
Another way we’ve looked to boost team spirit while away from the office is by facilitating ongoing conversations through different Slack channels. We have several Slack channels catering to different interests (cooking, gaming, exercising, you name it!) to help maintain team morale during shelter-in-place. Most channels were created by Judith, but any employee can create one if they’d like. Slack channels work great because people can participate when they have the extra time to do so without having to plan their entire day around an event.
At the start of working from home, employees were quick to share tips about home office setups and their reactions to the shift in their daily routines. Then as time went on, less people seemed to ask questions or spontaneously message the different social channels. Judith’s method of re-engaging everyone in conversation was to act as the main facilitator. She’s always posting something, whether it’s about the news or a reaction to what someone else posted. By being engaged, she encourages others to also get involved.
She also recommends knowing your audience—if your employees love to talk about current events, then it may be worth taking the time out of your mornings to read the news so that you can initiate interesting conversations.
Taking Advantage of Online Opportunities and Flexible Schedules
Since the start of shelter-in-place, our team created a bunch of new Slack channels to stay virtually connected. Although we can no longer casually run into coworkers at the water cooler and chat with them, we’ve shifted those conversations to a channel called #virtualwatercooler.
People don’t see each other throughout the day anymore so they don’t always know what’s new in their coworkers’ daily lives. That’s why Judith initiated a few ongoing trends to make it easier for people to update each other about their day. One of the fun versions of these updates is when employees share pictures of their “co-workers”—this can be their pet, their roommates, or their kids. While many of us wish for a pre-pandemic world, it’s provided us the opportunity to get to know our colleagues in different ways without being intrusive.
In a similar channel called #wfh-help, employees can talk directly about the changes that remote work has brought to their daily routine. They use this channel to share helpful resources like productivity tools and tips on working from home with kids. Everyone’s experience of working from home looks a bit different, but here they can ask advice for advice or connect with someone else who’s experiencing a similar situation.
Adjusting to a Virtual Community
Throughout shelter-in-place, some existing Slack channels had to modify their purpose because they were used to plan in-person team events (like game nights). Instead of going completely silent, employees found ways to invite new members and turn to online spaces for new possibilities.
Prior to shelter-in-place orders, a channel was used to schedule “Terraforming Mars” sessions after work. Nowadays, members can no longer play board games together in person like they used to, but that doesn’t stop them from playing together online.
Now, some employees play “Terraforming Mars” virtually on their computers after work. Others play “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” and a few play “Stellaris.” One of our team members is an avid Twitch streamer, so group members use the Slack channel to notify when their co-worker is going live. Many employees from the channel join in on the fun and hang out virtually.
Dan, Senior Support Technician and a passionate gamer, recommends incorporating a diverse range of games into the mix. Our group at Backblaze plays easier short games like “Fluxx” to longer, more competitive games like “Terraforming Mars.” This helps gamers at all levels feel included.
Something we noticed that we’re sure many other organizations are also experiencing is that engagement through ongoing Slack channel conversations and regular video hangouts seems to drop over time. One explanation for this decrease in participation might be an overall sense of fatigue that comes with not being able to interact with people in person for an extended amount of time. While we can’t organize in-person events, we can try new things with our virtual hangouts to get people interested, again.
In addition to our regularly-scheduled digital “programming,” we have also hosted several one-off events, generated by staff ideas and usually hosted by Judith or our Events Marketing Coordinator, Caitlin. These events have featured special guests, or sometimes, our very own team members have shown off their talents. From singing and playing piano to hosting a baking master class, these events have been a great, low pressure way for team members to share the things they’re passionate about. These events also help to provide additional opportunities for employees to engage, and often also have welcomed family members, especially children!
Princess Storytime with Elsa
Thanks to Wish Upon a Star Princess Parties, we were able to invite Queen Elsa of Arendelle to host two special story time sessions with many of our employees’ families, telling the stories of “Frozen” and “Frozen 2.” Each session was about 30 minutes long and included story time, sing-alongs, and time for questions and answers with Elsa.
If you plan to do something like this for your employees, we strongly recommend encouraging parents to join with their kids to help facilitate muting/unmuting to ensure everyone gets a chance to hear and be heard. We heard from many parents after our first story time with Elsa that their kids loved the event, so we took character requests and are working on bringing in “Star Wars” characters, superheroes, and other Disney favorites for future story time sessions!
One week, a mysterious happy hour event appeared on the company calendar, promising a special “surprise guest.” Those who joined the meeting that day learned that the special guest was none other than Paco the llama, one of the animal ambassadors at Sweet Farm Sanctuary!
Sweet Farm is a local nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming and factory-farm animal rescue. After meeting Paco, we were taken on a virtual tour to meet other animals including cows, pigs, and sheep, and learned more about the farm’s operations and mission.
Several employees shared that they had previously visited Sweet Farm (One had attended a painting class at the farm and had painted a still-life of Paco the llama!), and others expressed interest in visiting once they were able to safely do so, again. Many farms and animal rescues are offering similar opportunities to have an animal “join” your company meeting; if you are interested in doing something like this, we encourage you to choose a local organization, if possible.
Virtual Events Bring Our Teams Together During Shelter-in-place
Our virtual events and Slack channels have helped us tremendously in maintaining our culture during shelter-in-place. Working from home can be difficult, but as team members, we are there to support one another whether that’s through a quick coffee chat in the morning, a story time with Elsa to keep the kids busy, or fitness challenges to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We’d love to hear more about some of the things your organization has done to build team spirit during shelter-in-place. Share some of the ways your team stays connected while working from home in the comments below.