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Building Community In Remote & Hybrid Workplaces

The COVID-19 pandemic and global economic trends like the Great Reshuffle have led to a more remote and less-tenured workforce in many organizations. Especially for those who started new jobs recently or have made the switch to remote or hybrid workplaces, it can sometimes feel difficult to cultivate a sense of community. In this talk, we will consider why it is helpful to take charge of building connections yourself and explore a variety of tactics for participating in and cultivating community in your workplace.

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EILEEN: Building community in a remote or hybrid work place. I wanted to start by introducing myself. Hi, I'm a technical writer. I spent a decade in various software roles, mostly on site at one can be, and became hybrid in 2021.

I'm quiet, and I like making friends. And other connections. This is something that I had the chance to reflect on a lot as I made my first major career jump in about a decade. I started my first company, and I had a reputation in the first couple of months for being very, very quiet.

I actually had my manager talk to me later and said we were not sure you could speak. And that is not a bad thing, but I realise that over the course of my years there, I had grown into someone who felt connected to my community, someone who felt I was contributing.

I was leading the company toastmasters' club, I was involved in some employer resource groups, I attended meetings of the user experience book club as well as the informal pot luck vegetarian-for-fun book club, and just found myself chronically joining clubs and trying to make friends, and connect people. I found that a lot of times people I knew in different areas of the business were working on initiatives that either overlapped, or where they each had knowledge that the other could use.

And it was hard to move away from nine years established at one company, and that sense of connectivity and awareness of where I fit in the business, but I was ready for a new challenge. And so I had to think okay, what does it look like to establish a community and an identity for myself at a totally new place? And then also, how do I do it remotely?

I'm hybrid, I live a commutable distance from my new company, but I only go in a few days every quarter, and that is the same for a large amount of our staff. And so the tactics that I would use maybe chatting with someone over lunch, or at the coffee machine, didn't quite work, and I had to figure out how to translate them to a virtual environment. And so that is the reason that I put together this talk. It also selfishly forced me to get a sense of what do I do? And what does work? How can I be part of a community?

So, I think an initial question that is important as justify the basis for this talk is why build community at work? And I think the idea that you folks are here to listen to a talk about this topic, most likely there is some level of buy-in that building community at work is a nice thing.

But not everyone agrees, and everyone's interest in community at work and ability to be part of community at work is different, and that is okay. Some folks want to do more work on their own, want to bring less of our outside-of-work life to work, and that's okay. Some folks want to be able to take just about all of the elements of their personality into the workplace, and that's okay too.

So I'm here to share what I've learned, and give foes some tactics that might work for you. Thinking about why build community at work, there are tons of resources that suggest that this is a good idea. Everyone has opinions.

Plenty of people point back to Maslow's hierarchy of need. The need of belongingness, the thought that every person has physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, esteem needs, and ideally, self-actualisation needs. And if one is in a healthy workplace, one's workplace should be supporting a number of these parts of one's needs. Certainly, safety, all of our workplaces are safe.

Physiological: it can be helpful to receive a salary using — that one can use to buy goods and services, and make sure to have the things that one needs to survive and thrive, and the next step up from those two things is this sense of belonging, and he is steam which is come from appreciation from our co-workers.

Everyone has opinions and other cite things like more positive employee engagement surveys, longer tenure statistics. A couple of things I pulled up from Great Place To Work, their research suggests that when employees experience belonging in the workplace, they're three times more likely to look forward to come to work, three times more likely to say the workplace is fun, five times to believe people are treated fairly, regardless of race or other attributes, and five times more likely want to stay there.

One of the things I want to call out is community and belonging aren't exactly the same term, although there is a sense where they overlap in terms of when one feels like one belongs, one often feels like one is in community. Some of the other things that experts point to are just common sense advantages.

Something I liked was a blog post that was published by Indeed that points to things like support networks, opportunities for growth, personal investment in the organisation, improved collaboration, efficient communication which I think we all can agree, no matter how much community we want to build or not, is a really wonderful thing.

Productivity. And professional satisfaction. And I have my opinions myself. So thinking about my role as a technical writer, in a workplace, everything we do connects in some way. And especially as a technical writer, connecting with others is a huge part of me being able to achieve my job goals and being part of a larger ecosystem.

I write more better accurate content when I chat with the right experts at the right time. This means not potentially the engineer who built something, the product manager who is managing the concept for how it fits in the overall scheme, also the folks in marketing who are determining how we're positioning that technology to potentially users and customers. Because if all of us are aligned, then the users feel they're get consistent information across the business, I know I can trust them.

Our product also gets better if while I'm working on my documentation, I catch bugs before a customer does. If I know how to flag them in the right system or for the right person. Sometimes I need to brainstorm with someone safe. So that I can assess whether I need to change my priorities or strategy.

It's pretty much part of any role, especially when one is navigating confusing, or otherwise intricate circumstances that having someone as a sounding board or a brainstorm buddy just has a tremendously positive impact.

And many of us spend 40 hours a week working, give or take, and a lot of us want to have that be a nice time, whatever nice time looks for us. And for a lot of people, that means knowing that we have some folks around us where we can share humour, where we can share identities, where we can share work-related information, and where we can work together to solve business problems. S

o one of the things I do want to talk about are what are our identities, and which do we want to bring to work? And if the way I'm using the term "identity" here doesn't work for you, that's fine. Maybe a word like "elements" or "aspects" would work just as well. Some.

Identities we bring to work, everyone who works within a company is a worker within the organisation. That is something that we all share. But we legislation bring things like member of this team if aware on a team, contributor to this project if we're working on a cross-functional project, and an expert in these skills, the reasons we were hired in the first place.

We also might be a member of outside professional organisations, an alum of previous employers, project, schools, et cetera. We might be a hobbyist or enthusiast in particular things. We also are potentially a friend, or a family member, and more. That is the sense of the sum of our parts. We don't necessarily have to bring all of these identities to work.

Some folks might want to draw the line here. I'm a worker within this organisation. I'm contributing to these goals in this way, but I don't want to share a lot of the information about my friendships, or my hobbies with others. Most people, though, even if you're trying to keep things fairly work-related, are also bringing in other identities, such as things related to their role, their team, and their projects. And it certainly is not much of a stretch from there to think about bringing in aspects of ones's identity, by being member of professional organisations or an alum.

These were things that were relevant to one's higher or continued growth in a role, and finally, there are people who are comfortable bringing lots of different elements of their identities to work. Maybe you want to feel like you can bring your whole self to work, or the relevant parts of one's whole self.

So the rest of this talk focuses on ideas for community-building, divided into three categories: they do interconnect with each other, and we will talk about that more as we get there, but the first one is connecting one-on-one. These are small actions you can take yourself to build connections with other individuals. There is also participating in existing conversations and events. This would be seeing what your employer offers, and finding ways to be involved in the parts of that that you want to be involved in. And then finally, we look at starting something yourself, which is the flip side of participating in existing conversations.

If the thing that you want doesn't already exist, you might be the one who needs to start it, and there is something there that relates back to connecting one on one if you're the one taking that initiative. So let's start by looking at ways to connect one on one.

So, again, this is a set of tactics that I've used that I would like to share with you, and I'm not saying that all of these tactics will work in every situation, but they are ones that I've tried before that have helped me build connections, build my interwork network, and make friends.

So send a welcome message. Especially to new joiners, folks who have just joined your organisation, if someone moves on to your team, if someone moves on to a project with you. And sending a welcome message can be pretty simple. It can be as easy as, "Welcome, we're so lucky to have you join the team." Or, if you're the new joiner, welcome, I'm so excited to join this team. And you also can get some bonus points if you share a little bit about yourself, or if you acknowledge any shared experiences or connections that you're aware of.

So a welcome message might look like, "Welcome, I'm a technical writer. I started in December, and I would love to get a virtual coffee with you." And this starts to give someone a sense of where they can latch on to if they want to get to know you better, if they want to continue the conversation. It also lets folks see do I have a similar identity? Do I have a compatible or complementary identity?

As you saw from that message, another tactic that I love is proposing a virtual coffee. Setting aside time for catch-up, it is something that is explicitly not work-related. It might have a title, a meeting title like Coffee Chat, or virtual coffee, or informal chat, and again, it is something that doesn't have to be complicated, maybe you say, hello, I would love to chat over a virtual coffee. Let me know if this works for you, feel free to propose a better time.

Something I negotiate when I'm interacting with someone who is new to me is trying to figure out should I send them a message first, saying that I would like to have a virtual coffee, or is it someone where we have a culture of if they don't want to have the coffee with me, they will hit reject, or they will propose a different time if I've picked a bad time. But this is something I believe that if you take a positive approach, people will appreciate it, and more than likely, you will be able to have a virtual coffee with someone.

This is a virtual alternative to those coffee conversations that one might have had for an in-person company. Another way to build community is to ask and answer questions. For me, and my previous situations, this might be being part of Slack and different channels. And the questions might be work-related, they might be related to my role, they might be related to general company knowledge.

If you have questions, find a person or a channel where you think someone's likely to know the answer. It's okay to ask in public something that I try to tell myself is when I do my learning in public, other people are learning too. I almost am never the only person with a question. Even if the answer is duh, I should have looked here for that been everyone else secretly sitting on that question knows to look over here for that answer.

And in terms of answering questions, answer when you know the answer. Even if it is not something directed to you if you feel confident that you have the answer, it's fine to jump in. Or sometimes you know that you can help the asker to get one step closer even if you don't know the answer yourself. This happened to me a lot in my last role. There were three teams that were responsible more or less for all of the content within the organisation, and so sometimes folks would come to me with questions about other folks' content.

I might not know exactly who was on the project, but I could send the person with the question to the right manager and know, okay, that person will get them one step closer to their answer. All right. So moving on to that second level, which is participating in existing conversations and events, now, this section is going to be a little bit more like a map.

I'm going to show you areas to look for that might already exist, but unless you work for the same employer I do, I can't tell you exactly what is available. These are the places I would advise looking for things that exist and what might be available.

Internal forums and channels might be something like Slack, Teams, Yammer, et cetera, and you might be looking for interest-based discussions, pets, cooking, crafting, gaming — the sky's the limit on what might already exist. You might find spaces to meet other, new-hire introduction threads, something like the donuts tool that assigns people for a random chat - the doughnut tool for chat, or celebrations.

Folks often recognise, anniversaries, and customer and business milestones in internal channels and celebrating these things gives you a chance to put some positive energy into your workplace and gives others the chance to see that you acknowledge these steps forward, or important moments in people and the business's timeline.

Virtual meetings are another place to potentially build community and connect. This includes mandatory or regular meetings, small talk before it kicks off. You might find the way that an in-person meeting might have had moments, a couple of minutes where they're trickling in, maybe the leader isn't there yet, that 15 great time to talk about little things, and find commonalities.

And then of course, when the meeting leader is there, or when it is time to kick off the meeting, please let the meeting to continue to run as planned. I think that's a nuance that is really important in building those connections. I think pretty easy to arrange. There is also optional work-related meetings.

One of the things that came to mind immediately for me were trainings either within the team, cross-departmental trainings that are run within your organisation, or maybe even if you and some other folks from your business are sent to the same external training.

There is team-builders, and fun activities, and I know that this can be a pretty controversial topic because we probably all have had moments in our life where we've done a team-builder where we didn't feel like we actually built a team, or where we actually had very much fun at all, but, I would suggest that if you work with your leadership, and if your leadership works with your team to make sure that there is a sense of buy-in and an awareness of what people are actually interested in doing, team-builders and fun activities can actually be fun.

If something seems like it has the potential to be a useful community-building tool, I would suggest please give it a try, and give yourself the chance to build community that way.

Casual catch-ups, going back to things like the virtual coffee, which could be one-on-one, but also I have had teams where we — when my last team initially moved to remote in 2020, we started our mornings for a while just with a quick chat with each other, that helped us remain connected in a very strange time.

Finally, I wanted to acknowledge things like groups and committees. These might be taking part in virtual meetings, they might be taking part in forums, but they're a little bit of a different, so I just wanted to give them some attention on their own. These include work committees.

I've seen work committees working on achieving particular business goals, I've seen work committees focused on how can we increase employee engagement. There might be some already happening. There might be the opportunity to start some but we will get to that a little bit later.

Your organisation might also have employer resource groups, based on different identity characteristics, or shared interests, things like Pride, or parenting, and those can be a really great opportunity to meet folks who have similar interests, and similar backgrounds, and similar — the act to give you particular oh, here's how I handle this, or here's how I handle the situation that might come up, and just make friends across the business.

Finally, in addition to anything like that, there may be company-sponsored, or not company-sponsored, or already established virtual clubs. This might be something like toastmasters, this might be something like a book club, and so figuring out what already exists can be really helpful to plugging into a group or community.

All right. Here is where things start to get really interesting. If you want to, you can always start something yourself, and in addition to continually joining clubs, I also have looked back on my past history, and I have a tendency to start clubs as well, because if there is an opportunity to learn with people, or get together with people, or compare notes with people, that's something I want to be doing. I think the collaboration makes us all think better.

So if you want to start something yourself, this section I'm going to frame a little bit more around what — sorry ... figuring out what you want to do, and then going out and doing it. So figuring out what you want to do, again, we just talked about owe that map some of the things that might already exist.

But if what you want doesn't already exist, creating a book club, one that is for fun, or a work topic. Maybe it's creating a watch party, or equivalent of a book club or educational videos. Maybe it's gaming together. I know folks who do video games together. I recently discovered that Google will let you do a puzzle with your friends or online. That's super, super neat. There are our trusted casual chats, if this is something that doesn't exist, you might want to create it. Maybe you want to be part of setting up a celebration for someone.

I know that at one point in my last role, there was someone new to our company expecting a baby, and I wanted to make sure that we had a shower for her so that was something that I set about working with others to arrange to happen.

You might want to create an employee resource group for a that up is near and dear to your heart, or for all I know, might want to create a discussion channel where everyone can share their favourite videos of live bird cams, and share notes about birds that you see around where you live when you go on walks around your lunch break. The sky is the limit within the realm of what is appropriate for work.

So once you've done that, figure out whether you know anyone else who might want to join. This doesn't mean that you have to set an entire invite list before you've even created an event, but it can be helpful to figure out, "I know this other person loves birding as well, I'm going to brainstorm with them what would they like to do, participate in, and how could we figure out a best way to achieve the goal of bringing together all the birders at our organisation?" Then hone your idea.

Determine how to handle inviting or informing others, and I would say please aim to be inclusive. You don't have to invite everyone, and events can start fairly small, but you wouldn't want to find yourself in a situation where you're inviting everyone from a team except one person, unless there was a real reason that that was the best approach to take.

It is better to over invite in that kind of situation, and then let people opt out themselves, and speaking of opting out, not everyone can or will participate. And that is okay. Sometimes even folks who want to participate won't be able to. And that is a shame, but it's fine, and it's important to keep in mind that you can continue to build connections with those persons within the bird context outside of whatever you're starting. Y

ou don't have to create something huge on your first try. The scope can be small, one meeting, one channel, one post, and still have a positive impact. Protect yourself and your time. Follow your organisation's processes and policies and applicable.

This is especially true for trying to do something like creating an employee resource group, or even creating a new Slack channel or Teams chat. If there are existing processes and policies, you always want to stay on the right side of them. It doesn't mean that processes and policies exist, but it's good to know what they are if they do exist.

For anything that's going to take a significant amount of your time away from work, make sure to get managerial buy-in. When I was running Toastmasters at my last organisation, it took an hour away from my workweek, and I just wanted to make sure that my manager knew and was working with me on what this meant for my workload.

Finally, I want to give a quick note a hybrid events. It's difficult, but not impossible, to plan and include hybrid events, where there is a mix of remote and in-person attendees. Could this be done fully virtually? Could the onsite people sign in from their desks or saved for a next onsite if something like this applies to you?

That said, hybrid events can be done well. I've seen this succeed, most strongly in something like a watch party, maybe we're all watching the same video or keynote speaker, and it is even better if there is some kind of chatter forum available for all.

Why build community at work? And this is something that is near and dear to my heart, and something I feel like is even more important today, thinking about all of the changes in the workplace over the course of the last three or so years.

Building community at work is important because these folks are more than just your colleagues today — they're your peers, references, and maybe even your friends tomorrow. All right. Hopefully, we have some time for some questions, and some additional chat.