Help Your Remote Employees Build Stronger Personal Connections Through Randomness

How you can use a little randomness to deliver a lot of happiness.

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Recently I was able to quickly implement a program at my organization that helps people feel more connected. The odd thing: it relies on complete randomness!

Before I share the practical tip, let me explain a little about why connecting people even matters.

A desire to be connected is a fundamental human nature and, as it turns out, it may be most important in the workplace. Studies have shown that real detrimental physiological changes can occur in employees who don’t feel connected, particularly exacerbated in times of work stress. In short, it can make you sick.

On the flip side, when you feel well connected within your company your body and mind work at a higher level. This has a ton of flow on effects including impacting your customers’ experience as well as the experience of other employees.

The connection challenge for remote employees

If you’re someone who works remotely you’d know it’s not all rainbows and unicorns — it comes with it’s benefits for sure, but is not without challenges.

In OWLLabs’ 2017 “State of Remote Work” report there are two clear data-points that stand out as indicative of one of those main struggles faced by remote employees:

Source: OWLLabs State of Remote Work 2017
Source: OWLLabs State of Remote Work 2017

Remote employees identified that conversations — that is, those impromptu informal conversations that are more prevalent when you’re physically around people — and the feeling of being in-the-loop were two of the biggest elements they were missing.

Whoa….back up a sec. So we established that a desire to be connected is a fundamental human nature and that not fulfilling that desire in a workplace can physically make employees sick. Then consider that having conversations and the sense you’re in-the-loop must surely be two of the most important parts of feeling connected yet are the two biggest missing elements, according to the data. Sound the alarm bells!

For me, this was motivation to be more deliberate around connecting our employees and led me to discover a simple tool I implemented that has become one of the most popular employee programs at my organization to date.

But before I tell you more, let’s talk about some of the benefits of deeper personal connections.

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

What happens when people feel more connected?

According to Michael Lee Stallard, an expert on how how effective leaders boost human connection and author of “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work”, there are five benefits that come from having strong employee relationships and connections:

“Employees have cognitive clarity, they give their best effort, they align their work with the organization’s goals, they communicate more, and they engage in creativity to fuel innovation. Customers can feel if it is there or not. When employees are engaged and connected, they naturally want to share that with customers.”

It’s worth noting most of the benefits Stallard calls out can often be directly connected with core company behaviors, culture and values. It’s certainly true at my organization where we count holding high-standards, winning through collaboration, experimenting, learning and innovating, and obsession with delivering customer value as core tenets. So I’d go as far as making the argument for strong personal connections as being a key enabler of how your employees can “act-out” your company culture (couple more thoughts on that in this post I wrote recently.)

Photo by Vicky Gu on Unsplash

How you can use random meetings to build strong connections

So here’s the practical tip I promised you — explained as we implemented it: Every second Monday a Slackbot (an app inside Slack, the messaging platform) randomly matches employees together in groups of three to encourage them to meet up for a coffee or donut.

This is the message sent to all three participants to kick off the random chat. We utilize a slackbot called Donut to facilitate this.

We use this for all employees across the company whether they’re remote or work from one of our offices. That means people are matched all over the world in different timezones and so it’s very common to share a coffee over a video conference call. If you happen to be matched with someone in your location then they usually meet up in real life.

Just thirty minutes of an agenda-less chat is encouraged. It’s not meant to be a work related call…but it could turn in to one. It’s not supposed to be a personal speed-date…but sometimes that’s how it evolves. The point of it is to get to know someone better than you probably did, build some rapport, a new connection. We deliberately do it in groups of three as it just makes it a little easier for conversation flow…and if someone can’t make it you can still proceed with two.

We’ve had over 350 confirmed meetings since launching the program. That’s 350+ times two or three people have come together to connect resulting in somewhere around 1000 total connections across the organization.

One of the fun elements that evolved organically is the obsession with taking a “donut selfie” during the meeting. We have a slack channel dedicated to these photos with little summaries of what was discussed — basically it’s a live window in to all the new personal connections being built.

Typical “donut selfies”. Left shows a donut meeting where everyone was in person. The right is a typical remote donut meeting, where people are often across the world, meeting over video conf (And yes, he is holding a box of ACTUAL DONUTS!!).
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

So what do employees really think?

If you go on to implement this, you only need to speak to employees to hear the great stories of new connections. One of the most rewarding outcomes appears to be that there’s both personal and professional benefits being gained. Here’s a couple quotes from our folks:

“I’ve had a chance to meet some great people from across the globe in different parts of the org. It was great to learn about them personally but equally as great learning about how other parts of the company work. In fact, I’ve made a number of strong connections that have actually helped the way I work in my role and with others.” — SYSTEMS ARCHITECT, Remote out of Minnesota, USA
“The opportunity to talk to coworkers from Sales, Engineering, Marketing and beyond gave me the chance to have water cooler type conversations with people I may not have otherwise ran into as a remote employee….or even just a new employee.” — COMMUNITY ENGINEER, Remote out of California, USA and new employee of only 4 weeks.
“It‘s given me a reason to talk to people from different countries and departments, people I might not normally even interact with for work in my role, which has been incredibly rewarding”. — OFFICE ASSISTANT, Office based in Buenos Aries, Argentina.

It’s a muscle distributed organizations must exercise

Building this type of relationship culture — not a “remote culture” —is key to overcome the challenges faced by remote employees in a highly geographically distributed workforce. But you must be deliberate about building that habit; that muscle.

In our digitally connected world, it seems too easy to neglect personal connections. I know this well…because my Mum tells me she wishes I’d call her more, you know, on the actual voice phone machine thing 😜.

Building this type of relationship culture — not a “remote culture” — is key to overcome the challenges faced by remote employees

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