Working remotely can feel really lonely because you don’t have as many in-person interactions. For this reason, Neil Kelly, Director of Engineering at Luno, and his team have been deliberate about fostering human connection since going fully remote in response to COVID-19. By implementing a few simple, daily strategies, Neil and his team create more surface area for checking-in, and feeling less alone. Here’s how they do this.
Although Luno’s team has already had experience working remotely - with many teams being based in other countries, and some people working from home on some days of the week - they’ve never had all ±350 company members in their Cape Town office remote at the same time. Going fully remote as a company in such a short time has meant new challenges for keeping everyone connected and productive.
Without human connection, Neil says he can’t function as productively as he normally would: “I am someone who likes social interaction. It’s how I get the best out of myself. And working alone is definitely not my sweet spot.” Remote work removes a lot of the spontaneous conversations around the office, and makes it harder to check-in with someone and see how they’re doing. “Just seeing a whole bunch of words on a screen, and not knowing someone’s intention and what their meaning is, is not very helpful.”
In order to support each team member in this fully remote environment, Neil and his team have implemented simple daily strategies to create more surface area for more ‘human’ interactions as a team. This is important to them because feeling connected will inevitably mean that teams feel more productive and less alone, both of which contribute to better overall psychological well-being.
The daily strategies that Neil and his team use while they’re fully remote are:
- Have agendaless standups
- Insist that attendees turn on their video feed
- Check-in and check-out on Slack team channels
- Opt for overcommunication
- Up the number of 1:1s you have
Have agendaless standups
Typically, meetings without an agenda can be time-consuming and aren’t very effective. However, Neil says that when your team is fully remote, having those kinds of meetings can be energising instead of draining: “You’ll be surprised at how much that energy actually supplements the way you get your work done.”
For his team, agendaless meetings provide space to check-in with each other, and just communicate organically. They allow Neil and his team to connect outside of work-related things, and that casual communication feels more human: “It’s literally about going around the ‘room’, no agenda, trying to avoid too many work topics, and really just checking in with everyone to see how things are going.”
Virtual meetings already feel less personal, so it’s important to be extra deliberate to make them as connected and face-to-face, as possible so that you can keep the human element and connection strong.
Tip: For Neil, what’s worked really well is to dedicate the first 20 minutes of his team’s daily standup to a no-agenda check-in. “We have a face-to-face”, Neil explains, “and just speak off-topic; off the top of mind.” Building more time for human connection into existing routines and meetings means that you don’t have to add extra meetings where time is stretched thin.
Insist that attendees turn on their video feed
With every virtual meeting, Neil and his team insist on first making sure everyone’s video is switched on. Seeing someone’s face makes a huge difference to how the conversation feels because it allows team members to read their facial expressions.
Neil says putting intentional effort into developing greater human connection through video has made a huge difference to the quality of interactions he has with his team: “We want to see you, we want to interact with you. We don’t care if you’ve got your pajamas on, if you’ve got curlers in your hair, or you’re drinking your coffee.”
“We want to see each other. I want you to see me. It’s so easy to underestimate the power of that in the moment, and the power of being human.”
Tip: Neil advises making ‘video on’ a rule in your team and adjusting your video conferencing tool’s settings to do this automatically. That way, you don’t have to struggle with switching it on manually each time.
Check-in and check-out on Slack team channels
Working at home means your work and your personal life start to blur together. It’s hard to separate them if you don’t make the intentional effort to mark the start and end of your work day:
“One thing that’s very dangerous when you move to working from home”, Neil explains, “is that you might find yourself idling throughout the day, continually being available.” In his experience, ‘idling’ can really harm your productivity, because you keep yourself busy, but never really get anything done.
Instead, Neil and his team clearly and intentionally mark the beginning and the end of their work days: “First thing in the morning, when you’re making yourself available, just send a ‘Good morning!’ message to the team. It’s an acknowledgement of, ‘I’m online, I’ve had my shower, I’m at my keyboard, and I’m going to be reasonably available.’” They do the same in the evenings when they log off. This is a simple but effective way to psychologically move in and out of work mode while you’re in your home environment.
Tip: Another thing that you could do to mark the start and end of work is to ‘walk to and from work’ by taking a brisk stroll around the block!
Opt for overcommunication
Frequent communication is key for Neil when it comes to having a fully remote team. When you aren’t around each other, it’s hard to know who has seen what, and how much information they’ve taken in. It’s also harder for individuals to speak up when they feel like they’ve missed something. This can easily lead to a breakdown in communication and team members feeling really detached from the rest of the team.
Overcommunication can, however, lead to ‘noise’. If done without proper intention-setting, information can get lost and people can ‘mute’ your channels of communication, which will lead to less informed teams. Neil says it’s really important to know what ‘beneficial overcommunication’ means for your context.
As an example of beneficial overcommunication, Luno sent out a mail that summarised Cyril Ramaphosa’s COVID-19 address, and gave an outline of Luno’s next steps. “Even though we assumed that a lot of people had watched Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech”, Neil explains, “we didn’t take it for granted. So we re-communicated exactly what he had said.”
In a fully remote environment, Neil says that overcommunication can be silver bullet tactic for making absolutely sure everyone knows what they need to know. He says:
“Don’t underestimate just how powerful overcommunication can be. Never assume people have heard a message. Some psychologists say it takes six repetitions before people really understand and acknowledge things. I think overcommunication is probably one of the missed arts.”
Tip: Neil’s pro-tip for overcommunicating without creating too much noise on Slack and email is to simply double the number of meetingsyou have for the time being: “I think there can be a tendency for people to underplay the importance of connecting and communicating through meetings. I’m doubling mine at the moment to make sure that I’m available and keeping an eye on my team’s wellbeing.” A stream of messages is easy to mute and hard to discern how much info was retained; face-to-face meetings, on the other hand, let you know when someone has understood what you’re communicating, and mean there’s less ‘noise’ online.
Up the number of 1:1s you have
The most effective way Neil fosters human connection in a fully remote team is to just reach out to people one-on-one. Remote 1:1 video calls are a really great way for Neil to see how someone is doing, and what they need help with:
“I’ll see people slouching on their couches or being in what is visibly an uncomfortable, low-light space, or a work environment that’s not optimally set up.”
Once he sees this, Neil can ask them to show him around, and suggest ways they can improve their work setups by doing things like moving into a brighter room, away from being next to the bed, or simply organising their desks better. Having that insight into someone’s workspace brings humanness back into virtual interactions, and gives Neil some surface area to reach out, check-in, and see what kind of support he can give his team.
These 1:1s are also really effective for becoming aware of cabin fever: “When I can see someone is struggling with cabin fever, I can say to them, ‘Hey, listen, why don’t you just take the day off? Get out. Go drive around.’”
Tip: Luno has added a new type of leave called an ‘Inspiration Day’, which is meant to be a day when someone just needs some breathing room to get their inspiration back. Neil uses 1:1s to encourage people to check-in with themselves honestly, and take Inspiration Days if they need them.
Neil also shares some his reading recommendations around remote work and building habits that will inevitably help you work more effectively while remote:
- Atomic Habits, James Clear: Great for how to design your environment at home for optimal performance.
- Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020: An article by Sequoia Capital, which is a note they sent out to founders and CEOs in their community with guidance on how to ensure the health of their business during the impact of COVID-19.
- Mind of a Fox, Clem Sunter: Useful book on Scenario Planning, or ‘premortems.’
If you have some techniques that work for you and your remote team, let us know by adding them to the comments below!