This afternoon, I took a quick coffee break with some colleagues. We chatted about coronavirus, of course, as well as the projects we were working on, about the beans and whiskey we’d bought at the supermarket, and about one colleague’s new saffron-colored couch.
Then we said goodbye and signed out of Google Hangouts.
Like many employees in the era of Covid-19, my co-workers and I are currently being asked to work from home. Along with the technical and practical considerations that come with working remotely, we’re looking for ways to stave off loneliness and stay connected with one another even when we’re cooped up.
The importance of chit-chat
Offices ramping up remote work under the threat of a worldwide pandemic are already turning to software like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom for meetings and official matters of business. But the office is also a social environment—and there’s no clear playbook as to how to remotely recreate the spontaneous pleasures of chatting by the coffee carafes or joking around with a co-worker over a microwaved lunch.
While those moments may seem minor, they’re actually quite important to workers’ happiness. Gallup research shows that employees are more engaged and higher-performing when they have close friendships at work. Research also shows that people are less stressed and have a greater sense of well-being when they socialize for at least six hours a day. In this context, socializing includes things like telephone calls. But in-person socializing is particularly effective in boosting our mood—and it’s a lot easier to hit that six-hour mark when you’re hanging around colleagues all day.
Working with other people also can be a big boost for creativity. Companies like Google and Samsung have designed their offices with the aim of encouraging casual chance encounters that can give rise to unexpected ideas and collaborations. And while studies have found that employees are actually more productive when they work remotely, it’s also true that some people feel most motivated to get their work done when they can see the people around them working hard, too.
Working remotely, together
There’s no perfect substitute for in-person interactions. But there are creative ways to introduce some of the benefits of working in an office into remote-work life.
Andrea Quintero, a doctoral student in American studies at Yale University, has plenty of practice with combatting the loneliness of working from home. “I think doing a PhD is lonely in general,” she says. The fact that she lives in Queens, New York, about 75 miles away from Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, only amplifies her sense of remoteness.
About a year and a half ago, she and another friend also working on a PhD decided to start meeting remotely for writing dates. About four days a week, Quintero and her friend hop on a video chat together. They typically work for about three hours, writing independently in 50-minute chunks with 10-minute breaks in between. “It facilitates focus so much better than anything else I’ve done,” she says.
Part of the appeal in working together this way is accountability. “If you get up, you’re supposed to tell the other person you’ll be right back,” Quintero notes. She also enjoys the mandatory break because it forces her to stop while she’s still got more to say—which makes it easier for her to return to the project with vigor.
Another benefit of the setup is the simple pleasure of having a colleague to keep her company. “It feels nice to work with her,” Quintero says. “We don’t talk during that time, but I have my phone on and she’s there—I can hear the fire engine that passes by her apartment in Harlem, or if someone rings the doorbell, I can hear it.” As with office life, even if we’re not talking to our co-workers, simply feeling their presence can be comforting.
The writing dates are modeled on the setup of the website Focusmate, which pairs strangers with one another for 50-minute virtual co-working sessions. Before getting down to business, work partners tell one another what they plan to achieve; then they work in silence with one another visible onscreen. After the 50 minutes are up, they debrief on what they’ve accomplished and part ways.
The service, which offers three free sessions per week, was founded by Taylor Jacobson, a former executive coach who struggled with remote work when he first attempted it in 2011. “Basically it was a disaster,” Jacobson says. Not only did he miss the structure of the typical 9-to-5 work day, he longed for human connection and the social pressure that comes with seeing other people hard at work and matching their performance.
Focusmate isn’t designed to facilitate casual conversation. True to its name, it’s more about deep work and getting stuff done. But even brief interactions between structured blocks of time can help us feel more connected. One 2013 study, for example, showed that people felt a greater sense of belonging after ordering coffee from a barista at Starbucks.
On Focusmate’s private Facebook group, one woman thanks a fellow member for giving her advice on organizing her email. Another, who identifies herself as a therapist, says she sees the service as a way to combat isolation, and the anxiety and depression that often accompany it. “Being an introvert who works from home, this is huge for me,” she writes.
Scheduling and spontaneity
For those of us who work better with other people around, another option is to hop on YouTube for a dose of gongbang—the Korean word for “study broadcast.” One of the most popular in this genre is “The Man Sitting Next to Me,” an anonymous young man who livestreams himself diligently studying to be a tax accountant.
“The first benefit my viewers can get is motivation. By watching other people studying, they can also get motivated to study hard,” he told Business Insider in 2019. “And for myself, by studying with all of you, I can prevent myself from getting lazy and continue to focus with my study.” During the study sessions, virtual participants might chat with one another in the sidebar, offering updates on their progress. But they’re discouraged from posting too frequently, and as with any good study environment, they may be banned if they prove disruptive.
Those looking for more spontaneous interaction in their work life may be interested in Tandem, a program designed to mimic certain social aspects of the office. One feature allows co-workers see which apps their colleagues are working in—giving them perhaps a better sense of whether it’s okay to interrupt, much like glancing at a friend’s computer screen in the office. Another option is to join a virtual room where everyone shares audio. Colleagues can work together in silence but periodically stop to ask a question or crack a joke, much as they would with their deskmates.
Structured break times also can help ease the sense of social isolation. Jacobson says his team at Focusmate will gather for lunch breaks together on Zoom. “The intention is not to talk about work,” he says. Instead, “we wind up talking about all kinds of stuff.” GitHub, meanwhile, has long encouraged workers to take virtual coffee breaks together—just as I did with my colleagues.
My friend Phoebe Bronstein, director of academic programs and assistant teaching professor at the University of California San Diego’s Culture, Art, and Technology college, says even old-fashioned phone check-ins can also do a world of good. Last year, she participated in an online writing boot camp offered by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. “The thing that was most helpful was the community check-in,” she says—a regular weekly phone call “where we talked about what went well, what our struggles were, what’s on deck, and what our goals are.” In contrast to a more structured meeting, daily check-ins for remote teams could be a way to emulate the social support that office colleagues might ordinarily find at work.
Bronstein has also been finding a sense of camaraderie in the Google docs being shared by faculty across the country as they figure out how to move classes online. The tips themselves, on everything from online lesson plans to combatting the xenophobia associated with coronavirus, are helpful. But the simple act of compiling information as a group can be a way to counterbalance the feeling that we’re on our own.
“The thing I keep thinking about is that it seems particularly generous and community-oriented when disease itself is often so isolating,” Bronstein says. “Here’s a space where people are sharing without boundaries, and that’s really nice.”