The Trick To Staying Close To Coworkers When You Work From Home
Being intentional makes all the difference.
At the moment, I am about 245 miles (394 km) from the majority of my coworkers in New York. I’m almost 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away from my direct supervisor in San Francisco, and more than 3,600 miles (5,700 km) away from one of my favorite teammates in London. But, thanks to the internet, I never feel that far away.
The trick to maintaining this feeling of proximity in the face of distance? Specific, intentional communication. Just as you make a point to tell your boss what you’re working on, you need to think of chatting with your closest coworkers as part of your job. While snippets of small talk are not overtly part of your job description, working seamlessly together usually comes down to having strong bonds. And building those bonds is often a matter of small interactions. Being remote means you just have to think about how to best use your available forms of communication to structure those interactions wisely.
Make yourself known
When I first started working at Quartz three years ago, I spent three months in the New York office. At the time, I was not particularly social with my coworkers. I was an intern in graduate school, and because the full-time reporters and editors all looked busy on their computers, I shied away from approaching many people in person—a common side effect of having an open office space.
But I did want to get to know my colleagues, especially because I was trying to learn. So I’d reach out on Slack, the internal messaging system we use. If I saw a particularly well-reported feature, or well-written news story, I’d make a point to tell the author I enjoyed it, and exactly why. If I wanted to write a story about something another reporter had covered, I’d read her work and ask her if there were particular angles that she thought I should look at.
Little notes like these are minimally intrusive, but they make your presence known. And I don’t think anyone has been bothered by receiving a genuine compliment (but make sure it is genuine).
The other benefit to these notes is that, if you ever have a follow-up question, your conversation history will still be typed there as a reminder. Having even a small, written record of goodwill is useful, especially if you end up working closely together in the future. It’s sets a tone of trust and generosity.
Meet at a virtual water cooler
In an office, most people exchange random pleasantries as they get coffee or head to lunch. At home, there is no such luxury.
You can try to recreate some of those moments using messaging services like Slack, but doing so can end up creating a time suck; it is far too easy to get caught in a chat about nothing at all that goes on for way too long.
Rather than try to carry on digital banter, schedule a time to actually talk with your coworker. In my early days, the only other Quartz science reporter, Akshat Rathi, worked in London (he still does). Akshat suggested that we schedule a 30-minute weekly video or phone call, and we’ve kept it on the calendar ever since.
During our call, we discuss what we’re working on or what we’ve been up to in the past week. But most importantly, it’s become a time where we can talk about whatever is on our minds. We workshop stories or projects before pitching them to an editor; we discuss strategies for dealing with writers’ block; and we occasionally talk about something going on personally. Sometimes if we’re busy, we skip it. It’s the Room of Requirement of standing meetings: It can be anything we need it to be in a given week.
Planning a time to talk allows us to compress all of the small talk we’d normally scatter over the course of several brief interactions into 30 minutes. But the payoff is the same. We have a real working relationship. We can work seamlessly together on collaborative projects, and we trust each other to handle emergencies should they ever arise.
Plan your meetings
On the internet—kind of like in an open office space—it’s easy to think that you should be able to ask questions whenever you think of them, because the internet doesn’t have any boundaries. However, you need boundaries, as do your coworkers. If you make an inquiry at a random time, it may get buried in someone’s other responsibilities.
Instead, consider a regular, more thorough check-in with your supervisor or employees. Similar to my call with Akshat, I have a weekly call with my supervisor to discuss stories I’ve worked on that week, what I want to do in the following week, and any administrative or logistical questions I have about the work.
I keep a document open with our next meeting date, followed by a brief agenda, and I add to it every time I remember a question or comment I want to make. The night before our meeting, I send it over to my manager, which allows him to find any of the answers to questions I need ahead of time. The following week, I write above the previous agenda, so that the document functions as a record of our conversations.
This same agenda-setting strategy can be used to calmly discuss moments that didn’t go so well. In addition to enabling talk about nothing, the internet can also foster undue frustration with others. Don’t get upset about it in that moment. Instead, jot it down as a note for a regularly scheduled meeting, and discuss it later, when you’re cooled off. That way, you’ve had time to think about exactly what went wrong, why, and how it can be prevented in the future.
Cram in-person meetings in when you can
When you visit the main office, at least part of your job will become talking to your coworkers. Although it will feel like you’re not getting anything done, you’re building the foundations that allow you to collaborate so well remotely.
In-person meetings allow for more spontaneous generation of ideas for future collaboration. They’re also a great time to just catch up. Before each of these meetings, remind yourself about what you know about the person. Go through his or her most recent work, or look up the last topic you chatted about online. These don’t have to be extensive investigations, just enough to let your colleagues know that you notice them and respect their work. And you may end up having fun with them, too—although there’s certainly no need to be close friends with everyone at work.