In March 2020, our research lab was among millions of teams to rapidly transition from an in-person organization to an entirely remote operation. Prior to the shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, our team of faculty, full-time staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows worked on research and initiatives to improve health and mental health across Philadelphia and the country. We spent our days attending research talks in conference rooms, bringing extra chairs to accommodate our large team; sitting shoulder-to-shoulder to operationalize complex research studies; and traveling by public transit or Lyft to visit the community partners essential to our work.
These activities, once so commonplace, are now impossible. The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges at multiple levels for the workplace: balancing childcare with full-time work, confronting psychological stress, providing meaningful supervision remotely, and more. Each of these complications mount both challenges and opportunities to workplace culture and climate — the impact of the work environment on employees’ wellbeing.
Our team’s focus on culture and climate throughout the pandemic has evolved. For example, in the first weeks of the pandemic’s spread in the Unites States, we had virtual check-ins every day designed to address pressing technical and logistical problems (“Is anyone else’s remote log-in slow?”) and to foster social support (cheers to the virtual happy hour!). However, as time progressed, technical problems subsided, as did interest in frequent happy hours. We joined the rest of the world in “Zoom fatigue.”
Though we still sought out connection and interaction, these scheduled virtual interactions were a pale imitation of organic in-person encounters; they were an unwanted reminder of how much things had changed. We began wondering: How can we creatively maintain meaningful connection? So, as true researchers, we implemented, tested, and refined practical recommendations to improve the remote workplace.
Below you’ll find our tried-and-tested recommendations. During this new normal, these best practices can be used by organizations looking to support their teams as working from home becomes more permanent.
1. Establish clear expectations and understandings, discuss them, and revisit them.
It’s important to articulate and adhere to team values while understanding team members’ schedules, bandwidth, and limits from the get-go. In the first month of the pandemic, we made a Google Document that outlined broad ideological tenets (e.g., “We trust each other and know we are trying our best during a challenging time”) along with practical information (e.g., expectations for availability on Slack and email during work hours). We use this document as a reference when staff members have practical questions and also as a reminder of our ethos during a time of upheaval and change.
2. Schedule climate check-ins.
If culture and climate are important, be sure you’re prioritizing them by checking in on what works and what could be improved. Our team has been holding quarterly climate meetings for two years. These meetings are a forum for discussing any barriers and facilitators to a positive work environment — from microscopic (“the printer is erratic”) to substantial (“I feel pulled in a lot of directions and need help prioritizing my work”). By continuing these meetings during the pandemic, we’ve been able to uncover some surprising benefits of our work from home situation — for example, we actually get to see our busy faculty member more frequently through digital check-ins.
3. Continue to hold recurring virtual events (but make them truly optional).
Initially, our team held Zoom happy hours every Friday afternoon. This quickly taxed us: At the end of the week, we were Zoomed out. Now, we hold happy hours every other week and usually play a game for a little structure. We’re fans of Quiplash. A crucial component of these events is that they are truly optional — there cannot be implicit pressure to attend, or disappointment expressed when a person does not.
4. Acknowledge the reality of the situation.
It’s helpful to concede that virtual events and meetings are no substitute for seeing each other in real life. Acknowledging that reality head-on feels better than feverishly trying to recreate what can’t be recreated.
5. Schedule safe in-real-life hangouts (but make them truly optional).
If you have the luxury of good weather and outdoor space, consider setting up optional, socially distant hangouts with your team. These can help bring back a feeling of connectedness that virtual meetings can’t capture. However, it’s important to establish the norm that any attendees will be six feet apart and wearing masks. A culture of honest and open communication is especially important here, so no team member feels uncomfortable electing not to attend.
6. Spark conversations through weekly emails with prompts.
We created a weekly email with a series of 10-15 prompts and asked the weekly writer to choose a few they wanted to answer and share to the team. Questions include “What book are you reading right now?”; “What are the best dog and cat Instagram accounts you follow?”; and “Share a weird, fun, and/or positive local news story you read recently.” Each email opens up new avenues of conversation and connection across the team.
7. Harness technology for “short burst” interactions
Slack has been a cornerstone of our lab’s communication for several years. In quarantine, we created a #fun_and_games channel. Twice a week, we schedule 15-minute invitations for optional quick gameplay while logged into Zoom. Some early favorites are the trivia quizzes from the GameMonk and Trivia apps, and an anagram-based game called Wordsgame. All of these integrations are free! These short interactions help break up the workday and mimic the off-the-cuff interactions that happened organically at the office.
Walks have been a cornerstone of many people’s quarantine physical and mental health maintenance. In Slack, we created a habit of posting in our all staff thread, “Hey, I’m going for a 10-minute walk if anyone wants to join me virtually and talk on the phone.” Combining physical activity, off-screen time, and social interaction has been a helpful tool for some members of the team.
Of course, these engagement best practices will evolve as work-from-home mandates continue. In some ways, the instability of this era has cracked open opportunities for reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. Even amidst uncertainty and strife, it has highlighted the potential for small innovations to buoy our team’s well-being, effectiveness, and innovation.