I don't know about you, but now that I no longer share an office with my co-workers, I find it moderately difficult to connect with them. When you no longer regularly occupy the same physical space as the people you work with, it quickly becomes obvious how much of that connection you used to get for free.
Remote working is great in many ways, but when it comes to the social side of things, it's like turning up the difficulty in a video game.
Hard mode engaged.
But I hadn't considered getting physical until recently.
You Ain't Had A Talk
Credit where credit is due, what I'm about to describe was not my idea. It was suggested by a colleague of mine, Anthony Chan. A fellow Engineering Manager at Atlassian, he leads a sister team to my own and we share a manager.
The shared manager part is relevant, because that's how this idea came up in the first place.
As challenging as it is to remotely build connection within your own team, it's even harder to do the same sort of thing in a group of tangentially related support people (like managers, product managers and technical leadership).
Canvassing the group for ideas on how to improve connection with one another, Anthony suggested going for a walk together.
I hadn't even considered anything of the sort.
So, we scheduled a monthly, half-hour walk in the afternoon. Me in Brisbane, our Manager on the outskirts of Sydney, Anthony in the guts of Sydney and our product manager in Melbourne. A fairly geographically disperse crew, all things considered.
No set agenda, just a time and an intent to share a physical activity together.
Supported by a phone call, obviously.
'Til You Been For A Walk
It worked pretty damn well.
Prior to implementing the idea, the "team" was mostly disconnected, at least as far as group identity was concerned. We were more like pairs that formed around a particular problem or task instead of a cohesive group.
But the walks changed that, at least a bit.
Having made time to wander around while chatting as a group, we picked up a lot of things about each other that weren't immediately obvious. Conversation topics ranged from world events to things as mundane as what was currently growing in our gardens.
And it was great, because all of those things, all of those opinions and minutia really help you to get a sense of your colleagues. To understand at least something about them, more than just the skills and experience that they bring to their work.
Not only that, but the physical activity of walking was beneficial too.
I'm a fairly active guy these days, but it still amazes me how much a short walk can help to clear my head and focus my thoughts. Doing it as a group just makes it better.
It's not the first time I've experienced this sort of thing, because I used to organise hikes with my colleagues back before the end times, but I'd forgotten how good it felt to just go for a wander with people.
Then The Boys Told Me Something I Missed
As always, it's not a perfect solution.
There are challenges.
Discipline is the first one, like it is with almost all remote interactions. With no physical presence, it's easy to just...forget to do the thing. Scheduling ahead of time helps, but you still need to hold yourself (and your colleagues) accountable to do the thing they agreed to do.
Luckily for them, I'm "that guy" who follows through on things, so there is no escape. It might not have been my idea originally, but I think it's a damn fine one, and I'll make it happen if I have to.
Honestly I haven't needed to do much cajoling in this case. My colleagues are great.
The second challenge is technology.
Now, technology these days is impressive, but getting a group of people together, remotely, over Zoom, and then expecting everything to hold up while they go wandering around their respective neighbourhoods is still a bit of a tall ask.
Beyond the software, there are also hardware challenges.
Everyone has a smartphone these days, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's well equipped to have a conversation on while moving around, especially if you want to either share video or watch other people's video.
For me, I can't stand just holding a phone awkwardly in front of me while walking. It just doesn't feel natural, plus I don't want to get hit by a car or something when I wander out onto the road like the distracted moron that I am.
So, video didn't really work all that well for me. Which is a shame because it's much easier to connect with people when we can see them, even though I'm terrible at making eye contact.
For the audio, I was running with a set of Skullcandy SESH EVO, which were great for listening to music but terrible for having a conversation. I've since switched to a pair of Jabra Elite Active 75t, but haven't had a chance to try them out on a walk yet.
Honestly, I feel like the best solution would be some sort of headband/glasses combo that renders the video feed of whoever is talking in a Heads Up Display (HUD), but I don't think anything like that exists on the market.
Maybe I need to buy one of those portable VR headsets and just roll with that. It can do passthrough video and render stuff into the visual field, and the sound is right there in your ears.
Plus, I bet I'll look super cool walking down the street in a full VR headset.
They Told Me To, Walk This Way
So, walking, as a group, remotely.
I think it's well worth it, despite some of the challenges that I noted down above.
If you're not sure, just give it a go. Grab some of your colleagues, go for a walk, chat about whatever comes to mind and share information about yourself and your surroundings.
Remote working is the new norm now, so you should seize on to as many opportunities as you can to connect with the people who are (virtually) around you.
It makes all the difference for the work itself, and honestly, it makes life more pleasant and enjoyable.
And that is coming from someone who likes being alone.