395: Human Connection in a Virtual (Work) World

Episode 395 · August 1st, 2023 · 30 mins 59 secs

About this Episode

Stephanie had a small consulting win: saying no to a client. GeoGuessr is all the rage for thoughtbot's remote working culture, which leads to today's topic of forming human connections in a virtual (work) environment.


JOËL: And this is just where it ends.


Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Joël Quenneville.

STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way.

JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world?

STEPHANIE: So, I have a small consulting win, or even just a small, like, win as a human being [laughs] that I want to share, which is that I feel good about a way that I handled saying no to a stakeholder recently. And, you know, I really got to take them where I can get it because that is so challenging for me. But I feel really glad because we ended up kind of coming out the other side of it having a better understanding of each other's goals and needs.

And so, basically, what happened was I was working on a task, and our product owner on our team asked me if it could be done by next week. And immediately, I wanted to say, "Absolutely not." [laughs] But, you know, I took a second and, you know, I had the wherewithal to ask why. You know, I was kind of curious, like, where was this deadline coming from? Like, what was on her radar that, like, wasn't on mine?

And she had shared that, oh, you know, if we were able to get it out before this big launch, she was thinking that it actually might make our customer support team's lives easier because we were kind of taking away access to something before some new features rolled out. And, you know, there might be some customers who would complain. And with that information, you know, that was really helpful in helping me understand. And I'm like, yeah, like, that seems like a helpful thing to know, so I could try to strive for it. Because I also, like, want to make that process go easier as well.

But I told her that I'd let her know because I honestly wasn't sure if it was possible to do by next week. And after a little bit of, you know, more digging, kind of seeing how my progress was going, in the end, I had to say that I didn't feel confident that we could finish it in time for that deadline because of the other risks, right? Like, I didn't want to just release this thing without feeling good about the plan that we had. And so, that was my small, little win in saying no, and I feel very proud of myself for it.

JOËL: I'm proud of you too. That's not easy to just do in the first place, and then to do it well is a whole other level. It sounds, though, that you came out of the other side with the client with almost, like, a better relationship.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think so. In general, you know, I really struggle when people do end up getting into that debate of, like, "Well, I need this." And someone else says, "Well, I need this other thing." And, you know, at some point, it kind of gets a bit unproductive, right? But I think this was a very helpful way for me to see a path forward when maybe we, like, have different priorities. But, like, can we better understand each other and the impact of them to ultimately, like, make the best decision?

The other thing that I wanted to share that I learned recently was there was a recent RailsConf talk by Elle Meredith, and it was about strategies to say no, and I watched it. And one really cool thing that I learned was that the word priority, you know, when it was first created, it actually didn't really have, like, a plural form. There was really only ever, like, a singular priority. And it wasn't until, I think, you know, the recent century or something like that, that people started to use it in a plural form. And that was really enlightening to me.

I think it made me rethink the word and how I use it, and it made a lot of sense, too. Because at any given moment, you know, really, you can't be doing more than one thing; I mean, you can try. I know that I have been guilty of multitasking. But that, you know, doesn't always serve me. I never end up doing all of the things that I'm trying to do well. And I would be really curious to kind of, you know, when I do feel that urge, like, think a little bit about, like, what is the one thing that I should be doing right now that is the highest priority?

JOËL: I would definitely second that recommendation for this talk. I actually got to see it live at RailsConf, and it was excellent.

STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world?

JOËL: I got to participate in a really fun event at thoughtbot today. We got together with some other people on the Boost Team and played a few rounds of GeoGuessr. And for those who are not familiar with this game, it drops you randomly somewhere in the world in Google Street View. You can move around. And there's a timer, and you have to drop a pin on a map where you think you are.

So, you're walking through the streets, and you're like, okay, well, I don't know this language. I'm not sure where we're going. You know, with the vibes going here, I'll bet, you know, this looks like maybe southern China, and then you drop a pin. And oh no, turns out it was actually Singapore. And there's all these little hints and things. People who are really into it have learned all these tricks, and they can be really good. Sara Jackson, who is our resident GeoGuessr expert, is excellent at this. But it was a good time.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, it was really fun. I liked that we played a cooperative mode where we were all kind of helping each other out. And so, maybe someone is, like, exploring on the map and sees a street sign and is like, "Oh, like, that looks like this language." And someone else is like, "Oh yeah, like, that is that." Or like, "No, I think it's actually this other language," and sharing all of the different, like, pieces of information that we're finding to get closer and closer to what it might be.

And then we celebrate whoever ends up getting the closest because, at some point, it's kind of just, like, just a luck of the pin, right? Where maybe you happen to click on, like, the right place. But it's always really exciting when we're like, wow, like, Sara was only 500 kilometers away in finding the exact place that we were served. So, I had a good time as well.

JOËL: So, speaking of cooperative events, this was a work event that we did. We just got together and played a game. And, for me, that was a really fun way to connect with some of my colleagues. I'm curious, what are your thoughts on things that you've seen done well in companies that are remote-first that really foster a sense of connection and community among a team?

STEPHANIE: I think this worked especially well today because it was kind of scheduled in regular time that we have as a team to me. And sometimes, you know, the meeting topics are a bit more work-focused. But what I really like is that anyone on the team can host one of these meetings. We have them biweekly, and we just call them Boost biweeklies. Boost is the team that Joël and I are on.

JOËL: Naming is the hardest problem in computer science.

STEPHANIE: It really is. But I really like that people can bring, you know, a little bit of their own flavor to this meeting. So, whoever is host just kind of comes up with something to do. And sometimes it's like show and tell. You know, other times it is more of like, you know, what's the update on some of the projects that we're doing? Other times, it's the Spicy Takes Lightning Talks that we've kind of mentioned on the podcast before. And yeah, it is just a really nice, like, time for us to get together.

And I also feel like I learn something about my co-workers every time that we meet, whether it's the person who is hosting the meeting and kind of where their interests are. I think someone even did, like, chair yoga once and guided the team in doing that. Or because they are more casual, right? Sometimes we just play a game, and I really enjoy that nice break in my day.

JOËL: Do you find that the particular style of these meetings makes you feel more connected to your colleagues? Would you prefer just kind of game day one, like we had today, versus maybe, like, lightning talks or a presentation on security or something like that?

STEPHANIE: I actually think the diversity is what makes it special. I get to see, you know, a bunch of different sides of my co-workers and, you know, some days, the topic is a little more serious, and that can be really connecting. Another Boost Team member had hosted a biweekly where we kind of shared the challenges of, like, consulting work and, like, onboarding onto a new project and sharing what might be difficult and, like, how we might be feeling when we do join a new project.

And I think that was really helpful because it was very validating for something that I thought, like, maybe I felt a little bit more alone in. And the tone was a little bit more, like, earnest and serious. But I came away with it feeling very supported by my team, right? And other times, it is just silliness and fun [laughs], which, you know, is also important. Like, we need to have fun every once in a while.

JOËL: That's awesome. Do you feel like when you go to these meetings, you're looking more for knowledge or looking more for connection?

STEPHANIE: I think both because knowledge sharing is also, you know, can be really helpful. Like, I have enjoyed learning that, you know, so and so is, like, a GeoGuessr expert, Sara, right? And so, if I ever, like, find myself needing [chuckles] someone to go to about my Google Street View or world geography questions, I know that I can go to her. And, like, knowing that about her, like, makes me feel more connected to her. So, I think both are true.

So, we have been talking about a meeting style form of connecting in a remote workplace, but I'm really curious about your thoughts on asynchronous versus synchronous communication and how you find connection with a format that is more asynchronous, not just, you know, being in a meeting together.

JOËL: That's really challenging. I think I personally find that something that's mostly synchronous with maybe a little bit of a lag works pretty well for me, so something like Slack, where it's not exactly real-time because someone could take some time to come back to me. But for working hours overlap, there's likely some close-to-synchronous conversation happening.

But, you know, I can still get up and, you know, refill my cup of coffee, or it's not quite like I'm sitting in front of a camera. So, I think that, for many things, hits the sweet spot for myself. But there's definitely some things where I think you want a higher, like, information density. And that's, I think, where the synchronous face-to-face meeting really shines.

STEPHANIE: Information density. I haven't heard that phrase before, but I like it.

JOËL: The idea being, you know, how much information or how many words are you sharing back and forth, you know, per minute or something like that. And when you're talking on a call, you can do a lot more of that than you can going back and forth over Slack or writing an email.

STEPHANIE: So, I would say that at thoughtbot, we have a pretty asynchronous Slack culture, which I think can be quite different from other, you know, places I've worked at before or other Slack spaces that I've seen. And I actually find it a little bit harder to engage in that way. We have a dev channel where, you know, people chat about different technical topics. And sometimes, you know, those threads go, like, 40 replies long. And I think you tend to engage a lot more in those.

And I'm curious, like, does that scratch the itch for you in terms of that perfect, like, async, kind of some amount of lag for you to be doing other things, kind of doing your work, but then being able to come back and pick up the conversation where I left off?

JOËL: Yes, that is really nice because, you know, maybe I have a meeting or something, and I'm not there when the conversation starts, but I don't miss out. And I get to join in, you know, maybe 30 minutes after everyone else. You know, sometimes you don't want to just, like, restart a conversation that's happened and is done. But some of these things will kind of be going on and off all day. And those can be really fun, especially sometimes, like, a new person joins the thread and brings in a totally new perspective or a new angle that kind of, like, breathes new life into it and kind of gives everyone a new perspective.

STEPHANIE: Nice. I also think there's something to the idea of seeing more people engage with something that then invites other people to engage with it.

JOËL: I would agree with that. It's definitely exciting to see a thread, and it's not like, oh, it's empty, and I'm the only one who's put a response in here. When there is a lot of back and forth, you can almost feel the excitement. And that gets me hyped to, like, keep it going.

STEPHANIE: At a previous workplace in our Slack, we had a, like, virtual Jeopardy channel.

JOËL: Ooh.

STEPHANIE: And so, there was a little Jeopardy bot. And I guess whenever someone, you know, had a low on what they were doing, they would just start, you know, tagging the bot to pose a question. And anyone can answer, right? But once you kind of got the ball rolling, you would see other people start playing as well. And it would get really active for segments of 30 minutes or so.

And I always really enjoyed that because, yeah, it was a way for me to remember like, oh yeah, there's, like, other people also, like, typing away on their little keyboards, and we're all here together. But it was really interesting to see, like, when someone got it rolling, like, oh, other people, like, joined in.

JOËL: Yeah, being able to see small things like that can really build a sense of connection, even if you're not yourself directly participating.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think another thing I've been trying out lately is letting people know that I'm in a meeting space and offering to virtually co-work. So, you know, during the early days of when thoughtbot went remote, we had a lounge virtual meeting space for people to hang out with and, you know, get that face time that they weren't getting anymore since we weren't in the office. And, you know, I think that has kind of decreased in terms of engagement over, you know, several years now. And obviously, people have a lot of meeting fatigue and stuff like that.

But I was kind of in a mood to revive it a little bit because, yeah, I kind of got over the meeting fatigue and was wanting more face time with people. And the unfortunate thing, though, is that, like, no one was showing up to this room anymore. So, you know, even if someone wanted to hang out in it, you know, they go in. They see no one's there, you know, maybe they stay for a few minutes, but then they're like, okay, well, I'm just going to leave now.

And a couple of thoughtboters and I have been trying to revive it where we'll post in our general channel, like, "Hey, like, I'm in this meeting room. Like, come hang out for the next hour if you would like." And that's been working well for me. I have had a few, like, really nice lounge, virtual co-working hangout sessions. Even if one person shows up, honestly, like, that fulfills my want to just, like, speak to another human. [laughs]

JOËL: What does virtual co-working look like? Are you just kind of each doing work, but you've got a video camera on, and you're just aware of the presence of someone else? Do you kind of have, like, random breaks where you talk? What is that experience like?

STEPHANIE: Oh yeah, that's a good question. I have to say; for me, I'm just talking to the other [laughs] person at that point. I'm not really doing a whole lot of work. And, you know, in some ways, I almost think that, like, in those moments, I am really wanting to chat with someone and, like, that's okay, right?

JOËL: It's like a virtual water cooler for you.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. Like, that would be the moment if I were working in office that I would wander into the kitchen looking for a snack but also an unsuspecting victim to start [laughs] a conversation with.

JOËL: I feel you. I feel you. I have absolutely done that.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. And that's actually what makes me feel a little less guilty about it. Because, you know, when I was working in the office, like, that was such a big part of my day, and it's kind of what kept me motivated. And at home, I do find myself, like, a lot more productive. In fact, like, I think I am because I'm, you know, not spending that time wandering into the kitchen. But at what cost? [laughs] At the cost of, like, me feeling very, like, lonely and, like, kind of burnt out at the end of the day.

So, injecting my day with some of these moments, I think, is important to me. And also, again, like, I know that I'm being really productive in my, like, heads-down-time that I want to, you know, allow myself to just like, get that dose of connection.

JOËL: I know, for me, when we were doing things like this in person as well, those conversations that happen, yes, there's some random, frivolous stuff, but sometimes, it is a conversation related to work that I'm doing. Because, you know, someone who's not on my project is like, "Hey, how's your project going?" Or whatever. I'm like, "Oh, well, I'm, you know, doing this ODBC connection, and I'm kind of stuck." And, you know, we kind of talk about a few things. It's like, "Oh, did you know about this gem?" And it's like, "Wait, why didn't I talk to you earlier? Because this totally solves my problem."

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think that being a sounding board is so valuable as well. So, I guess I enjoy virtual co-working, not necessarily, you know, us, like, sitting together and doing our work separately. Though I know that there's value in that, especially in real life. Like, I remember reading an article. I'll try to find it and link it. But the idea of just, like, sharing space with someone can be, like, a form of bonding.

But I do really enjoy just hearing about what other people are working on and just kind of, like, asking questions about it, right? And maybe we do take away, like, a new perspective or, like, have some insights about, like, the work itself. And, yeah, we don't really get that when we're working remotely by ourselves because there's no one to turn to and be like, "Hey, what do you think about this problem?"

JOËL: I love how no matter what the topic is that we're discussing on this show, you always have a book or an article or something that you've read that you can reference. And I think that's amazing.

STEPHANIE: Thank you.

JOËL: So, you're talking about things that have really helped you feel a deeper sense of connection. I had a realization recently about the power of physical items. In particular, as consultants, sometimes we work with clients who, for security reasons, want us to work on a dedicated laptop for this particular client. And so, we'll have clients maybe—well, now that we're remote—ship us a laptop, and we work on that laptop when we're doing client stuff, and then on our thoughtbot laptops when we're doing thoughtbot things.

And when I've been on clients like that, I have felt much more isolated from the thoughtbot team. And just, like, physically switching over to the thoughtbot laptop, all of a sudden, gives me that feeling of connection. And there's something I can't quite explain about the power of the physical item. And, say, I'm working on the thoughtbot laptop today with, you know, thoughtbot Slack in the background or whatever, and I feel more connected to my colleagues.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is really curious. Did you also have thoughtbot communication channels open in your client laptop during that time?

JOËL: I did, and yet still felt more separation.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's really interesting. The way you're describing it, it was almost like, you know, the main laptop that you work with, with your, like, all of the settings that you like, all of your little shortcuts, you know, the autocomplete to the whatever, like, channels of communication that you are used to seeing. In some ways, that almost feels like home a little bit. And I wonder if working on a client laptop almost kind of feels like, you know, being in a stranger's house, right?

JOËL: There's definitely an element of that. Yeah, all the little things I've fine-tuned, some of the productivity software I have on there that are just, you know, I can one by one set them up on the client laptop, depending on permissions. But yeah, it's never quite the same.

STEPHANIE: So, when you are in a situation where you're mostly working from a client laptop and maybe embedded in their Slack workspace, embedded in their team, how do you go about investing in connection with your client team?

JOËL: So, you know what's kind of weird? Is that when I'm on a client laptop, I feel less connected to my colleagues at thoughtbot, but the reverse is not necessarily true. I don't feel more connected to colleagues on a client team on a client laptop than I would on my thoughtbot laptop. So, I'm not exactly sure what the psychology is going on there. But I feel kind of most connected to both when I'm working on my thoughtbot laptop, which is perhaps a bit strange.

STEPHANIE: Oh, yeah, that is interesting. I think, in general, there's an aspect of joining a new client team and trying to figure out the culture there and how you might engage with it, right? And how what you bring to the table kind of fits in with how they do things, and how they talk about things, and how they behave. In some ways, it's kind of, like, you know, an outsider joining this, like, in-group, right? So, I've definitely realized that the ways that I engage and feel connected at thoughtbot, like, may or may not work for the client team that I'm joining.

JOËL: Yeah. And onboarding onto a client team is not just a technical exercise, right? It's also a social process where you want to get to know the other people on your team, get to sort of integrate into the way they work, their processes, hopefully, build a little bit of, like, personal connection with individuals because all of those are going to help me do my job better tomorrow, and the day after, and the week after that.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I had mentioned previously that one thing that I've been enjoying on my client team is our daily sync question. So, a random question will be generated, you know, like, "What are you eating for dinner today?" Or, like, "What are you looking forward to this weekend?" And folks are able to share. And the fun thing is that sometimes the answer to the question is longer than their work update itself.

JOËL: Nice.

STEPHANIE: But that is actually the, you know, the beauty of it because we all just, like, get to laugh and get to, you know, chime in. And I'm like, "Oh yeah, like, that sounds delicious, like, what you're eating for dinner tonight." But, like, that would not work for our Boost Team's sync because, you know, it's a much bigger meeting with sometimes up to, you know, 20 to almost 30 people and, like, we can't quite have as much time spent talking about the fun question of the day. So, I definitely think that, you know, it depends your team size, and makeup, and whatnot.

JOËL: Are those questions kind of preset, or do you all get to contribute questions to the list?

STEPHANIE: We brainstormed the questions one retro when we were realizing that we were kind of getting a little bored of the existing question that we had. And we came up with a handful that is plugged into, like, a website, or, like, an app that randomly, you know, picks the question of the day. And so, I think, again, when we get a little bored of the ones that we have in rotation, we'll throw in some curveballs in there.

JOËL: Have you ever considered adding "What's new in your world?" to this rotation?

STEPHANIE: It's funny you mentioned that because it's actually the question that we got a little bit stale on. [laughs]

JOËL: Really?

STEPHANIE: And we needed to inject some new life into, yeah. It's a classic, you know. But I think the variety is nice, especially since we're meeting almost every day. And before we started recording, you and I were just talking about how even sometimes it's tough to think of something that's new in our world [laughs] because we don't always live the most interesting and, you know, new lives. And sometimes, we kind of just have to dig deep to come up with something, and we only meet weekly. [laughs]

JOËL: I can definitely see how doing this daily might be more challenging. I think there's also value in questions that are a little bit more focused. Part of what's fun for this podcast is that "What's new in your world?" is so kind of broad. But maybe for something daily, having something really specific, like, what did you eat for dinner tonight? Means that you aren't just kind of drawing blanks in your mind, like, uh, uh, what is new in my world? What have I done? I don't know; I have a boring life. I don't do anything. Kind of panic mode that you can sometimes get when you hit a meeting.

And so, I do know that when I've been sometimes in situations with people where you have questions like that, I've tended to really appreciate the more targeted ones.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's so interesting you mentioned that because I think in social situations, there's usually maybe, like, someone who is really good at asking those, like, specific questions to get the group talking and, like, you know, engaged in a fun conversation, and that specificity helps.

One thing that I was just wondering about is the value of meeting every day in a sync kind of format, and I'm curious if you think that is important to you. If you have been on other teams that don't meet every day, maybe they have, like, a virtual check-in, right? Like, a virtual reminder to share what they're working on as opposed to meeting synchronously.

JOËL: I think I've seen sort of different purposes for sync meetings. Sometimes it's very kind of project-heavy, right? You're talking about the tickets you're working on for today. The reason you're having that is specifically for status updates or because you are blocked, and you want somebody else to help unblock you. So, it's very process-focused. I think that varies team to team, but it can be really helpful.

Even I've been on projects where it's maybe me and one other person, and we'll have kind of an informal just call each other up every morning and say, "Hey, here's what I'm working on today. Here's kind of roughly the strategy I plan to take on it. And we'll go back and forth." And for something like that, it inevitably also somewhat turns into a bit of a social call, so that's planning and social. And I think that can be really strong.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that a lot.

JOËL: That's not necessarily going to be the case for every team, every project, especially with larger teams. And I feel like for something like the Boost Team at thoughtbot, we have a daily sync. We're not all working on the same project. So, I don't want to know about the specific details of the ticket you're working on. I'm more interested in getting just a little bit of face time with the whole of our team to feel a connection.

And, you know, maybe if you've got something cool that you want to share, and that can be a win. It can even be a struggle. And we can all kind of empathize, right? That, like, "Oh, I dropped production database this morning, and I'm kind of freaking out," is a totally fine thing to share. But "I am working on ticket 1, 2, 3, 4 to add some text to a part of the page," that's not particularly useful to me in the kind of sync that we have for the thoughtbot Boost Team.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think knowing, like, who the audience is of the meeting and, like, how they might be able to support you or be there for you is helpful in making them feel a little more relevant and personal. And I had mentioned that our Boost daily meetings or daily syncs, you know, are a little too big for people to really get into, you know, sharing a fun, personal anecdote, or whatever.

But one thing that I really enjoy is that whoever goes last in giving their update gets to choose the sign-off for everyone. So maybe that's like, okay, we'll just go out on a wave, and we all wave. Or maybe it's, you know, like, making a little heart with your hands. And then there's some folks on the team who go really wild and, you know, come up with something totally unexpected. And I think, you know, that spontaneity is so fun. And we all share it in this collective act of...I'm trying to think of a funny one lately, maybe, like, sinking down into your chair until you disappear from the view [laughs]. That's a good one.

JOËL: Sometimes it's those, like, small social rituals that can be really meaningful.

STEPHANIE: Absolutely. Do you have a favorite sign-off that you have either requested or have done?

JOËL: So, I typically just go for the wave if I'm last because I've not thought about it. But I generally think it's fun to have everybody try to mimic an emoji. So, it might be like, oh, everybody do the, you know, See-No-Evil emoji, or everybody do the party parrot. Those are pretty fun to sign off on.

STEPHANIE: Oh yeah, [inaudible 29:15] pausing is good. I think another one I like is, "Everyone do your best impression of a tree." [laughs]

JOËL: Sometimes, too, it's fun to do something that's relevant to the particular day. If there's something special happening that day, you get something relevant. I've done before, if it's on a Friday, say, "Everybody do your best Rebecca Black impression."

STEPHANIE: Yeah, also excellent.

JOËL: Because, you know, it's Friday.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, like, a little moment of collective celebration for the weekend. On that note, it's a Friday we're recording this episode. Shall we wrap up and look forward to the weekend?

JOËL: [laughter] Fun, fun, fun, fun.

STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.

JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

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JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.

STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at hosts@bikeshed.fm via email.

JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.

ALL: Byeeeeeee!!!!!!

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