Where’s the breakroom?

As the CEO of a small business, one of the things that has changed significantly in the past year is the way my team communicates. Prior to remote work, a lot of social interaction happened in our office. We had team meetings. We had Taco Tuesday lunches. We celebrated birthdays and milestones together with potlucks. We took time to check in with each other on what was happening in our lives—the interns who completed their degrees, the instruction designer who was planning a wedding, the curriculum lead who just finished a Great Loop Trip. We worked in a small space and got to know one another.

The breakroom was a critical location for these conversations and others. A lot of work was done in short conversations, from sharing and growing ideas, to making arrangements to meet. Our breakroom served as reconfigurable space for our growing office. With our open concept office space, it was a private place for a phone call. It was a surrogate conference room when extra space was needed. The breakroom was even a quiet room when we were recording, although the team learned the hard way that it was important to plug the refrigerator back in when they were done. No one likes to arrive early to find the half and half spoiled.

Today, the workplace for my company is very different. We are smaller in number. We are remotely working.

Our workspaces have been replaced with space at home. Our conference rooms are now Zoom meetings. Every contact is planned. The “bursty” feel that would emanate from 10 people who were sharing ideas and collaborative energy has fallen silent.

Does that mean creative work has stopped? No, not at all. The creative thinkers are still creating. The collaboration is still happening. But it is different.

I start every year with a strategic planning meeting in January. These are one- or two-day affairs where we discuss every aspect of business across the full-time staff and determine where we need to go in the coming year. Then we set goals, lay in plans, and get to it, periodically evaluating our plans and goals to adjust as needed.

The plans the team and I laid out in 2020 took a hard pivot starting in February as we shifted attention for a transition to remote work. In March, we started the transition of our training products to a virtual online classroom environment, doing a planned rollout of two or three at a time, geared towards addressing the critical topics facing the workforce last summer. As we completed one product and went to work on the next, we began again to hold our full cohorts. We did this as much to validate our new formats as to engage again in the meaningful and fun work of providing training for leadership skills.

But the breakroom was still missing. In my approach to strategic planning for 2021, I sent out a set of questions to all the staff asking: Where did we succeed in 2020? What lessons did we learn in 2020? And What should we be doing different in 2021?

I was pleased to see in the responses that everyone had the same general summary of our successes: our quick move to remote work while meeting everyone’s needs and the hard pivot we did to keep our products relevant. This told me that everyone had skin in the game and pride in what we had accomplished, even though we experienced staff departures, cancellation of work, and a complete upending of “business as usual.”

The staff was also very insightful as far as lessons learned. They saw resilience happen, but they also identified the need for better communication across the team.

This last action was echoed strongly in suggestions for what to do differently in the coming year. They requested more engagement opportunities. They really missed the friendship that comes from working in an office space together.

So, as CEO, I am now scheduling regular team meetings. I don’t worry so much about how to productively use that time, because even if we spend time just talking about what’s going on in our lives, that will result in a better work environment, better attitudes, and more cooperation and collaboration. We share what we are working on, and ideas for engagement when “things get back to normal.” I think a team outing to Busch Gardens is high on the list of priorities. We need to have fun together.

I don’t know if going back to what we had is in our future. But I do know an environment that builds connections needs to be replicated in whatever we do next.

In looking for relevant articles to use as references for this piece, I found that creating space for friendship was frequent topic of discussion as we transitioned to remote work in March and April of 2020, but that those articles were replaced with how to build resilience when working remotely by December.

I contend that we need to get back to fostering the fun in our group engagements. Here are some ideas to do that:

Have a scheduled start time to your meetings, but have the host open the meeting 15 minutes early. Allow the pre-meeting time to be socialization time, just like when you would show up to an in-person meeting and engage in casual conversation until the group was ready to start. Start your meetings on time but encourage a fun image to be shared to get the ball rolling with casual conversations. Encourage your hosts to welcome individuals as they arrive in the room and ask them how their day/week is going or how their weekend or vacation went.

Purposefully schedule team meetings with a set time (like an hour) but without a full agenda. Pick one or two to showcase something they have been working on for 5 minutes. It’s more difficult with larger groups but consider having a full company meeting and showcasing creative submissions from each department. Use Polling software for feedback from attendees. After the fact, consider the information you got from the meeting, and respond back with a personal video or email with any actions you plan to take.

Build a team video by having each member of the team record them selves sharing something about a particular topic. Consider: favorite superhero, what they have been binging on TV, what they haven’t been able to do because of COVID-19 that they really miss. Likely you have someone with video editing skills who can put it together. Then share it with the team and encourage them to share it across the office. Videos are easy to share if posted on Vimeo.

Replacing those in-person moments has been challenging, and we are still working to get it right. Please share your ideas with me!

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