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Staying Social During Social Isolation

How do Envato staff keep spirits high, and connections strong, during a time of social distancing?

Posted 16 Apr 2020
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The current global health crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is challenging workforces like never before, with an increasing number of organisations moving to a fully flexible working environment. 

There are now thousands of articles online with top tips, tricks and inspiration on how to make your time in social isolation work best – we quite liked Urban List’s tips on staying calm, Wired’s extensive gear and gadgets list – but one important aspect to consider is how do we keep our spirits up, and maintain social connectivity to our friends and peers in our jobs, even as our working lives shift to Slack, Google Hangouts, Zoom meetings and more. Unsurprisingly, happy employees often cite people as the reason they enjoy their job the most!

Changing the Channel

Web Infrastructure Architect Andrew Humphrey knows more than most the challenges of connecting with a team, having been based in Bali for more than five years. While he’s a big fan of creating different ‘spaces’ at home for work and rest – “Remember that working from home doesn’t mean working all the time….find a separate space where its easier to switch off” – he also finds that there’s always a Slack channel he can dive into to find a social connection.

“While I’m in a privileged position of being video calls for 3-4 hours a day, where I get a lot of face time with my colleagues, I still jump into (Slack) channels like #random and #dad-jokes to help keep myself sane. I also find #work-from-anywhere a great place to turn to for advice about dealing with some of the frustrations that arise from time to time.  Folks in there likely have faced a challenge I’m dealing with and readily share how they solved it. Then for the purely social catchup, I occasionally join in the virtual coffee catchup that runs out of that channel.”

For Envato’s marketing team, who are more used to regular coffee catchups and walking meetings than solo isolation, the shift to fully remote has brought its own challenges…and opportunities. “We’ve started hosting daily coffee and tea catchups; short video calls where we jump on and hang out while making a brew,” says Marketing Director Adam Noonan, “and we’re doing a number of group activities in our team Slack channel. This week we’re running a quiz to guess what people’s home working spaces look like!”

New Problems, New Opportunities

It’s these new opportunities for human connection that has Jay Hyett, Senior Delivery Coach, so excited, especially as his role has a strong focus on helping teams across Envato connect and deliver their best work. “We have a great headquarters and office setup, so its a challenge to try and keep that atmosphere alive online. We’re trying a number of different ideas, including virtual water coolers for teams, where people can bring to life that impromptu hangout experience. One of our teams is trialling a Friday night drinks session over Google Hangouts and another is seeing if they can do workouts together!”

“Icebreakers are proving to be another big thing for our teams,” continues Jay, “and something that asks people to lean in and connect a bit more than they probably would day-to-day in the office. So that’s asking people to share photos of life at their house and where they’re working from, or even simply ‘are you wearing tracksuit pants today?’. Another team just did a retro where everyone brought a stuffed animal to keep them company.”

“Yes, it relies on people having a sense of humour, but that’s what makes it human, people connecting and supporting each other at a time when we’re probably having less interaction in our daily lives than ever before.”

Sharing and Caring

Senior Developer Mary-Anne Cosgrove helped pioneer Envato’s social catch up program for remote workers and women in engineering. “People like to socialise over food and drink, so I set up the monthly women’s catch-ups at morning tea and lunchtime. The remote workers catch up time was a little trickier because we’re in quite a few different time zones, but we’ve settled on an early afternoon tea time. So the idea is to grab your food and beverage of choice before coming into the hangout. I’ve often asked my team to have a virtual team lunch, and sometimes they’ve even gone out to a cafe or restaurant in Melbourne and taken a laptop so they could include me there. “

“When they’ve done that, it has really helped me feel like a valued member of the team,” continues Mary-Anne. “This social interaction is hugely important, and different people need different levels of it. I’ve seen remote working fail for a person when they didn’t have enough interaction with their team and felt isolated and alone. If a person is hanging out with their team a lot in meetings and on Slack anyway they may not feel the need for virtual coffees or lunches – but the less formal virtual catchups allow us to get to know each other better than meetings where we are mostly discussing work.”

Bringing People Together

Office-based events are often a perfect chance to bring people together, so spare a thought for the social committees and event organisers around the world who are scrambling to reschedule or reshape their event calendars. Envato Office Manager Ruth Crespo and Office Coordinator Tamar Collins turned the cancellation of the company’s Harmony Day potluck gathering at the Melbourne HQ into an online-based talent show, not to mention essential recipe resource.

“It’s 100% possible and necessary to find online ways to still celebrate events. Social interaction is so vital for mental health, even if it’s from the screen. It’s better to create something and give people the option to participate and connect online, than to offer nothing.

“It’s fun taking on the challenge of pivoting to cater to the new norm, and I feel lucky to have a component of my role that helps create that culture,” adds Ruth. “We really love our jobs and bringing joy to Envato staff, so it was a bit of a sad realisation when months of planning and preparation for many different events went out the window – but it’s been fun to get together and brainstorm alternatives.”

Working From Home Tips

Some of Envato’s regular remote workforce share their top tips for making the most from working at home.

  1. Create a dedicated workspace
    “Have a dedicated space for work so you can walk away from it at the end of the day. A room with a closeable door is ace if you can manage it.” Ray Grasso, Engineering Manager – Envato Elements.

    “Having a dedicated space helps, as ultimately you’re just hinting at your mind when to stop/start focusing. It takes time though so don’t be critical of yourself in the early days.” Patrick Robinson, Senior Developer Ops Engineer

  2. Establish a routine
    “It’s easy to stay in your pyjamas and work from the lounge. Don’t do that, it doesn’t benefit you physically or mentally. Set a routine. I get dressed in the same outfit Monday to Friday; jeans and a black tee. They are my work clothes. I walk out to my mailbox in the morning, and when I come back, I’m “walking into the office” to make a coffee and start my workday”. Ben Vilnis, Junior DevOps Engineer.
  3. Remember to take breaks
    “Remember that working from home doesn’t mean working all the time.” Andrew Humphrey, Web Infrastructure Architect

    “Schedule breaks that you’d usually take going for coffee, running into people in the halls, etc. Get up, stretch, take a few minutes to get away from the computer. Don’t take your breaks at your desk. Be mindful that without interruptions you’ll naturally spend more time at your computer and that ends up depleting your energy faster than working with others.”  Jacob Bednarz, Site Reliability Engineer

  4. Get outside (when you can)
    “I use the extra non-commute time time or long lunch to get out in the sun. It keeps me sane and happy.” Damien Adermann, Developer

    “Find your anti-hermit policy. I really like people, so when I first started working remotely I knew I needed something. For me, that became a gym class after dropping the kids at school.” Nathan Jones, Senior Developer

    “Get outside and at least go for a walk each day. An activity tracker will show how sedentary you can be WFH, I try and turn commute-time into exercise time.” Lucas Parry, Lead Developer

For more creative inspiration, head over to the Elements Blog to read up on the latest trends, tips, interviews and roundups

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