Ask The Hustle: How Do You Build Community Virtually?

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Sara Cravatts
Sara Cravatts

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A while back we invited you to slide into our DMs, and almost 300 of you wrote in with questions. We got some good ones, and we’re getting back to you here. This one’s from Sasa in Austin, Texas:

Ask The Hustle

I’m a software engineer, and I’ve been working at my company for a little over a year now. We’ve been working remotely the entire time due to the pandemic, so I’ve only met a handful of my co-workers in person and I know very little about most of my team. How do you build community and get to know people you work with virtually without making it weird? I feel odd messaging people out of the blue and just asking for more information about them, especially for co-workers I only work with peripherally.

Since the onset of the pandemic, many of us have started working remotely, shifting our 9-5 lives from conference rooms to Zoom rooms. If you’re feeling awkward AF trying to fit in, you’re not alone.

While the thought of icebreaker activities over Zoom is enough to make me want to super-glue my laptop shut, it’s also important that you foster some human connection with your co-workers. 

So how do you do this without forcing everyone on your team to cough up two truths and a lie? We tapped Kathryn Ahern, the culture lead at HubSpot and master of the cringe-free work event, to show us the way:

  • Utilize every tool: Even though Zoom became the default communication tool in the age of virtual work, it doesn’t mean it’s the only option for getting to know your teammates.

    Switch it up by using communication platforms that require less effort and can be used asynchronously. Ahern suggests turning to Slack for more than just project reminders and emojis: It can be a great way to keep in touch throughout the week.

    “We have more Slack channels at HubSpot than we do employees. The culture team manages a bunch of different channels, and we’ve seen that there’s a natural community that comes in and also that folks really just want to be brought together.”

    Also try asynchronous documents such as a “working with me” doc that can be shared with team members to give them more information about yourself. It can include things like your pet peeves, what time of day you work best, and even places you’d like to travel or stories about your dog. 

  • Make a move: Ahern encourages people to put themselves out there to build connections virtually.

    “It’s as simple as extending the invite,” she says. “A lot of people are really interested and happy to have one-on-one chats, whether it’s just to connect or if you have a similar point of interest.”

    Use group conversations in Slack as a jumping-off point: If your co-worker mentioned in passing that she is running a marathon, send her a direct message to say you’re training as well. Sharing common interests is a great way to start a conversation and, hopefully, a relationship.

    If you’re finding yourself coming up short with personal interests, turn to work to get a chat going. Frame the conversation around wanting to hear more about someone’s position and/or team, and go from there. 

  • Keep it natural: Many of us shy away from networking and team building at work because it can just feel… cringe. To avoid this, Ahern recommends reaching out to people in whatever way that’s most comfortable for them.

    “If that’s sending an email, messaging on an internal site, a team Slack, whatever it might be to make it not feel spammy and to make it very opt-in.”

    Start your outreach with a smaller group of people who you think might be open to connecting, rather than shooting your shot with the all-company email list. This way, interested parties can say yes, and then forward the invitation to people they know would want to join.

    Keep in mind: You don’t need to be doing trust falls at a weekend retreat to get to know your co-workers. A fun example from Ahern: Have everyone on your team send one GIF that represents how they’re feeling that day before diving into a meeting. 

  • Encourage authenticity: It’s impossible to build meaningful connections without first ensuring that everyone you work with feels safe enough to bring their whole selves to work.

    In a virtual world, Ahern says this can look like including diverse speakers in panel events, offering closed captioning, and encouraging participants to include their pronouns along with their names in Zoom meetings.

    “There are small things that set the stage for what makes a great experience and what allows you to start building community in a virtual way. You have to be really intentional when it comes to virtual experiences,” she says.

    Encourage team members to ditch the virtual Zoom backgrounds and embrace all the quirks of working from home (looking at you, ambulance sirens and barking dogs). Of course, if a digital background of a palm tree swaying in the wind and the mute button make you feel better, it’s all fair game. 

  • Bottom line: Connecting to your co-workers at a remote job might be tricky, but it’s definitely possible.

    Take a cue from your company to figure out the best way to get started: If your co-workers are addicted to Reddit, maybe start with a daily meme. If you’re surrounded by pet parents, suggest a “bring your pet to work” day on Zoom (and also invite me immediately).

    Build organic, individualized relationships whenever possible. A direct conversation over a shared interest can be a stepping stone to a long-term personal relationship.

    Finally, remember that you’re not alone.

    Ahern’s take: “If one person is feeling this way, there are likely a lot of other folks that are feeling similarly and they’re just waiting for someone to take action.” 

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