Article

Creative ways to stay connected with remote coworkers (that aren’t a virtual happy hour)

By Sarah Olson, Senior Associate, Content Marketing

Published December 8, 2020
Last updated September 21, 2021

As the months of remote work add up, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to partake in the virtual coffee dates and happy hours we relied on in the early days of the pandemic. Zoom fatigue is setting in, and it often feels better to simply opt out of the activities that aren’t required.

Of course, we all need to make choices about how we spend our energy right now. But at this time when it feels natural to pull away, it turns out that being vulnerable with coworkers can actually help us feel more connected.

“There is still a way to connect remotely that isn’t draining,” says Laura Shear, senior manager of Content and Impact Marking at Zendesk, reflecting on Zendesk’s efforts over the past year to help remote employees connect in fun and meaningful ways.

Among the successes this year, according to Shear, were a virtual cardio dance class, a Hamilton-themed radio hour, and card-writing for seniors in nursing homes—all of which have a few things in common that separate them from the monotony of most virtual events.

Here are a few lessons that Shear and her team learned about how we can all foster deeper, more meaningful connections while working remotely.

1. Share your personal passions

By this point, we all probably know each other's pets and kids, but what about our hobbies and interests?

Showing your human side at work can have real benefits, including making us feel more connected and sparking the kind of serendipitous connections that occur naturally in a traditional office setting.

Sophie Bernhardt, Zendesk Business Integration Manager based in Dublin, leading her second baking class via Zoom.

At the onset of the pandemic, Zendesk created Living Room Live, a program where employees are invited to teach a hobby or skill to fellow employees from the comfort of their own living room. Pizza-making, yoga, and macrame crafts are just a few of the hobbies that Zendesk employees have shared throughout 2020.

Nicole Saunders, community engagement manager at Zendesk, has been teaching a cardio dance class one to two times a week since April.

Showing your human side at work can have real benefits, including making us feel more connected and sparking the kind of serendipitous connections that occur naturally in a traditional office setting.

“People at work probably wouldn’t pin me for an aerobics instructor, so it’s been really fun to be able to share that,” Saunders says. “It speaks to that idea of bringing your whole self to work and being able to share your skills and talents not just in your professional realm, but also the things that you’re passionate about.”

Another popular program is BBZ Radio, where employees can host a radio show featuring curated playlists. Fellow employees can tune in and listen while they work, and the hosts can share personal anecdotes or background information.

One notable fan favorite was an entire hour dedicated to the Broadway musical Hamilton, including fun facts and trivia about the iconic musical.

[Related read: Being human at work: the benefits of showing up whole]

2. Turn your focus outward

Doing something for others, even something as small as curating a playlist for colleagues, can increase feelings of connectedness and lift your spirits.

In an interview with Vox, psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky said shifting focus outward is key to improving our moods as this pandemic continues.

“Studies show that anything we can do to direct our attention off of ourselves and onto other people or other things is usually productive and makes us happier,” Lyubomirsky told Vox.

What makes programs like Living Room Live and BBZ Radio unique, according to Shear, is that participants create an experience for their fellow employees to enjoy. This has positive effects for both the host and the audience.

"Studies show that anything we can do to direct our attention off of ourselves and onto other people or other things is usually productive and makes us happier."
— Sonja Lyubomirsky

“We are in this place where any offering is such a gift,” says Shear. “The hosts have been so generous, and everyone is so grateful. The gratitude feels really good on both sides.”

Saunders agrees, saying that she gets as much from teaching as her students do.

“I’m not changing the world by any means by teaching a fitness class on Zoom, but it is a little something I can do to make things a little bit easier and a little bit better for people during the pandemic, and that has been really powerful for me,” Saunders says.

[Related read: The brave new world of virtual volunteering]

3. Take a “brain break”

After an incredibly stressful year that’s blurred the lines between work and home, it’s important to take a break.

Saunders’ dance class is one way that Zendesk employees can take their minds off the stress of everyday life right now, if only for 45 minutes.

“It’s nice to be able to participate in something that’s not just sitting and talking, but actually doing something,” Saunders says. “These dance classes are just fun. They’re a good time to turn on some music and turn off the rest of the world.”

These “brain breaks” are important for employee wellbeing, according to Shear. They give us something to look forward to, lighten the mood, and break up the monotony of remote work.

Another important thing to remember is that we can take brain breaks without ever turning our cameras on.

Designating specific Slack channels for social conversations and shared interest is an easy way for employees to stay connected without feeling so drained. Zendesk has a few popular ones including a pets channel, cooking channel, and multiple book club channels.

These "brain breaks" are important for employee wellbeing, according to Shear. They give us something to look forward to, lighten the mood, and break up the monotony of remote work.

Another example is Watercooler, a new product from Donut, the company famous for its app that automates the process of scheduling introductions for coworkers.

The tool helps remote coworkers socialize online by generating conversation topics within a Slack channel. Users can choose between random topics meant for entertainment, such as “What’s your favorite form of potato?” and thoughtful questions that can spark more intimate conversations, such as “What’s one thing you learned in your career that you wish you knew sooner?”

[Related read: We can cultivate empathy anywhere, even from our living rooms]

Work is changing—but it’s not all bad

If there’s a silver lining in this pandemic experience, Saunders says, it’s that now we can connect with any of our coworkers, anywhere in the world.

Over the last nine months, her dance class participants have included people in Wisconsin, California, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

“It is so cool to get all the little thumbnails on the screen, and have people from different parts of the country, or even different parts of the world, doing the same thing at the same time,” she says.

It also means that instead of organizing activities based on office location, Zendesk employees are now forming communities around shared interests, no matter where in the world they happen to live.

“Connecting virtually means we can connect with anyone, if we’re willing to put in the effort and show up for each other,” says Shear.