Building proximity in a time of remote work

How we did it and what you can learn from it

Darewise at the start of 2020 was a rapidly growing start-up, with new team members joining its incubator in Paris regularly and a calendar full of social events to bring the team closer together.

When the lockdown hit, we were ready: the ones who could work from home would, and the ones who weren’t ready, we’d help with hardware and setup. On paper, it would work. We also quickly decided to keep on hiring and onboarding newcomers while remote. It would not make paperwork easier, and it might take just a little more time to commit a name to a face, but as a tech company, we were privileged to be able to carry on working mostly doing business as usual.

Building the new normal

In fact, we realized a few weeks in that the one silver lining in this situation was our growing understanding that this remote thing didn’t have to be a temporary solution, but could become an advantage. At a time when senior employees might be put off joining a start-up, or make the big leap and come to a non-English speaking country, offering to hire remotely became a perk (see this announcement for more details, and perhaps hit up our jobs page?). The plan moving forward is to meet for in-person events only once a month, with team-building activities taking place, and let people pick their own degree of onsite involvement.

Of course, the benefits of meeting and interacting with your colleagues in person are difficult to overstate, and in transitioning from having opportunities to do just that, to a work situation in which none of this is happening took more than just elbow grease. There are many articles that aim to give guidance on adapting to remote work so we’ll link to just this one from Slack, and show you how we’ve tackled our own version of this problem. Basically, how we’re building a sense of community and connectedness, while remote, and while onboarding new folks.

Bread and games

The obvious answer was, it seemed, to just go for the tech company special and just organize a social hour. After all, you don’t need to clink glasses to toast to each other’s good health. The first apéro meeting was a resounding success, so we followed it up with a company-wide dinner party, walking in the footsteps of a Darewise tradition of eating “nasty food” together (anything covered in cheese would usually work). As you can see below, some even made pizza look fancy!

However, the next apéro meeting a couple of weeks later saw fewer people get involved, and the one after that fewer still. We put our heads together to try and understand where this could be stemming from. Was this quarantine fatigue settling in and our colleagues feeling the need to refocus on themselves, or was this linked to something else?

From broadcast to bespoke

Our first endeavors included attempts at making sure everyone felt included, and so we logically went the way of the company-wide event. With synchronous communication, the quickest problem to run into is scale: even with a team of relatively moderate size, our first apéro had about twenty people attending.

Anyone who’s ever been in an online meeting will have noticed that meeting software tends to block out sound when one person is already talking, and whenever two people are trying to speak at the same time, the combination of feedback and delay will usually result in an awkward stop and a “sorry, go on”. These issues are problematic enough when trying to have a productive conversation, but when everyone’s just in for a good time you’re not just trying to get your point across with the knowledge that on the hour the meeting will be over. The normal ebb and flow of a conversation fueled by shared anecdotes and in-jokes is affected by the vagaries of technology and becomes, at best, stilted, at worst an exercise in patience. Eventually we did away with the mass rallies altogether.

And now for something completely different

To be fair, you’d usually not expect everyone on the team to turn up for social hour, from the founders to the newest hire. We saw a lot more success with smaller initiatives: a game night where your colleagues would gather to play some perennial successes (the various iterations of the Jackbox Party Packs have always been a staple and only require access to a phone/tablet/computer for participants, and any streaming solution for the game host — Zoom, Discord, any number of free solutions work out) and some new stuff (Skribbl, an online Pictionary, is available in multiple languages).

As game developers, a fair few among us are into even nerdier pursuits, and it wasn’t long before one of our programmers offered to get a game of Dungeon & Dragons going. There are a number of ways to go about hosting a game online, but we’re partial to Roll20, which contains pretty much all the tools needed for the game master to prepare and lead their games.

The point is not to force everyone to engage with social endeavors: you can’t, and if you force it, people will not only disengage from your events, but actively avoid them next time around. What we’re trying to do, however, is to offer a little something to everyone, and invite them to participate.

Fun times during the 9-to-6

Of course, not all of these initiatives take place outside of work hours, and we still have larger company functions during the work day. However, we’ve constantly made sure to reduce any extraneous meetings, and the only company-wide meeting now happens at the start of the week, a good opportunity to welcome newcomers and see everybody’s bed hair. But it’s the only one, and it’s intentionally kept short.

We’ve implemented “coffee break meetings” which are intended to be a no-work-allowed zone to essentially get to know one another or catch up, and bounce ideas off of each other. What we’ve seen is that for any non-mandatory break, attendance is by default pretty low, as these pseudo-meetings can feel like another need for performative participation. The trick, as we’ve found, is to remind people that hey, it’s 3pm, and who’s up for a coffee and a chat right now? Repeat, repeat and repeat, until it becomes a habit.

Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more

More than trying to organize all of this ourselves, we sought to foster an environment where these events and get-togethers could thrive. We continue to look at what gets traction and is appreciated by our team, to see how we can signal boost these events and encourage new ones to pop up.

Another initiative we put in place for the express purpose of keeping the conversation going and building a sense of community is the creation of an internal newsletter, specifically dedicated to Darewise folks and what they’re up to. Team members are invited to contribute through sharing recommendations, pictures, and generally letting us know about any cool stuff they might have to share! Granted, a lot of what we share internally is cat pictures, but the newsletter is mostly cat-free so far. To say that people love a newsletter that is mostly about them is an understatement! It’s also, we’ve found, a great way of building and memorializing shared experiences.

Do it yourself

At Darewise, remote is swiftly becoming, if not the new normal, at least a new normal. It’s a work-in-progress to get it functioning on the same level we’re used to from a human perspective, but we feel like we’re getting there. If your company or start-up is looking to make the switch or increase the share of remote work, we advise you to try the following:

  1. Avoid large meetings, even for “fun” purposes
  2. Diversify your team-building activities to suit as many people as possible
  3. Share your events and remind people they can take part
  4. Communicate on the good times!

This is the first of a series of posts on our transition from in-person company to a remote-friendly one in a time of upheaval. For our next post, we will look at the challenges we’re facing with the end of confinement. Make sure to follow us to know when it’s out!

We’re curious to hear what measures you have implemented for remote in your company, and how they’ve panned out! What worked out? What didn’t? Let us know!

We are developing Life Beyond, an interactive and socially-connected experience that goes beyond entertainment.