Last week decisions were made as we continue to grapple with a terrible infectious disease. Minnesota’s governor turned the dials to allow for more movement. In California, the high-profile technology company Twitter announced it will let people work from home forever.
If a comparable Minnesota company has made the same call as Twitter, it escaped my attention. But Minnesota executives last week were talking about moving on to the next phase, too.
Those working from home will still be doing that, likely for many more months. The change in thinking isn’t where we work so much as it’s how to work better with the tools we have.
That includes getting better at making sure some of the not-exactly-working aspects of being at work, the community-building and just plain fun, can still happen with other people.
Getting people to talk about workplace culture and community isn’t exactly easy, both because it’s hard to put a bright line between the two even if you could define the terms.
My working definition of community is a group where a person can feel strongly connected to others and know they belong. There has been a lot written about how workplace communities have risen in importance as traditional organizations have declined. Work is not just where folks have friends but can be a big part of their identity, too.
Many thousands of Minnesotans can’t do well-paid work from their dining room table, of course, and many thousands more have been furloughed or laid off. Yet it’s hard to deny that one of the blows to the well-being of Minnesotans during the pandemic is damage to communities, including at work.
And, of course, people don’t go into work as much now.
Some of Minneapolis real estate software firm HomeSpotter’s more than 40 employees work in Vancouver and others worked from elsewhere, so founder and CEO Aaron Kardell said the company had already been using internet video to bring people together.
Yet when everybody went home to work in mid-March, it still led to a big adjustment. Kardell later went back in to get his own office chair and encouraged others to go fetch stuff they might need, like a computer monitor. They could be home for a while.
Kardell last week sounded a little old school, describing himself as “pro-work-from-work.” At work, it’s easier to have unplanned, face-to-face collaboration, he said.
One of the things that turned out to be important to the HomeSpotter culture, Kardell said, was that if they could no longer meet but had to use a video conference tool like Zoom, everybody had to have their cameras turned on.
“By showing up on video it demonstrates respect,” Kardell said. “If we are going to do this meeting, let’s be present and engaged.”
A lot of similar thinking has been occurring at The Social Lights, a Minneapolis marketing firm that helps clients with social media channels like Twitter, Instagram or TikTok. Owner and CEO Emily Pritchard has encouraged personal updates to become a regular part of their work.
“Our work community extends beyond just our co-workers, thinking about our community in terms of our clients as well,” Pritchard said. “That’s probably been the key learning, as we transition to being more spread out, it’s being more connected than ever before.”
The use of video as the pandemic sent everyone home has seemed to make work relationships “more real,” she said, as you can’t help but get a deeper understanding of your colleagues’ lives, from small children who might make appearances on screen to simply seeing where people live.
She wants everybody to keep the video camera on, too, for what others can observe even on a small screen might communicate more than somebody is willing to say out loud.
“Those conversations take on a new meaning … when maybe you are isolating alone and your work community is the most interaction you have during the day,” Pritchard said. “You are really looking to them to just keep you going, keep you motivated, have something to look forward to.”
The nine-year-old firm, now with 15 people, has set aside a half-hour lunch check-in every day. While not mandatory, this Zoom call allows people to chat over a sandwich or soup. The week ends with a video happy hour, too, and they have had an online talent show with spouses, kids and pets welcome.
As she described it, these are some ways to keep conversations going that had once been taking place in their office, about everything from weekend plans to updates about the kids.
The Social Lights has been busy enough to add two new employees during the pandemic, brought aboard without the benefit of even meeting the rest of the staff except through video calls.
“If we were in our office, or running around to different client meetings, we don’t necessarily take the time collectively to meet the new people,” she said. “I think this has been really nice for them.”
As our conversation last week was winding down, Pritchard described how much she had recently learned from a podcast featuring former Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose last U.S. Army assignment was leading the forces in Afghanistan.
The lesson she got was how the job this year is to lead all the way through the pandemic, like a sprinter who comes to see that the race is really a marathon and the finish line is still a long way off.
As at many workplaces, Pritchard and her colleagues have worked on plans for going back into the office, understanding that it may be a while yet.
“The more indicators that we’re having right now is that this is actually going to last longer than any of us had probably hoped for or anticipated, but that’s the reality,” she said. “And now how do we start to think more long-term, and plan more long-term, without missing a beat or what needs to happen in the day-to-day?”