June 3, 2019

Maintaining sanity and social skills when working remotely

The need of an artificial water cooler experience

Photo by Dan Gold

Working remotely is my default status, and even I forget sometimes to interact with humans in real life.

I once started a job where I was going almost everyday to a physical office after six years of working only remotely. First five days in, on Friday afternoon, my voice got hoarse. Five days of good mornings and a hundred questions had made my voice vanish for the weekend.

To be fair, I hadn’t enjoyed a lot of social life for almost a year for medical reasons. Nevertheless, I decided I would take more care of my social skills in the future.

This is my personal reminder to never stop training my social muscle.

The artificial water cooler experience

When you work in an office, you take for granted lots of everyday things. If you drive there or use public transportation, you’ll look at some other person’s eyes, navigate the space to avoid crushing, and eventually have to talk to somebody.

Discussing projects at meetings, going for a coffee with a coworker, standing by the water cooler or just getting to the office and say Good morning makes you interact with your peers and exercise your social skills.

Although speaking with others is the most visible way of social interaction, there are automatic actions that are also forgettable social skills: waking up in the morning, taking a shower, getting dressed, not farting in public, covering your mouth when you sneeze, etc. is part of any functional social being.

It’s all part of those natural habits you think you won’t forget. But, as shown in this tweet by Tyler Feder, the freedom of working remotely in any clothes you want is also a chance to abandon yourself to the wearing-whatever-is-clean circle.

If you think you need to meet one person a week, make it two

Having freedom of schedule could mean you will meet with friends or family almost whenever you want, because it isn’t constraint by a strict work schedule anymore.

This is one of the tricky parts of working remotely. Almost everything needs to be decided by you and only you: location, schedule, meals, meeting friends, meeting family, physical activity, etc.

One of the things I mentioned in the post about my personal tips for remote workers is to meet with more people that you think you need.

We underestimate how much our social skills are constantly trained at a physical office. Some remoters like to work in co-working spaces because of this. Unlike commuters, remoters need to also decide this. What co-working space do I like?, do I like where it’s located?, can the activities —including noise — in this co-working office fit with the way I work?

Set up a schedule in sync with your peers

Creating a schedule similar to the city you live in makes it easier to meet with others or attend all kind of events.

I meet with friends for lunch two or three times a week. The rest of the week I eat at a similar hour so the day I meet with them I’m not that hungry I can’t listen to what they are saying.

Being aware of the importance of exercising your social muscle is the first step for a good social life.

After being given the freedom of choosing your working hours, it’s normal to experiment with a different schedule to the normative office one. I sometimes wake up super early because of insomnia. Those days I adapt my schedule to my needs and start and stop working at earlier hours. Being aware of the importance of exercising your social muscle is the first step for a good social life.

Once you have chosen fitting social routines for you, you can skip them whenever you need. Test your social needs for a month and iterate over the results.

Being productive welcoming silly puns

During my last job interview I described myself as a remote worker who manage my schedule and save other’s time. I’m used to effective asynchronous communication. The thing I disliked the most about open space offices is that you could be interrupted at any time and not everyone had an urgent matter to discuss. I think others’ time and lives are as important as mine and asynchronous communication works better when you communicate only really important things.

Even if we joked about things sometimes, I’m now working with people who think exactly that, which is great. Conversations are short and highly productive. It was great for a few months, but alas a new coworker came in and spread cat pictures all over Slack. 😻

That little gesture suddenly created more personal than job related conversations twice a week. After months of really productive conversations mixed rarely with silly puns I realized I missed relaxed talks with my interesting coworkers. Something I only experienced when we met each other in person.

Photo by Dario Valenzuela

Since then I’ve learnt of some remote friendly companies that have a Slack channel only dedicated to non job related conversations.

It was interesting how a couple of cat pictures a week enhanced the artificial water cooler experience. Conversations about small things randomly pop up more and more. Maybe I was the only one feeling that productivity was the only goal, maybe I was being too Leslie Knope. I’ve seen the importance of a silly pun and I now share more personal conversations privately and in public with the rest of the team.

Meeting whomever you want

Actively socializing when working remotely takes effort, isolating yourself doesn’t.

When your social interactions during the week are limited to one office bubble, you talk only with your coworkers. This is not a bad thing per se. I like chatting with my coworkers and do it happily every week. But I also like being in touch with people chosen by me.

Choosing who to meet, where to meet them, and what for — a coffee? lunch?— , takes time and effort at first. As with your schedule or your productivity, when working remotely you decide how many people you meet or who you meet. The freedom of choosing who to talk to is also the action of deciding not to isolate yourself.

Actively socializing when working remotely takes effort, isolating yourself doesn’t.

Not all social activities need to be done with people you know. Maybe you want to expand your circle, maybe you are in a new place. Here are ten social activities I like to do:

  • 👭 Meeting with friends, family, or other peers to have lunch.
  • 👩‍💻 Meeting with other remoters to work together.
  • 📆 Attend events related to my job: good to meet new peers and get a hold of the pulse of your profession in your area.
  • 🖌 Going to events unrelated to my job: good for changing your conversations once in a while.
  • ☕️ Working from a café, or the office of a friend.
  • 🍜 I sometimes share an hour with someone outside my bubble. I write an email to an interesting person who I’ve met, for example, at an event, to have lunch near their office.
  • 🏃‍♀ Exercise classes: also good for your body.
  • 🧘 Yoga class: perfect for introverts, as you don’t need to talk with anyone.
  • 🍯 Have a social hobby: better without screens, like pottery or archery.
  • 🚶‍♀The easiest and cheapest one: Going for a walk. Walking with no goal, losing yourself in your area is one of the key points to abandon the crazy multitasking life, as described in the book On Doing Nothing.

As with any other routine, it takes a bit of time and effort at first. Hopefully, after a couple of months, you’ll get used to getting together with who you really want to see.

( Happy socializing! )