There’s an old proverb that goes: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If only someone had invited Jack to virtual happy hour to crack open a cold brew promptly at beer o’clock after a hard day’s work, he might not have turned out so dull. Here’s what you can do to prevent the Jacks on your team from suffering the same fate while working remotely!
So we’ve all been inundated with emails inviting us to webinars or sharing whitepapers on how to engage a remote workforce. For the most part, they all say the same thing: increase the frequency of your team meetings, ensure you have a good communication tool, use video when you can, be really decisive and specific about short term goals (there are probably a few other tips I am forgetting but you get the point).
I attended a few of said webinars and have almost invariably clicked on the links to the whitepapers (although I rarely get all the way to the end of the article) looking for some gem that no one else is doing. So far, I haven’t found anything that made me think “I need to plagiarize that idea.”
So instead, I am going to share here what we’ve been doing at SmartRecruiters with the following disclaimer— please go ahead and plagiarize this idea if it will work for your organization!
When we decided to roll out our work from home policy, we were pretty lucky that a decent chunk (almost 40%) of our workforce was already working remotely and geographically dispersed— seven time zones spanning across North America and Europe all the way to Australia. Furthermore, we are a tech company so we already had most of the gizmos and gadgets needed to make remote work possible.
That said, we were still faced with the challenge of migrating over half of our employees to remote working conditions—some of whom have always worked in our offices. Literally. Their first job out of university was in one of our offices and, lucky for us, they never left. Anyway, In a conversation with our CEO about how we can keep up morale (and actually improve) the connections we have built in our offices, he said “What if we had a virtual cafe?” And in that moment, the SmartCafe was born.
The original idea was very casual: a Zoom room—with a cute cafe background—open 24/5 for any Smartian (SmartRecruiters employee) to come and have a coffee and spend time with other Smartians. In the three short weeks since we went into global isolation, the concept has evolved to a full-fledged virtual venue.
We have an events calendar that anyone inside the company can use to book a meeting or a session in the space. There are a wide range of events hosted in the SmartCafe, from really deep business discussions relating to our next roadmap release and instructional classes on how to form productive habits to puppy lunches and mini-Smartian lunch breaks (which usually consist of moms and dads chasing their kids around the room with their Zoom cameras on).
We’ve even hosted a couple of happy hours, our French team has a Frenchie lunch (BYOB—bring your own baguette), and we are offering English classes to our ESL teams. The best part? The Smartians who participate are self-organizing. This means that, other than someone keeping an eye on the calendar, this is a very low maintenance initiative.
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, though; we learned some valuable lessons early on. Here are the most important that I’d like to share, so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did:
1) Spread the word!
Don’t assume that just because there is a calendar, that people will look at it. Our first few events were very poorly attended. We realized (too late) that many people had no idea these sessions were happening or how to attend.
2) Don’t whisper c-suite nothings in their ears
Don’t assume that everyone is interested in having the execs and senior leaders talking at them. Our best attended sessions to date have been the ones run by our non-management team members. They invite their friends and colleagues, they know exactly who is passionate about the topics they’re presenting on, and they generate barrier-free dialogue without being intimidated by the title of the person running the session.
3) Plug away shamelessly
A little self-promotion goes a long way. Anyone who hosts a session now writes a brief “why my session will kick ass” plug on Slack the day before their event with a link to the calendar invite. It generates much better attendance.
4) Parting is not such sweet sorrow
Saying goodbye is awkward—and there are no rules for etiquette in a virtual cafe. In your office, it’s totally normal to chat briefly with someone at the coffee machine and (usually) neither party feels awkward ending the chit chat, but in a virtual world where you don’t have to “run back to your desk,” hanging up can be awkward. The best thing you can do is embrace it—and be supportive if someone just jumps off a group conversation without an announcement that they are leaving (the virtual Irish Goodbye).
So far, the venue has been a success. We still have a lot we can do to make it amazing. For example, we are thinking about programmatic content, inviting external parties to do guest appearances, and an easier way to just “stop by for a drink.” And we are learning as we go. But, based on early results, it’s clear to me that our company wants to stay connected and that the SmartCafe is here to stay.
Now go ahead, plagiarize the ideas I’ve shared in this article, and invite your team to virtual happy hour.