Without personal connections, “it’s just a job, it’s just a list of tasks, there’s no loyalty to the company,” says Chris Collins, an assistant professor at Cornell, who runs a research center for HR studies. He compares isolated employees to gig workers, who may do the same tasks for different companies. People can still feel productive, even content, working by themselves. But when work feels transactional, it’s very easy to trade one laptop for another. “It’s not surprising that turnover is so high.”
Can Tech Help?
At its essence, workplace culture is defined by shared norms and routines. Something as simple as providing free coffee can create an office routine for employees to meet each other or socialize. At their best, those small interactions open the door to friendships or collaboration. Even when they don’t, they give people a sense that they belong to a larger group.
Remote work challenges these routines and office norms—when people come in, when they leave, what they wear, and whom they interact with. The flexibility to work on your own time, and in sweatpants if you choose, is one of the great advantages of remote work. But it can also leave employees feeling detached, unsure when it’s appropriate to ping a coworker or how to start a conversation about something that’s not work-related. Since remote work doesn’t seem to be going away, there are people trying to solve this problem—and make money off of it.
One such company, Cleary, makes a “digital lobby” where people can ask questions, post announcements, and congratulate each other on workplace wins. It works kind of like a Facebook feed, personalizing updates to each employee. “When you have 50 people, but they’re in 50 different home offices, you actually have bigger communication challenges than you do in a 300-person company where everyone’s in one location,” says Thomas Kunjappu, the company’s cofounder. It also offers a place for employees to share personal information about themselves, and icebreaker prompts that can be used before meetings.
Another “virtual office” platform, called Tandem, encourages employees to share updates throughout the day, so coworkers can see when they’re available for a chat, when they’re out walking the dog, or when they’re head-down in work. Employees are meant to volunteer their statuses, but Tandem also integrates with platforms like Asana and Google Docs, so colleagues can automatically see what someone is doing at the moment. Like Slack, Tandem is designed for getting people to talk to each other more often during work. But unlike Slack, it’s designed to show when people are truly available—not just when they’re online.
A promotional video for Tandem recites the common complaints of distributed work. “In the office, you can just look over and say, ‘Hey, quick question,’ and get an answer,” says one woman, perched on her bed with her laptop. “But when you’re remote, it’s like—oh, that’s right, I’m completely alone.” The implication is that a software product can make people feel more together.
Yet another startup, Donut, aims to “create human connection between people at work.” Donut integrates with Slack to add new ways for remote workers to socialize, including a cheeky water-cooler channel where people who don’t know each other can bond over conversational prompts. (Example: “What’s your favorite form of potato?”) While other software tools are focused on strengthening the bonds between people who already work together, Donut is designed for people who don’t. There are fewer reasons to approach a coworker in a different department, and it’s more awkward to do so virtually. In the #donut channel on Slack, the Donut bot randomly pairs coworkers and sets them up for a virtual chat.