How to Socialize in a Brave New Remote World

🚀 Maintaining personal and professional relationships - Issue #203

Millions of people around the world have been working at home for most of this year. More companies are joining the ranks of those who have decided to let their employees work remotely until next year, perhaps forever.

Corporations are closing down campuses, leaving office spaces, stopping commercial real estate deals and leases, and even selling off properties. REI is abandoning an 8-acre campus headquarters in Washington. Pinterest is burning $90M to cancel a lease in San Francisco.

I think a few of us knew that this “remote work thing” wasn’t going away anytime soon. I’m a cohost of The Brave New Workforce podcast, and we are predicting that this year has been the tipping point. More companies will have remote workforces of globally distributed, geographically-unrestricted teams forever.

  • It makes great financial sense. Corporate campuses are unbelievably expensive!

  • It gives you access to the best talent from around the world, once you no longer restrict your search to local candidates or require relocation.

  • It levels the playing field and eliminates the home office competitive advantage that many remote employees have experienced all too often (e.g., they receive fewer promotions than the folks sitting in the “center of power”).

  • It enables a better quality of life when you eliminate long commutes, can reduce the cost of living expenses, and have more time with friends and family.

I would guess that many of you reading this might be working at home right now. Even students of all ages are schooling at home.

However, working at home does come with some adverse side effects, especially for extroverts who miss the buzz of the office and spending time around coworkers all day. Even introverts are discovering that it makes it much harder to form and maintain relationships with people beyond your close inner circle.

Your inner circle is a wonderful thing to have, of course. This group of trusted people should be your confidants and advisors for the rest of your career and life.

However, you do need to expand beyond this tiny circle if you want to build a more extensive, powerful network that brings you new opportunities. How do you do that?

Well, traditionally, it has been through in-person activities (e.g., coffee meetings, lunches, cocktail parties, meetups, conferences, workshops, and other traditional networking events). But, these are no longer an option for many of us.

I’ve heard questions like this from my broader community:

  • How do I network now without the usual venues?

  • How do I replicate the office “water cooler effect” that can improve team cohesion and collaboration?

  • How do I maintain a strong company culture if we don’t physically spend time together?

  • What is everyone doing to deal with the loneliness and isolation?

The good news is that several companies have been collaborating remotely for a very long time and making it work (e.g., Automattic, Basecamp, Balsamiq). So, it is possible!

I spent decades working with teams scattered all over the world. I was based in Silicon Valley, but many of my colleagues and employees were living in other cities and countries (e.g., NYC, Seattle, Chicago, the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan, and India).

We made it work.

But, if you’re new to this and suffering from the isolation and some loneliness right now, my words probably provide small comfort. I know that you want a solution that you can put into action right now.

Here are some recommendations that I hope will help you. I’ve been testing and implementing all kinds of solutions over the past few years of running my community and working with remote clients.


Frequency, intensity, and connection

One way to think about how you want to connect and reconnect with people is to map out a matrix of frequency and medium of communication. Some forms of communication (e.g., video chat) are much more intimate than others (e.g., email). You will also want to engage with some people more than others.

I have friends and family all over the world. I don’t get to see people very frequently when they live far away. With the pandemic, I haven’t even been able to see my local friends like I used to (e.g., meeting at a coffee shop).

So, my social interaction in this brave new remote world consists of sending texts, messages, and memes throughout the day. It’s a quick and lightweight way to stay connected, let someone know that you are thinking of them, and put a smile on someone’s face. These messages literally only take a few seconds, but it keeps the relationships active.

Other relationships fall into different points within the matrix. My current clients and my active career community require higher-levels of engagement and a more intimate connection. For example, we talk in Slack (real-time and asynchronously), have daily email exchanges, and schedule time for video chats.

Engaging with my broader professional network is a somewhat lower demand on my time. We communicate less frequently and often through less intimate channels (e.g., email or sending a message on LinkedIn).

Similarly, my broader social network requires less frequent and intense communication. You can’t engage in a personal video chat with hundreds or thousands of people every day, nor should you. Instead, we message each other occasionally or comment on each other’s posts on social media.

Think about your personal and professional goals for your friends, family, and professional network. Create a schedule of communication that is appropriate for the depth of connection and relationship that you need to maintain.

One of your goals may be to reduce your own sense of isolation and loneliness. How can you best do that? Who do you want to connect with more frequently?

You have to make time and schedule that now intentionally. You’re not likely to just “bump into people” as you did before when you were working in an office and spending more time out and about.


Networking and socializing 1-on-1 and in small groups

The pandemic has disrupted traditional networking, but I never enjoyed the large group networking experiences anyway. It’s not great for an introvert. I’ve always been better with more intimate one-on-one discussions over coffee.

I would also rather have a chat with a small group of close friends or colleagues than try to get a word in edgewise in a massive group of people. This brave new remote world lends itself better to that model.

Every day, I connect with my clients, business partners, and friends 1-on-1. I also chat with people from my broader professional network and even strangers. That’s what happens when you’re active on social media, especially Twitter, and provide an easy way for people to schedule a complimentary coaching call with you.

As I’ve suggested before, you can intentionally schedule coffee chats and meetings to catch up with select individuals from your professional network.

  • Build a list of relevant people from your network (export your LinkedIn data, including your connections).

  • Create a spreadsheet using this list as the starting point for a simple relationship management tool.

  • Set up video chats or phone calls with the subset of folks with whom you want to reconnect.

  • Schedule a little dedicated time each week to catch up with people to socialize, network, or discuss opportunities. I’m always glad that I did!

I spend an incredible amount of time in text-based messaging services every day. But, I find that the best way to connect with someone more deeply is through video or audio chat. You can’t replace the sound of someone’s voice or seeing the expressions on their faces.

As I said, you will need to deliberately schedule meetings to catch up with people now vs. running into them when you’re grabbing lunch. You should also set up small group video chats for fun and networking. I mostly use Zoom and Whereby for this.

I’ve been hosting these events for the past few months, and they can be a lot of fun (e.g., a Friday night virtual cocktail party). There are a couple of services that I’ve been using lately. They do an excellent job of recreating the value of the water cooler effect and more intimate networking meetups.

LunchClub

LunchClub is genuinely a professional networking service. It’s focused on connecting people with mutual relevance to meet one another via video chat.

You start by providing your background, goals, and interests (e.g., mentoring, meeting interesting people, business development, finding a cofounder). Each week, you decide if you want to make a new connection and select the times you are available. Then, Lunchclub’s AI matches you with someone for a 1-on-1 video meeting.

Some of my friends love it and have already had dozens of interesting meetings with smart people, startup founders, tech leaders, and investors. I’ve opened my calendar to a couple of matches every week, and it’s been delightful so far.

Icebreaker

I recently tested a new service called Icebreaker with my community. I scheduled a meetup event and selected some conversational games from their set of templates.

Some examples:

  • As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

  • What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on now?

  • What’s one of your biggest challenges?

  • What’s stressing you out this week?

  • What’s one way we could help each other?

We met using the service for a real-time group chat, and there’s a stage where up to 8 of you can video chat as well. But, the real experience starts when you are randomly paired for 1-on-1 conversations using the icebreaker questions and topics.

It’s a lot of fun, and you get to know people a lot better than you would in a group setting. Everyone gets a chance to talk!


Find communities

Another way to expand your social circle — professional and personal — is to join relevant communities. These can be groups that map to your individual interests and hobbies (e.g., a book club). But, they can also be professional groups that will provide networking value for your career or business.

Some of the most popular resources for finding a community:

  • Discord - While Discord was initially created for gamers, it has expanded into many other types of communities and social purposes. You can explore the public servers and find something that matches your interests (e.g., writing, music, entertainment, tech, science, gaming). You can also get invited to one of the private servers if you know someone who runs it.

  • Slack - I use Slack for my career community, so let me know if you’d like an invitation. But, you can also find lists of teams/communities published online (e.g., this Airtable base, Standuply’s list of 2000 teams, Slofile’s public Slack community database).

  • Facebook Groups - I also use Facebook for a couple of my groups (Brilliant Forge and Invincible Career). Love it or hate it, it is true that Facebook has millions of groups, so it is pretty easy to find one that matches one of your interests.

  • LinkedIn Groups - Some people have had good luck with groups on LinkedIn. I haven’t been that impressed (e.g., the ones I joined seemed spammy), but perhaps I should give it another chance. Have you tried them?


Create a community

I used to be a part of the Design/UX community when I was a designer and Design Leader. I attended meetups, spoke at conferences, and participated in online discussions.

However, when I moved more into the Product world, I drifted away from the UX community. Strangely enough, there didn’t seem to an equivalent Product community. So, I often felt a bit alone and isolated as a Product leader.

Now, as a solopreneur, I feel even more alone and isolated. I tried a few entrepreneurial communities and groups focused on startup founders. But, they didn’t quite fit who I am, what my business is, and it left me frustrated.

Finally, I said, “Well, if the perfect community doesn’t exist, I will create one.” So, I did.

I launched my Slack community over three years ago and have carefully curated the membership. It’s full of people who are ambitious about their careers and seeking professional development challenges, opportunities, and support.

We don’t allow jerks to enter the community (we’ve had to kick a few people out). Everyone is friendly, helpful, and supportive. We push each other to grow and achieve our goals, celebrate each other’s successes, and we commiserate when someone experiences a failure.

So, if you can’t find what you are looking for, create your own community. There are many options available and pros and cons of each. Some solutions are free, but some do require a monthly subscription fee to use the service.

I know that asking, “What is the best community software solution?” is asking for trouble. People have strong opinions and love/hate relationships with each of these. But, here are some options to consider:

  • Slack Team (basic version is free) - I have been using Slack for over six years now. It’s still the primary home for my career community. I do get frustrated by the limitations (e.g., I have 52,000 older messages hidden behind the subscription wall), and it’s way too expensive to upgrade to the paid version for my community.

  • Mighty Networks (basic version is free) - I’ve been spinning up a mastermind community here as a backup to Slack (never put all of your eggs in one basket). I like the integration of mastermind groups, courses, etc., which Slack doesn’t support well. The paid version is also a lot more affordable than Slack for my community.

  • Facebook Group (free) - Almost everyone uses Facebook or knows how to use it. So, that’s the appeal of having your community hosted there. The downsides are that people will always be distracted by their own feed, and Facebook can decide to shut your community down at any time. I don’t like leaving my fate in their hands.

  • LinkedIn Group (free) - If you want to create a professional community for networking, then LinkedIn is the obvious choice. It’s not as feature-rich as some of the other platforms. But, the simplicity might be precisely what you need.

  • Discord (basic version is free) - I’ve played around with Discord before, but I think I need to give it another serious look for my community. People love it, and it has over 100M monthly active users. I can see the appeal (e.g., I love the voice chat), and it makes a great alternative to Slack.

  • Microsoft Teams (basic version is free) - I’ve played with Teams, but haven’t really committed to using it with my community. It seems suited better for collaborating with coworkers and project-based work than a more social gathering.

One of the most significant decisions that you’ll need to make is how you handle membership. Do you want a public community that anyone can find and join? Or would you prefer a private community that is invite-only? Do you want your community to be unlisted or discoverable?

These choices may determine how quickly your community grows and how large it becomes. It will also impact the culture and behavior within your community. I’m sure you’ve experienced some of the negatives of public groups where people attack each other, spam the group, and generally degrade the quality.

You should clearly define the rules of the community, standards of conduct, and the consequences of violating the rules. I’ve had to remove a few people from my communities to ensure that they remained safe and positive places for people to connect and socialize.


Take control of your socializing and networking

With so many people working at home and staying home more often, we can no longer expect that relationships will “just happen” or be maintained without intentional effort. We have to take control and use available online tools to connect with others.

It’s easy to become isolated when you work at home. I know how lonely it can be, especially since I’ve been living and working this way for many years.

However, it can be transformed into an opportunity to meet new people you would never have encountered in your local daily life. This brave new remote world can globally expand your social circle and professional network if you take advantage of it.

  1. Schedule regular appointments to connect more deeply with people 1-on-1 and in small groups.

  2. Find communities that you can join that will give you opportunities for personal socialization and professional networking.

  3. Create your own community if you can’t find what you need. Take control and make it happen!


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