There's not a lot of serendipity on remote teams. You don't run into coworkers in the hallway, will never chat casually in the break room, and can't say good morning as you walk past someone's desk. Every interaction is intentional: you, or the other person, need to reach out.
But reaching out to someone you don't know feels weird, so most people simply don't do it. That's a problem, and not only because coworkers can feel isolated from each other. It also means there's not a lot of spontaneous cross-pollination. That can limit the kinds of ideas that spread through a company, and can lead to different departments feeling like silos.
Which is why it's important to introduce some serendipity, strange as that may sound. You shouldn't build a company around chance encounters, but you also shouldn't ignore how valuable they can be. Here's how we balance things at Zapier—and how it's worked out for us.
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Randomly assigned conversation!
At Zapier, we've been fully remote for almost a decade, and we've never truly replaced the value of those chance encounters. That's part of why we do in-person retreats on a regular basis.
But we still try to make serendipitous, face-to-face interaction happen on a routine basis. We use a Slack app called Donut, which pairs everyone who signs up with a random coworker and helps schedule a video call. There are no rules to these conversations—people talk about where they live, their hobbies, or (if they want) work. These interactions don't replace the serendipity of an office, but they can go a long way.
Random conversations can lead to solutions
The topic of work is going to come up when you're talking with random coworkers, because it's the one thing you for sure have in common. In some cases, you might talk about a problem you're facing in a current project—occasionally that's how you'll even find the answer.
Scott Halgrim, an engineer for the Apps team at Zapier, experienced exactly that.
I was updating our Google Drive integration because Google was making some pretty drastic changes to their API. I pored over their documentation but still had some questions about a few things that felt ambiguous. I had a Donut call with [Zapier CPO] Jonathan Rochelle, mentioned it to him, and within a few days, we had a very productive Zoom call with the Google devs and PM.
The solution to Scott's problems existed—all it took was talking to the right person. Sometimes random conversations are what you need to drive that forward. Yes, you could ask around and find out who the right person to talk to is, but when you're knee-deep in a problem, you won't necessarily think to do that. Talking to other people—and getting out of your own head—helps. And if the person you talk to has the solution? Even better.
Random calls connect people who might otherwise never talk
Your work affects, and depends on, people outside your team—people you might not meet during your normal workflow. Deb Tennen, Managing Editor for the Zapier blog, happened to be paired with just such a person.
One of my first Donut calls at Zapier was with a product manager who happened to be starting on a project to redesign our Help page. We had a great conversation about content design, but more importantly, it ended up kicking off a longer-term working relationship. I helped his team better understand content needs; he helped me think about information architecture on our blog.
This chance encounter led to an ongoing work relationship that benefited both sides of the conversation.
Random conversation can also make a company feel less hierarchical. Most people never get to chat with the CEO at their company, but Zapier CEO Wade Foster makes it a point to be part of the Donut rotation. Mike Pirnat, Backend Engineer at Zapier, ended up pairing with him early on in his Zapier career.
I was kind of freaked out going into it, but, Wade being Wade, he managed to put me at ease quickly. We talked about books he was thinking about reading that I've always loved. Specifically: he'd been recommended Neuromancer, and Neil Gaiman, and wondered which Gaiman book he should start with.
As companies grow, it's easy for leadership to lose touch. A system like Donut helps leaders keep in touch—and everyone else to feel connected to leadership—even if you just end up talking about American Gods.
Want to get better at embracing the weird and just reaching out to people? Check out our guide to making small talk on a remote team.
Sometimes it's just nice to realize that you like the people you work with
I love text. I live in text. But it's really easy to forget how much I like my coworkers when I'm only ever talking to them using Slack. Andrew Hedges, Engineering Manager at Zapier, mentioned exactly this to me.
I've found that these random pairings reinforce my impression that Zaperoni are uniformly friendly, smart, interesting people. I enjoy working here more because of it!
Eliza Zheleva, Customer Champion at Zapier, said the same thing.
The Donut calls give me a chance to get to know people outside of my department, which creates a feeling of belonging and inclusion. Moreover: people here are super smart, very friendly, and we always find shared interests and have fun conversations.
Don't overlook the value of this point. If I've learned one thing in 2020, it's that humans need each other, a lot.
No workplace should attempt to fill that void: that's a path to terrible work-life balance, and it's important for remote workers to have a solid network of non-work friends. But that doesn't mean your team can't benefit from a little social interaction, which is why it's good to build systems that encourage it. Your entire team will benefit.
Want to be more intentional about your remote team building? We've got a list of fun virtual team activities, complete with tips for setting everything up.