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When Remote Work Leads to Isolation

Remote
Collaboration

17 December, 2020

Mei Lazell
Mei Lazell

Engineering Manager at Coinbase

Mei Lazell, Engineering Manager at Coinbase, questions to what extent remote work leads to isolation and how increased collaboration can help solve that.

Problem

This has been a year of unprecedented challenges. The Covid-19 pandemics unexpectedly changed our lives and brought stress and anxiety affecting many while the latest raging fires across California also added to the unease. People working remotely were increasingly starting to feel isolated as they would work alone and have limited interaction with other people as compared to working in the office. I wanted people on my team to be happy regardless of the unfavorable circumstances, and continue to be engaged and productive.

Actions taken

To be able to introduce any new socializing activity, I would include it in project planning and resource allocation. For example, I would have at least two people assigned to the same project to encourage collaboration and allow for ideas to bounce back. I would try to build a human interaction around the actual work to prevent the creation of silos that massively emerged with remote work.

Also, from the company perspective, isolation doesn’t only psychologically impact individuals and affects their engagement, but it also impacts how knowledge is spread out across the company. We want knowledge to be more dispersed and distributed across teams and people so that we could avoid a single point of failure. Also, it sounds tautological but people are producing better results when they collaborate more. Remote work not only leads to isolation but impedes collaboration that now has to be founded on new tools and channels of communication.

Being concerned that isolation could affect engagement I decided to introduce more socializing activities. While we created async engagement activities including slack trivia questions, snapshot virtual breakers, we have also maintained the budget for team happy hour, boba time etc. The budgeted activities allowed me to be more creative and pick activities that our employees would find most engaging. I would send out surveys to my employees to check what would be the activities that would increase collaboration. They unequivocally stated that they wanted more fun events and I made sure to include those.

Lessons learned

  • Remote work brought many benefits, but also some risks. One of the most serious risks is that people started to feel more isolated as they work from home. That didn’t come as a surprise since it is hard to replicate the socializing and collaborative potential of a shared (physical) space.
  • Resisting the pervasive feeling of isolation was particularly hard for people who joined our team during the Covid-19 when we had already transitioned to remote work.
  • It takes an intentional effort on the personal level to break down isolation and be more collaborative. Without casual chats and over-the-shoulder feedback, one has to dedicate time and put deliberate effort into creating an environment where collaboration thrives.

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