How Remote Workers Can Think Beyond the Water Cooler

 One of the worst things about office work is also one of the best: You’re constantly interacting with your colleagues. Those interactions can be distracting, time-consuming, and frustrating ー especially if you’re deep in thought when someone pops their head into your office or interrupts your reverie as you’re pouring a cup of coffee in the kitchen. But they also ensure you stay connected to your co-workers, keep you at least vaguely aware of what they’re each working on, and help prevent life from getting lonely or dull.

Work from home, and you experience the reverse boon and bane. Finally, you can enjoy vast expanses of uninterrupted work time, particularly once you figure out how to organize your schedule and avoid unnecessary meetings. But gosh, can it ever be isolating!

That’s why it’s important to have a home water cooler strategy: a game plan for injecting a little social interaction into the days you work from home. All of this becomes much easier when we’re not mid-pandemic, but even if you live somewhere that’s still under strict lockdown, you can find ways to build more social interaction into your life, even virtually. Here are the questions you need to ask in order to figure out how to meet your social needs as a remote worker.

Why do I want more social interaction?

Yes, human beings are social animals — but getting clear on why you want more interaction will help you clarify how to build it into your calendar. Do you just need more companionship or a break from your family and roommates? Interactions with people who will inspire you with fresh thinking and motivation? Stronger relationships and trust with your direct co-workers? How you answer these questions should inform your overall game plan.

How much interaction do I need?

Some people need quite a lot of interaction in order to feel happy and connected; others are fine with one or two dates a week. Experiment with “satisficing” (trying for the bare minimum of interaction you need to stay sane) as well as packing your calendar (scheduling social interactions every day, or multiple times a day, even if virtually). Track your mood and productivity until you figure out the volume of interaction that keeps you in your happy place.

What kind of interaction do I need?

If you just need to feel less isolated, your social needs may be satisfied by very brief and casual interactions, like a conversation with fellow dog-walkers or the people you run into at a coffee shop. If you’re missing deep, intimate, or intellectual conversation, you will need to make dates or build relationships with people you connect with at that deeper level. And if you miss group sociability — the kind of conversation or fun you can have when the whole gang meets up for a brainstorming session or goes out for after-work drinks — explore classes or group activities that will scratch that itch.

How much of my social interaction needs to be with my colleagues?

While many of us miss the sociability of the workplace, there’s no reason that water-cooler time needs to be with the same people you saw during your days as an office worker. So figure out how much of your social time needs to be spent (virtually or in-person) with co-workers: Presumably, enough to sustain strong working relationships, a measure of trust, and an understanding of one another’s current role and responsibilities. Beyond that, you can choose how much of your social needs to fill with co-worker interactions, and how much to fill with time you spend with other friends, family, or professional acquaintances.

How much of my social interaction needs to be face-to-face?

There’s nothing like socializing in person, but even outside of a pandemic, it can be logistically complicated and time-consuming to do all your socializing offline and face-to-face. Experiment with phone dates, video calls, and extended text exchanges to see whether those help you feel connected to your friends or colleagues; see whether you feel replenished by participating in Facebook groups, audio social networks like Clubhouse and Discord, or video networks like House Party.

What are my best social windows?

For some people, a mid-day social break (like a walk or a lunch date) provides an energy boost that refuels them for the rest of the workday. For others, an end-of-day social date acts as a reward or motivation for the day’s work, and a way of separating work time from personal time.

What are my social bottlenecks?

If you don’t have enough social interaction in your remote working life, think about what keeps you from seeing other human beings. Are you so tired by the end of the workday that you can’t face going out or even getting on the phone? Try building a social break into the middle of your day. Do you love talking with people, but hate the scheduling process? Book standing weekly or monthly dates with the people you want to see/hear more of, or use a calendaring tool like Calendly and ask people to book themselves into your schedule. (My co-author Robert C. Pozen and I cover some of these tools in the chapter of our book, Remote, Inc, that helps you set up your time management dashboard.)

There’s no question that the beauty of a traditional workplace, with its built-in social interactions, is that you don’t have to ask or answer questions like these; with absolutely zero forethought, you can count on a certain amount of social interaction filling up each and every day. While remote work asks for more — you really will need to think through these questions, and make a deliberate plan, in order to meet your social needs — it also offers more in return. Instead of social life that arises by happenstance, you can develop a set of relationships, activities, and interactions that you find truly fulfilling and satisfying.

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