Counting Penguins — How to foster relationships on a remote team.

“Great teams consist of individuals who have learned to trust each other.”

— Amy Edmondson

An extra 16 million Americans have learned a whole new skill. They learned to work at a distance. Five days a week.

For all its pain, COVID-19 accelerated an experiment years in the making. Sudden necessity has driven us to embrace a world of webcams and Zoom calls.

This brings the total number of remote employees in the U.S. to more than 30 million. Many will continue working from home¹ as pandemic response shifts to permanent routine. A recent Gartner survey confirmed the scope of this shift. 82% of leaders intend to continue remote working, for at least some of the time. Half said remote working would continue full time.²

Remote work is happening.

We can do it, but are we ready?

Working from home meets with the approval of employees. 86% report they’re satisfied.³ Only 1 in 5 are eager to return to the office. Ever.

Sadly though, many of those remote workers are reporting loneliness, anxiety, and depression.⁴ This is counter to their stated enthusiasm for remote working.

This appears contradictory. We endorse remote working, yet feel lonely as a result. We report job satisfaction⁵, yet now fear for our jobs⁶. And we haven't solved the productivity equation⁷. Some businesses and functions report increased productivity. Others report a drop.

Technology allows us to tackle tasks remotely. We can productively get the job done. Ironically, technology struggles to keep up with the social glue that holds a team together.¹⁴

The social glue of the workplace is stubbornly hard to replace.

That social glue helps onboard new team members. It creates channels that communicate mission, vision, and goals. It helps us upskill talent, to learn, and to build new business capabilities.

Remote work, for its many advantages, makes all this harder, or at least, different.

Work is fundamentally social.

You’re part of a team. You connect with colleagues. You drop by for a chat. ‘Water-cooler’ interactions underpin the social life of work. They build trust within the team and allow spontaneity and innovation. Employees with social contact at work have higher levels of productivity¹⁵. Without water-cooler moments, many of us feel the negative impacts of remote work. We lose our temper more often, feel isolated, and more anxious, irritable, or depressed.

This is a leadership problem. Lonely workers perform worse, quit more often¹⁶, and feel less satisfied with their jobs. Isolation depresses creativity¹⁷

and collaboration. And leaders are struggling with this challenge.

Part of that challenge is structural. Tami Erwin, the CEO of Verizon Business, put it, “The question is, what is the right balance between onsite and remote working models? And if teams move to work from home, can they do so effectively? It’s not just about enabling employees with technology. It’s also about their overall work environment, health and safety, building a sense of teamwork, and much more.”¹⁸

How can we replace the watercooler?

To win the full potential of remote work, we need to solve the problem of isolation.

We tried. At the start of the pandemic, we embraced Zoom happy hours and team birthdays. We had coffee mornings on Hangouts. And they’re not working.¹⁹

No one wants to watch you eat lunch over Webex. In an office, social encounters in the workplace are usually organic. They’re multi-purpose, even if that purpose is to get a glass of water. We’re doing something and meet-up with others along the way.

Maybe that’s why this ersatz social feels so… artificial.

Volunteering could be the answer.

How do you replace the watercooler? One answer may be volunteering.

Sara Link runs the volunteer platform that enables Citizen Verizon. This is Verizon’s commitment of 2.5M volunteer hours by 2025. She describes “service as a leadership tool.”

“When I think about some of the most transformative experiences of my career, my volunteer experiences immediately come to mind.” Link continued, “The opportunity to make a real difference gives people a deeper sense of purpose and creates a stronger connection to their colleagues, communities, and company’s mission.”

The science of volunteering.

When we volunteer, we feel good. We really do feel good.²⁰ It makes us resilient. Our bodies pump reward chemicals into our brains. It makes volunteering addictive. At the same time, our levels of the stress hormone cortisol reduce.²¹

Volunteering connects us to a wider purpose — a purpose that’s outside of ourselves. When we volunteer with our team, we share a higher purpose. That builds social relationships and trust.

The science of trust.

Trust is the lubricant that keeps the engine of your team humming. It creates a zone of psychological safety. This lets people feel included, valued, and respected.

Organizational psychologist Christina Breuer discovered strong links between trust, team attitude, and performance.²² With her colleagues Joachim Hüffmeier and Guido Hertel, she saw how virtual teams broke down. As social interaction decreased, team norms crumbled. Conflict increased. Team members didn’t understand how to best work with each other. They had a more challenging time understanding context.

In an office, our watercooler moments create a critical information back-channel. They are where team members socialize, learn, and share information.

How can you put back the back-channel?

Leaders have to open this back-channel, and volunteering provides the perfect space. It creates a sense of purpose, a virtual water cooler. A space where team members can come together, socialize, and contribute.

The challenge is to find something that works remotely, fitting busy schedules.

Try Googling for virtual volunteering opportunities. We tried Counting Penguins. Penguin Watch is a part of the Zooniverse virtual volunteer portal. It offers purposeful activity that at the same time, leaves team members with the mental bandwidth to interact, and share, and talk. You’re looking for a volunteer opportunity that can be shared, that you can do at your (home) desk, and that allows room for conversation.

Examples of volunteer opportunities.

  • Virtual Volunteer Opportunities Explore hundreds of virtual volunteer opportunities in cause areas like health and medicine, education, and community building

  • Zooniverse Participate in research of all kinds, from classifying galaxies to counting penguins to transcribing manuscripts.

  • MapSwipe Help humanitarians find and help vulnerable people.

  • Smithsonian Digital Volunteer program Become a Smithsonian Digital Volunteer and help us make historical documents and biodiversity data more accessible.

Let’s Count Penguins.

Step 1.

Schedule 25 minutes or 50 minutes on your calendar by phone, with a colleague or two. Note: time, scheduling, and by phone are essential.

It has to be more than twenty minutes. Twenty minutes is a minimum time that works for focused work. Don’t schedule a full hour. Allow yourself time to break away early to get mentally ready for your next task.

Scheduling legitimizes the task. You don’t want to be subvert or opaque about this. It also lets colleagues know you’re not interruptible.

Make it a phone call, not a Zoom call.²³ We want to get you chatting with your colleagues while working on a task.

Step 2.

Select a volunteer activity. A couple of notes here. Whatever you choose has to be relatively straightforward. You and your colleagues will have to walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time. Counting penguins is an excellent choice. It’s the kind of task where you can devote part of your brain to the counting and part for the conversation.

Step 3.

At Login, count, (or whatever task you’ve chosen), and chat. Note - this should be an agendaless conversation. It’s chit-chat you want.

Step 4.

Book another time, with another colleague, and repeat.

Bring back the watercooler.

We’ve cracked the code of keeping teams working by remote. We now need to crack the code of keeping them trusting by remote as well.

Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, put it succinctly: “There’s no team without trust.”²⁴

We have to learn new habits and new norms to make remote work, work. Leaders have to understand the role of trust. Trust needs social. It’s time to bring back the watercooler.

Let’s count penguins!