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Mandatory fun — why does virtual socializing always feel like work?

In an ideal world, we would all have opportunities to establish strong social bonds with our coworkers—socializing builds trust, encourages transparency, and increases retention. But socializing in a virtual workplace is usually...terrible. Zoom games, awkward happy hours, and "parties" that feel like just another meeting. 

 

What are your feelings about virtual socializing?

  • Is it like medicine? It's good for us even if we don't always enjoy taking it? 
  • We need more practice. It will take us a while to figure out how to socialize virtually in a way that approximates IRL socializing. 
  • It just doesn't work. We need to get together in person a few times per yer. 

15 comments

Benjamin
Community Leader
Community Leader
Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
February 28, 2023

In my experience, virtual socializing is good to a certain extent if there isn't a way to meet up in IRL. The human element of meeting up and actually hanging out is far better experience in my opinion. Same as meeting up with love ones like family and friends. Better memories to be had when experiencing things together in real life. 

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Christine P. Dela Rosa
Atlassian Team
Atlassian Team members are employees working across the company in a wide variety of roles.
February 28, 2023

I have a meh attitude going in and an appreciate attitude going out

I'm a great example of someone who often dreads big group gatherings, whether in-person or virtual. My introversion really shows when I lose energy very early in these kinds of activities. But sometimes, social hangs with coworkers are made with people like me in mind--small group oriented, share-only-what-you-want level exchanges, etc. And when those times happen, I'm usually really thankful I attended because it just makes me feel good from doing something that makes me feel included with the I work with (and who I don't always hang with in this way).

One of my fav team events that didn't have to do with work

...was when everyone on the team had 7 minutes to share slides about anything they wanted--a little bio, a hobby they were passionate about, etc. I learned so much about who I worked with and I engaged at a level I was comfortable with.

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Nic Brough -Adaptavist-
Community Leader
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Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
February 28, 2023

This can get complicated.

Virtual social events definitely have a place, and can be very useful.

Adaptavist has had a "show and tell" hour every Friday for many years.  It wasn't always done when we were smaller, but I don't think we've missed one since Christmas 2019.  The rather superb Ryan Spilken has stepped up as a regular host, and they've become less S&T and more "let's just get the company together, talk about a few company events and then, well, just talk to each other".

Smaller groups of us also get together to do online socials - I've got yoga and coffee morning chats coming up this week (no idea if I'll make them, and I only join the yoga ones for the chat - I'm less flexible than a house-brick and old enough to regret any form of stretching very quickly.  Heck, it hurts to lie down, and my doctor just says it's because I'm old)

For me, in-real-life socialising is not that important for most of my social groups (work and not work), but it is very useful when you do get to do it, and it needs to happen occasionally.  I'm hoping to go to Team-23, for example, and if I do, I think that I'll spend a lot of time reinforcing those connections with other community leaders I know. 

Last December, Adaptavist did a "winter festival" in our main four locations, and I attended one.  It really helped build and rebuild those connections - I got to meet my new boss and team, I got to meet people I've been working with for years for the first time, and I got to reconnect with my old team.  All I got from the management was a fist-bump, a hug, a drink, and a 6 hour code-a-thon, but it still re-connected us better than a zoom call ever could.


But. Three things I've found about online.

  • The office for me is 90 minutes travel each way, and I never know who might be in that I might want to talk to.  Online means I know who is invited, and I automatically know where the kettle is (in my kitchen, 10 seconds away).
  • Stop making me travel.  I spent 25 years doing that every working day, and it's <naughty word>.  It's worse when I have to go to clients instead of the office (and my job is a lot more client focussed than a team).  I cut it back to once a fortnight-ish and don't regret that.  Covid-19 cut that to 2 years off completely, and it was not a bad thing.  I actually improved my relationships with my team during that time, and got to spend more time with customers.
  • Many people here in the Community have met me, and got the wrong impression.  No-one in the Community has ever described me as an introvert, but I am.  It's really hard work pretending not to be.  Things like ACEs and Teams are exhausting for introverts.  Most of us want to hide in a corner and code or game, people are too complex.  I struggle with understanding the cat, let alone the humans.  All she wants is a good warm sleeping place, the odd head-rub, and some kitty-crack (the dreamies snacks)

 I couldn't make Team-22 because I booked respite care for my mum before Adaptavist asked me to go (Dad has Alzheimer's, and mum needs days off).  But the online stuff meant it was easy to attend from their house, so I saw all of it. 

Team-23, if I can go, gives me mixed feelings - hate the travel, worried that I won't "people" properly, but looking forward to meeting new people, and definitely looking forward to seeing people I have met before (I'm naming no names, but there are a few Community leads who might want to run away before I hug them to death)

I also wanted to say that Adaptavist tried doing it in VR - we had several meetings which were, to be fair, very social, not organisational, and they worked surprisingly well.  We really did socialise and explore the environments we were given.   But they fail as soon as one member of the team does not have a VR option - when they can't experience what the others are seeing, it kind of falls apart, same as a meeting where one of you is not there and trying to talk over a speaker 'phone that isn't working very well.

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Andy Gladstone
Community Leader
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Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
February 28, 2023

I struggle with the forced-feel nature of social virtualization. Let me clarify, I struggle when the group that is socializing exceeds the count of two. Since the time of the Tower of Babel when the world was dispersed humans have always sought other humans for social connection. For thousands of years socialization=proximity. This is one of the reasons that schools evolved from mothers (and fathers) teaching their own children at home to large buildings and classrooms where children gather for hours to learn together - it is where social skills are learned and practiced, all in close proximity to one another. And that continues into adulthood. 

Why is it so easy to go out with a few friends for drinks or dinner and multiple conversations to take place at the same table, yet when we all join together on a Zoom call only one person at a time can speak, no matter how large the Zoom room is? When was the last time you spoke to someone in person and their lips moved but no sound came out? Why is that a daily occurrence in virtual meetings. How many conversations have you had where you knew the person you were speaking to was listening even if they were not staring you in the face the entire time? How often do you lose focus when meeting virtually if your attention is diverted from the screen?

Virtual socialization takes so much effort and energy and is the most form of synchronous socialization that exists. In a world where we strive for asynchronous meetings, meet-less meetings, etc. it astounds me that we have organizations forcing this most serial processing version of socialization. I do not think that we are conditioned to socialize virtually, and we shouldn't strive to get used to it or make it the norm. 

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Jaime Netzer
Atlassian Team
Atlassian Team members are employees working across the company in a wide variety of roles.
February 28, 2023

Maybe I really am that nerd, but I've found myself somewhat satisfied on two totally different sides of the spectrum virtually:

No structure at all:

Coffee chats. We had a team-wide thing going where you'd be paired up with someone and the only remit of the 30 min was not to talk about work. I am an extrovert and don't despise small talk, so not everyone would share this, I'm sure, but it always felt like a relief to have a work-sanctioned breather on my calendar.

Or like a lot of structure:

Structured, hosted trivia type games fill me with dread — and then I look up and 90 minutes have passed and I've gotten competitive and I've learned something new about at least one of my coworkers.

The truth is, of course, none of it is nearly as good as tipsily singing karaoke for hours w your coworkers, of course not. But without it, my only 'water cooler' moments are with my dog and while he's adorable he's not particularly articulate. I do really think you can build trust virtually by meeting someone's kid, by asking them more about the movie they caught this weekend. It's not the same, but work runs on trust and my favorite work relationships are those that are rooted in friendship. So I'd hate to lose that — I don't want my full 9-5 to be capital B Business No Fun Allowed.

Also, companies should always try to pay for folks to have food, even when apart. Free food is never a bad idea.

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Anne Saunders
Rising Star
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March 1, 2023

I fundamentally disagree with the premise - I think virtual socializing is nice. "As nice as in person" is an impossible call to make - the two things are apples and oranges.  

We're a small shop, probably the size of a lot of companies' departments or teams (~45 at last count) and we get together every week at a 30-45min virtual AHOD (All Hands On Deck) to see demos of project progress or new tools, hear HR and Ops notices, and then just chat. Sometimes it's very talkative and the meeting goes long; other times it's relatively quiet and we cut out a little early. 

I like the blend of starting with structure and then dissolving into chatter. It's true that extroverts are mostly talking while the introverts are mostly not, but at least in a virtual meeting the quieter colleagues can throw a comment, link, or animated gif into chat where everyone can see it and include them in the conversation. And just like in an in-person get together, plenty of us have little side conversations that branch off of the main discussion via Slack or text messages.

It's not the same, but it's still nice.

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Kristin Lyons
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March 6, 2023

I've always worked from home, so all my socializing with other employees is virtual - either through email or meetings.  I am not a huge fan of forced socialization - I do like some ice breakers if they're ones I haven't done a million times.  I like the ones that allow us to break out into discussion naturally without it feeling too forced.  That said, there also needs to be time set aside for that, and I find that those things are best done early in the morning before we're ready to dive into our work for the day!

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Laura Campbell _Seibert Media_
Community Leader
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March 15, 2023

The "meh going in, appreciative coming out" comment from @Christine P. Dela Rosa

really resonates with me when it's unstructured events.

My company (about 30 people) has done some remote trivia games, but the ones I remember the most were when we had to do something individually but in a collaborative space. We did a shared drawing (always hilarious), the Trello Gif ice breaker activity, and another one where we had filled in a board just with images or icons to illustrate things we liked or disliked, and then we had fun trying to figure out what everyone was trying to communicate. The last one we did with happy hour packages that were delivered to everyone's house, which was cool for everyone to hold up their drink and chips we were remotely sharing.

And I'm realizing that the ones that I enjoyed the most were hosted by our Scrum master, so I think it definitely helps to have someone facilitate who is experienced in leading people in an activity.

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Trina Banerjee March 27, 2023

In my opinion, Virtual socializing can create an energized and positive work environment while we practice social distancing. These regular meetings outside the official work communication are crucial to maintain team cohesion and foster social well-being. Over a period of time, virtual socializing becomes a fun and strengthens team spirit especially if team is working from different locations.

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Summer_Hogan
Community Leader
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March 30, 2023

I feel as though virtual socializing has worked for me. Some people are shy no matter what and do not want to socialize, but most are open to it. I can call up some of my colleagues and we can chat for hours. I think you have to make it less like work and make it more fun. Find people you share a common interest with or someone you can share your knowledge with to make it more interesting. 

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Paul Wiggers
Community Leader
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April 6, 2023

For me, virtual socializing can never replace in-person socializing. Yes, I do like the occasional coffee chat, but only because it is small and structured. All of the people attending are there because the theme of the chat was interesting to them, and we allow people the time to chime in on the topic.

When you want to mimic a social event, virtual just doesn't work. The big advantage of in-person events is that it is possible to entertain several discussions at once and people can move from group to group or chime in on something they hear in the background chatter. This is not possible in a virtual environment where people need to wait until the speaker is finished. This makes conversations forced.

Also, we need to be close to people to get to know them. You need the "feel" their energy and experience their non-verbal communication to find out if you can build a connection with that person. That is something that cannot be achieved when having virtual meetings.

The job at my previous employer was mainly during Covid. We didn't have strong connections within the team to start with but having to go virtual and suffering through virtual social events didn't improve things at all. 

So, in short, virtual meetings are great when they have a common goal but they can never replace social events when it comes to relationship building.

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Bill Sheboy
Rising Star
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April 7, 2023

I find this an interesting topic, and want to thank all for sharing their views and perspectives.  Lots of good info on ideas and experiences!

Early in the pandemic / remote working, I noted attempts to force social interaction into remote working practices.  These attempted to replace just-in-time things, like in-person chatting at the coffee machine, and scheduled events like team lunches, retirement / holiday parties, etc.  Lots of teams tried this, at different scales, and with different themes: coffee-talk, bingo and other games, holiday-related dress-up events, "remote lunches", etc.

These attempts made more visible a couple of things many already knew:

  • lots of people in knowledge work are introverts, and
  • lots of "teams" are just "groups of people", with low trust and little alignment of purpose.

While many people could manage a quick chat at the coffee machine or a team lunch, a scheduled calendar event did, indeed, become just more work to them...just another "meeting".  People would start to rationalize not attending a virtual-social event or start talking "work" during the gathering.  Not all fell into these conditions, yet enough did to stop their gatherings.

An alternative might be...

One of the teams I support is currently experimenting with mob programming...remotely.  Mobbing is already an intense activity, and more so with remote work, where distraction can lead to chaos and asks everyone to be more vulnerable and open, which can initially lead to defensive behaviors.  Mobbing also breaks down silos, increases empathy, and improves trust.  (And a bunch of technical benefits too :^)

As with mobbing in person, the act of an entire team working together continuously requires a high degree of social interaction.  We found this experiment has eliminated the need for scheduled "coffee time" meetings.  It has dramatically improved collaboration, trust, and created more effective communication.  People spontaneously and often offer kudos and ask for help, and constructively speak their mind when in disagreement.  Several have stated mobbing is like they were working together in person again.

Has anyone else tried mobbing (not just for the technical benefits) and also for the social interaction ones?

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Dan Breyen
Rising Star
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April 14, 2023

We tried a virtual Happy Hour at a previous employer.  After the novelty wore off, many people just stopped coming.

Collista Lewingdon
Community Leader
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April 18, 2023

I hated and still hate virtual events for work. It really feels very disconnected and I think makes it harder to read people . That being said, I also hate virtual events for socializing outside of work. I guess I just like people. :)

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Markku Miettunen April 20, 2023

Well, we all tried virtual interactions during the Covid-19 pandemic - I really do not miss virtual coffee breaks :)

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