Just over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many throughout the world have begun to consider a permanent work-from-home arrangement. We wanted to share what works for our teams because, as a distributed company, Jetpack has always been mindful of ways to stay connected despite fairly substantial differences in physical locations. You might think that nearly four years of practice with this kind of work arrangement gave us an advantage when COVID-19 forced everyone to distance. That’s partially true.
Most of us, for example, already had our at-home work spaces ready to go. In August, we wrote about what we had already learned from years of working this way. We discussed creating the ideal environment, helpful tools and equipment, how to deal with distractions and optimize scheduling, the challenges of working with kids at home, and how to pay proper attention to physical and mental health.
What we found was that the following five things made the greatest impact for the majority of Jetpack employees:
- Using physical items to distinguish your workspace. This helps you get in the right mindset and separate work from personal life — even if there’s not a specific room just for work.
- Creating boundaries and consciously taking steps to minimize distractions.
- Setting expectations for your personal behavior and goals as well as those of the people around you.
- Using fun and unique things (like stuffed animals, cool lighting, or ambient noise) to create a comfortable work environment and the latest equipment to help you accomplish tasks more efficiently.
- Understanding that there will be ups and downs, but being intentional about respecting physical and mental health needs.
But though our team had lots of experience with this distributed setup, we’d also become accustomed to leaning on things like in-person team building events, conferences, and the company-wide Grand Meetup for chances to grow relationships, hone our skills, and develop new ideas. With those opportunities on pause, we had to get creative — just like people all over the world. Here are some of the ways we’re staying connected:
In-person events are beneficial not just because of the main, scheduled sessions, but also due to unplanned casual conversations with colleagues in the hallways or during dinner. Steve Seear, a Code Wrangler at Jetpack, finds the regular, “What did you do this weekend?” post on P2, our internal collaboration platform, to be refreshing. This mimics the kind of small talk you might have at a real meetup. And the posts help us learn more about each other, grow in common interests, and feel more relaxed together throughout the week. It’s a great opportunity to live vicariously through others’ adventures while quarantining at home.
This idea was shared by William Viana who said, “I’m starting this weekly recurring post asking you this simple question: what did you do this weekend? It’s totally optional and you can share whatever you feel comfortable sharing. It could be a fun activity that you’ve enjoyed over the weekend, a book that you’re reading, a game that you’re playing, an interesting post you’ve read, etc.”
He started by sharing a homemade meal he cooked and pictures and stories of his family in their backyard pool. Throughout the history of the post, people have shared things like:
- Getting a Ring Fit to improve their exercise frequency
- Enjoying a scooter ride around Paris
- Trying to go at least 24 hours without a phone (harder than you’d think!)
- Sticking to nap schedules
- Taking walks with family
- Adventuring on snowy days
- Reviving herb gardens
- Celebrating Guy Fawkes night
- Playing instruments and writing
- …and a lot of posts about Hades
Andrei Dinu from the Jetpack Design team shared some thoughts on how he stays connected:
- “Share personal stories and facts. The daily Geekbot (a “stand up” style meeting where everyone connects briefly) is helpful for this. But just in general, I recommend opening up and sharing your story as much as possible. Even though I’ve never met them in person, I feel like I’m connected with my team on a personal level. It helps a lot!
- Meet up remotely. We already had our first remote meetup and I’m looking forward to the next. The more time spent together, the better.
- Work on projects together. On Jetpack Design, we’re always paired on a project. This makes collaboration much easier. Have a question? Need feedback? We usually just jump on a Zoom call and get right to work. But it’s impossible not to share something personal or ask, “how are you?” during any of those calls.
- Always be nice. This is more of a personality trait, but everyone should strive to understand where each person is coming from. This ‘nice’ mentality helps a lot.”
Filipe Varela, also from Jetpack Design said, “I’ve noticed that Jetpack Design has been jumping on a few impromptu Zoom calls lately, more so than usual. Generally, video calls take time out of everyone’s day that could be better invested elsewhere, but these have proven to strengthen our communications, be a quick way to sync, or easily share personal stories and have a few laughs.”
Support from leadership
Filipe also wanted to highlight an internal post by James Grierson, Jetpack General Manager, where he reminded the entire division about the flexibility afforded to Automattic employees (it really is great; you should join us). “It was really comforting reading those words from our leadership team which, in my opinion, brought us even closer together.”
In a distributed environment where individuals have to use self-discipline to stay on task, it’s easy to put unrealistic pressure on yourself. Without in-person connections, it can be difficult to understand the expectations of your team. So when separated, encouragement and clear direction from leadership becomes more important than ever. We’re thankful for the effort of everyone at Jetpack to help us all achieve our best work — and life — together.
Rob Pugh, Director of Marketing, mentioned that he’s benefited from the weekly video games his team plays.
Since the start of the pandemic, Infinity, a team at Jetpack, has held a Friday gaming session. A chance to hang out virtually, the team started with a free game that worked on everyone’s operating system. It was easy to join and could handle a lot of players at a time.
But downsides did present themselves as the players were split into two groups so the game was competitive. Players’ varying skill levels became evident and some people simply didn’t enjoy the style of game the group chose.
So for their team meetup, Infinity selected a new game: Don’t Starve Together. And after many frustrating (but usually hilarious) fires and explosions, they renamed it, “Don’t Burn Together.”
Putting everyone into an optimized gaming environment with a clear communication channel and a great gaming experience took the kind of technical expertise that you’d expect from Automattic.
By the end, the team shared more laughs than they could count. And they learned to work together to survive…longer.
Patrick Donohue, in a recap of the game, said, “Don’t Starve Together is a fun activity for the whole team, either during a meetup or as a regular occurrence. Given that we’re not doing in-person meetups, I would highly recommend regular gaming activities as an outlet for teams.”
Virtual dinner party with a twist
And, in what might be one of the coolest things to come from the pandemic restrictions, Jesse Friedman, Director of Innovation, recapped an experience with three of his colleagues:
“Jeff Golenski, Derek Smart, and Rocco Tripaldi and I were worried we were going to miss our annual winter dinner, so we had to be innovative.
Instead of having dinner together in-person, we held a Zoom call and did a meal delivery secret Santa.
Before the dinner, we shared our favorite foods, allergies, and delivery details. Then we used an app to assign each of us someone to buy for. We secretly ordered surprise dinners for each other and scheduled them all to arrive at 6:30 the night of the event.
At 6:00, we started the call and waited for everyone’s food to arrive. We had dinner and guessed who got each other what. Jeff got me sushi, which was awesome.”
Until we meet again
Staying connected at Jetpack has become about much more than achieving work goals. With times as strange as these, we’re uniting to build stronger relationships and provide encouragement that you won’t often find at other companies. It could be playing a video game, sharing personal stories, holding an innovative dinner party, or even just keeping a mindset of being nice.
It’s not perfect, but it’s keeping us connected and hopeful throughout the pandemic. We can all learn something from each other through this first-time experience.