In the presence of others

I, like many hundreds of people over the last 6 months, have been thinking a lot about how our relationships have been affected during lockdown, how team dynamics have changed. The things we’ve gained, and those we’ve lost.

Working across several different teams (software teams, leadership teams, broader development groups) I’ve seen directly the impact that being thrust into remote working has had. The silence of conversations not held, information lost, frustrations bottled, communication stymied.

When you sit next to people for 8 hours a day you’re afforded the priceless opportunity of doing nothing with them. There’s a lot to be said for just being in each others’ presence. Letting the kinship grow slowly like the intertwining roots of neighbouring plants. Over time, bonds arise from hours of familiarity, a thousand small interactions. A shared laugh, a helping hand, a box of chocolates passed around the office, a sigh followed by a “You ok?”. Relationships formed from a thousand micro-kindnesses.

With enough threads of spider silk you can carry a person. The strength is in the aggregate.

In the remote world of working we now find ourselves in, all interactions face a barrier, an initial cost. There is no time to live in your team’s presence. Team gatherings must be scheduled, ad-hoc interactions must be justified, messages are dealt with asynchronously at the other end of a wire.

We need to find a way to let those passive, osmotic connections form. It may not ressemble how we did it in person, but the need is no less imperative.

Watering the plant

For the first 5 months of lockdown my partner and I split our working schedules to care for our son — when nurseries were closed, and family were off-bounds. I would look after him in the morning, she in the afternoon, and I would work until 10 or 11pm to make up my hours. We were ships in the night, trading updates when we could, and quickly burning out.

Relationships are like houseplants: they need tending. Even the hardiest, lowest maintenance plant won’t survive total neglect.

I witnessed the tiny misfirings of communication, misunderstandings, disconnect. These things which can quickly compound and expand from non-existent seeds — like a snowflake forming around a mote of dust — because the relationship was in strain, unable to weather what it ordinarily should have.

In my working life too I realised that some sources of tension, misunderstanding, misalignment between teams were due to untended relationships. We relied on these relationships to operate, but weren’t nurturing them. We wanted the green leaves, the colourful buds, but the plant laboured in cracked earth.

In every case, the remedy is dramatically fast: frequent, regular pockets of time together.

Drip, drip, drip. You build — and maintain — a relationship with a thousand interactions.

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