The Poetry of Speech: How Real-time Conversations Support Remote Connections

Remote work has become a tech industry standard, but human connection remains a challenge. Genuine conversations can help.

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Published on May. 25, 2022
The Poetry of Speech: How Real-time Conversations Support Remote Connections
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“Talk creates beautiful sentences,” wirtes sociolinguistic expert Gail Jefferson. “So, you don’t see that there’s all these noises, clangs, associations going on.” 

When we process a spoken exchange, we are able to parse the story being told between the “uhs,” “ums” and “that-reminds-me-of-a-times” that color our conversation. In her seminal essay “The Poetics of Ordinary Talk,” Jefferson posits that the fractured forms, organic tangents and unexpected associations of “living language” is what makes ordinary dialogue exquisitely human. 

The poetry of daily chitchat has proven to be a salve for the sense of disconnection that comes with remote work. Somewhere in the false-starts and Freudian slips, we are reminded of our shared humanness.   

“This may sound oversimplified, but to create human connections, we need to think about each other as human beings,” said InStride VP of Engineering Dheerender Thakur when we sat down with LA tech leaders to discuss the challenges of virtual work. “In a remote workplace, it can be easy to forget that the image you’re seeing on a video screen is a real person with a life outside of work.”

While a spirited Slack thread certainly provides opportunity for long-distance bonding, it is no match for the relationship-building power of a spoken exchange. So, how can tech leaders foster the real-time connections that once rose from the natural ebb and flow of the office? 

“Real conversations,” said Krissy Guttshal, people and culture manager at See Tickets

“Take five minutes at the beginning of the call to talk about the weather, a show you found on Netflix or someone’s kid graduating,” Guttshal shared. “I tell the team to think of it as me stopping by their desk or bumping into them at the coffee machine if we were in-office.”

“It’s a matter of asking: ‘How can we replace walking by someone’s workspace and noticing that they have a figurine from your favorite tv show,’” added Hillary Kritt, VP of people at Bliss Point Media.

For companies championing remote work, the benefits of recreating the once-physical space for genuine connection reach far beyond the screen. From leadership to team member to user, LA tech companies like Smartly.io, Bliss Point Media, InStride, See Tickets and Jaanuu are reclaiming a sense of belonging through conversation — imperfect syntax and all.     

 

Smartly.io team member sitting at a desk working on a laptop with post it notes on the wall
Smartly.io

 

Dylan Douglas
Head of Customer Success - West • Smartly

 

Smartly.io is an adtech company that automates social advertising.  

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

I’ve been managing a team of  about ten CSMs for two and a half years — pretty much the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve learned a lot about remote and hybrid ways of working in these unusual times. 

Through trial and error, I’ve hired and onboarded many CSMs to our team, helped guide members of my team into other internal roles and am constantly trying to improve the experience for my team — which is tricky when you’re spending 90% of your time behind computer screens. 

The overarching discovery for me has been that every individual’s expectations and needs are different. This calls for openness in communication on both sides, transparency around decision making especially from my side and feedback both ways. I welcome feedback from each member of my team, which helps me provide clarity and steer where we’re going together professionally. Creating forums is key: in one-on-ones, team meetings, cross functional work with other teams — everywhere.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

From the start, make it clear that one-on-ones should serve for both sides, not just to manage up to me, but to ask me questions and share concerns. Oftentimes in the past, the ownership of action items would tend to fall on the CSM — not me. But that shouldn’t be the case. I look for opportunities to lead by example. 

I emphasize that our one-on-one time should not feel overly transactional. Time should be used to check in with each person on a personal level. I like to highlight that everything related to our ways of working internally and with our customers can and should be revisited and reevaluated. Feedback in this way is the best way to improve together.

 

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: LEARNINGS ON LEADERSHIP

  • There are pros and cons to both remote and in-person management.
  • Helping the team find the right ratio of in-person to remote work is key.
  • Be clear about the purpose and vital goals of in-person meetings — well in advance.

 

What impact has this initiative had on your workforce and culture?

I’ve had really constructive conversations with most members of my team. I’ve heard from several people that our way of working together is deeply refreshing for them: that they feel like they can be themselves at work more than at past companies. Feeling a sense of trust and job security at work as a result. 

For me, that’s the goal. Hearing this from my team members has been really inspiring and validating that I should keep approaching things this way.

 

 

Hillary Kritt
VP of People • Bliss Point Media

 

Bliss Point Media is an adtech agency that combines media capabilities with statistics and computer science.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

Hire people who share the company values and actually listen to them. A lot of virtual workplace engagement initiatives fall flat because they are not based on what the team members want or would feel connected to. 

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

We’ve developed social clubs, which are one of our most fun ways to solve remote-world challenges. Each year we open up club proposals, and anyone in the company can propose an idea for a club that they would like to lead. It can be anything from yoga club to beer club to dog-training club. Once we select our clubs for the year, everyone in the company gets to select two clubs that they would like to join. The clubs receive a budget to plan quarterly programming — plus we’ve set up Slack channels for each group to nerd-out over their club topic. 

We’ve set up Slack channels for each group to nerd-out over their club topic.”

 

What impact has this initiative had on your workforce and culture?

It’s given people access to folks across the organization who they have something in common with, but might not otherwise get to interact with. Since each club has both quarterly programming and a Slack channel, you can engage as much or as little as you want. It’s a great way for new folks in the organization to immediately feel like they can find employees to connect with.

 

 

InStride team members having a meeting in a conference room at the office
InStride

 

Dheerender Thakur
VP, Engineering • InStride

 

InStride is an edtech company seeking to improve workforce education. 

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

In our one-on-one meetings with team members, our team leaders talk as much about what goes on outside of work as they do about the work itself. Team leaders really try to get to know their team, so they ask what’s happened in the person’s life since the last one-on-one and let the team member lead the conversation. 

The meetings always end with the leader asking, “What can I do to help remove any blockers at work?” 

In addition, we make sure to give our team members enough room to be creative and solve problems on their own. Our team leaders trust that their team will figure things out. If their solutions don’t work the first time, we’re confident they will learn from the experience and do better next time — and they always do. Giving employees enough runway to fail ensures they have enough runway to succeed.

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

Our team leads meet with every one of their team members once per week. In these meetings, they focus as much on getting to know each other as they do on the work that needs to be done. We want to make sure that there is time dedicated to getting to know the human behind the work. Every two weeks, larger teams meet and in that meeting, we also make time for people to get to know each other. 

For example, one of our colleagues spent some time traveling through Mexico a few months ago. He told his manager about his travels, and his manager invited him to share the experience at one of these larger meetings. He did, and it started a lot of conversations. It was a great way for people to learn a little more about each other. 

We know this strategy is working because our team members feel completely comfortable reaching out to anyone on the team to ask a question or work on something together. They’ve established rapport with each other through our team-wide meetings and the conversations that come out of them, even though only a small fraction of them have ever met in person.

Make sure that there is time dedicated to getting to know the human behind the work.”

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team?

The feedback we’ve received is that our team members are very happy with their work and their team. Our company has grown substantially during the pandemic.

They appreciate being seen as much more than a cog in the machine, and they genuinely enjoy getting to know their teammates. That has proven to be a strong motivator in our work. 

 

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: HOW INSTRIDE CREATED NEW AVENUES FOR TRUST

“Our team was given six months to deliver the new product — an extremely aggressive timeline,” Thakur said. “With trust coming from leadership, the team came up with a solution, brought in new development software to work on it and actually delivered the 1.0 version in less than 90 days.”

 

 

See Tickets team member group photo outside
See Tickets

 

Krissy Guttshall
People & Culture Manager • See Tickets

 

See Tickets is an international ticketing organization that offers a comprehensive suite of ticketing, marketing and event support.

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

Take time to have real conversations. 

 

I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD: TIPS FOR ELIMINATING ISOLATION 

  • Don’t just talk about work
  • Take 5 minutes at the beginning of the call to talk about life
  • Understand how and when your team likes to work
  • Communicate regularly through multiple channels
  • Check in to ensure there is no confusion

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

In the world of HR, people are a big piece of my job. Since I am fully remote, I need to find ways to connect with the employees and leaders to build relationships. I have scheduled HR chats with the whole company on a quarterly basis to quickly interact with them and see how things are going. 

We talk about work, life and answer any questions that come up. I find out a little bit about each person and can help address any concerns they may have.

 

What impact has this initiative had on your workforce and/or culture? 

I was hired as part of our distributed workforce in Pennsylvania and our main office is in Los Angeles. Currently we have more than half of our team outside of the LA area so it helps me relate and understand what the team is also experiencing. This initiative has given me the opportunity to meet all of our team virtually until I will have the opportunity to meet everyone in person. 

While I have helped the team understand the benefits programs that we offer, they have helped me understand how they support the goals of the company. It truly helps me find out what is most important to the employees and make sure that I am focusing efforts on what matters the most.

 

 

Natalie Newman
VP of Talent & People • Jaanuu

 

Jaanuu is an e-commerce company that has created contemporary, antimicrobial-finished products for the medical apparel market. 

 

What’s the key to creating real, human connection in the remote workplace?

I think a key element of maintaining connection in a remote environment is to ensure employees feel bought in on a shared purpose. This can take many different forms, but without the serendipitous interactions of a physical workplace, companies need to be intentional about how they foster this sense of shared purpose on a regular basis. 

 

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: STRATEGIES FOR CONNECTION 

  • Consider how best to infuse core values into the employee lifecycle
  • Revamp internal communication tactics
  • Create opportunity for regular in-person gatherings
  • Plan purposeful interactions

 

What’s the most successful strategy or initiative you’ve employed for actually facilitating those kinds of connections?

We just rolled out employee resource groups at Jaanuu as a way to foster cross-functional connections and provide engaging and purposeful ways for people to get involved in important topics. 

We never want culture initiatives to come solely from the people team, and our ERGs provide a great opportunity for employees to voice what is important to them and how they’d like us to show up as a company. The ERGs we rolled out are DEIB, community impact, and wellbeing — they are voluntary, employee-led and intended to provide space for education, action and both personal and professional development.

Companies need to be intentional about how they foster this sense of shared purpose.”

 

What kind of response have you heard from your team? 

The feedback from our team members who are involved in the ERGs has been tremendously positive so far! We’ve provided gift bags to nurses at a local hospital, are planning a wellness challenge for this summer and are compiling a cultural events calendar with opportunities to engage the team around upcoming dates such as AAPI Heritage Month or Pride Month. 

Additionally, each ERG has members from all different levels and departments across the org. One of our company values is to be fiercely empathetic — between the work these committees are doing and the personal connections made by team members, our ERGs feel like a great way for us to live out that value.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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