Remote work is here to stay, and we are just starting to explore how to make it better. In this article I will try an approximation to the question: could games be a piece in the puzzle to foster socialization? After a small intro into remote work, I invite you to explore the idea of gaming as a way to get to know your teammates better. As Balaji states: “Maybe informal socialization for remote teams means video games and social networks?” After all, we are Homo Ludens.
We can see an increasing number of fully remote companies and hybrid companies, with important in-office work, such as InVision, HubSpot and Stripe. Working remotely brings lots of benefits and forces some processes to be better. Benefits can be on a range, from moving with your family if a new opportunity arises to be able to put the laundry while in a break. In the processes side, it really helps everyone to be results-oriented, instead of getting fooled by who spent most hours at the office. But it has its downside as well. The most important challenges to overcome are hiring, communication, culture, collaboration and if the team is international, paying everyone can be a pain as well (huge opportunity for crypto). In this article, I’m going to focus on communication and culture that are tightly correlated in any company, and highly so in a remote team or startup. Communication plays a huge role in every type of organization since its the lubricant of coordination. As a Gitlab post states this is a challenge in a remote company: “For all-remote companies, leaders should not expect informal communication to happen naturally. There are no hallways for team members to cross paths in, no carpools to the office, etc.”.
So what are we missing in today’s remote teams? We need spaces to interact, talk and enable serendipity. Apple’s new headquarter is thought to make people encounter in different places, even if they don’t work on the same team. Thinking casual encounters can be more challenging in a remote setting. Having an “excuse” to meet can go a long way. A typical way to do it is to have a watercooler in a communication channel, and it sort of works, but it has the same problem as the IRL watercooler if you don’t have and excuse can be kind of awkward, we need a starting point to interact. Also is pretty common to get matched weekly through a “mixer” to meet someone -probably online- you still don’t know or if you are more proactive, being incentivized to schedule the meeting yourself, but none of those options sound as natural as we wish. Another way to do it is to implement off-sites, this helps everyone to spend time together sharing day to day stuff, like cooking or playing a board game, doing something special as skiing or kayaking and getting some work done, analyzing past performance, planning, to get some sense of IRL work to understand each other better. This is an expensive option, but if the startup isn’t paying for an office (at least for a part of the workforce), it can be almost the same. I think it’s important to state that even people like Reed Hastings, who thinks a company is a group of people that gets together to do excellent work, and do not intend to become a group of friends -even less a family- know is important to build bonds and understand each other to work better.
So, where has the “happy hour” gone? Of course, you can go to a co-working space and socialize in a bar, coffee or meet-up after work, and we will probably still do that anyway, but we will keep working with strangers in our day to day lives. Games seem like a good place to start exploring socialization for remote companies, and we can see I’m not the only one with this idea gaming has been part of IRL offices all along with Google and even top-performing teams such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX team used to play games in the office.
Here are my two cents about what kind of games to play, and two possible ways to implement it without friction:
Collaboration games: Here we can find Escape Games and co-creating games. This seems like a great fit to include everyone, and enable interactions, but most of these types of games seem very niche and not high-quality games. Both options could become more entertaining if VR keeps moving forward, and people can “share a space”, adding a lot to the experience.
Team-based: This group involves a team playing against either other internal teams or teams from other companies. This can be really fun, there are many games that can be played like CS, Fortnite (PvP Squad mode), League of Legends and many others. A downside is that these games are really intensive, so there’s not a lot of room to go deep into socialization, but can be a jumpstart. Also, most of these games have some waiting time between rounds.
All against all: This seems like the most competitive option. Games that fit this category are Fortnite (PvP Alone mode). Most “board games” fall into this category as well, but there need to be more online options. Avalon which isn’t currently online seems like a great way to get a sense of how other team members behave outside of work, in a more relaxed environment.
As a disclaimer, I’m not a game geek, so for sure there are many other ideas to explore, but I do care about how people organize and the products that enable them to do it better while improving each member’s life (at least at work), so please share your ideas. The implementation has two paths that vary substantially in complexity. The first one is to create a Slack channel or to create a room for each game using Tandem, showing when people are willing to play, adding more spontaneity. Those approaches would work but there’s still lots of room for improvement, so let’s explore the second approach. We could take advantage of the fact that people are already at their computer to enable a frictionless experience mixing people into groups, enable a doodle-like way to coordinate the best time to set a raid. This would probably be a service by itself and could be integrated into everyday work as a SlackBot. Also, we could gamify the process (kind of redundant, but anyway…), and enable leaderboards, tournaments and even a more advanced version could enable playing against other companies’ teams.
One of the possible downsides is that people could get too competitive and how the formal structure of the organization and the gameplay blend together, we want to foster cohesion, no rivalry. Another thing to keep an eye on is the level gap between players, so everyone can have fun. Also, the founders (or management if it’s a bigger company) should signal that this is something good, encourage it. We don’t want to get back to judge people by how much time they spend working, but by the quality of their output. We still have much space to experiment and learn to create a better remote office, but we are moving forward and new tools are on their way. Let´s “press start” to begin!