Human Connections in a Distributed World

Chromatic has been a distributed workplace since our inception in 2007. Working in such a remote fashion has always made the most sense for us. Since we work in the tech arena, we should be able to successfully use technology to create a high-functioning, supportive workplace. Being distributed also means we can hire the best fit for each role, no matter where those experts are located. At Chromatic we’ve been able to build a highly-skilled, diverse, and collaborative team without the limitation of borders.

With all the benefits of being distributed, there come a few unique challenges. The human connection, that is important in our personal lives, is also important when it comes to connecting to the people with which you spend ~40 hours a week.

I love this excerpt from a GoodTherapy article, The Profound Impact of Human Connection:

Human connection brings complex values to our lives: relationships give us a sense of belonging in the group, a sense of identity in contrast to others in that group, an almost therapeutic-support system, and reason not to feel lonely. We learn from others’ experiences and insight, and we learn together by pursuing new experiences alongside [each other].

Meeting with Each Other

Chromatic strives to foster this human connection in several ways. One way is by making every phone call a video call (we use Zoom). We simply enjoy seeing everyone when we talk to each other. Both through Zoom, and when we get to meet in person.

In November I attended my first Chromatic team retreat held in Palm Springs, CA. There is always some nervousness when meeting people for the first time. We might wonder: Are these people going to like me? Will we feel awkward? But as I started meeting the team I noticed a distinct lack of awkwardness. How could this be? We had never met! I have come to the conclusion that because every phone call is a video, I already knew these people. I knew not just their voices and voice inflections, but I had already seen their mannerisms and expressions. I was familiar to them, and they were familiar to me*. The in-person handshake just sealed the deal. To me, nothing can take the place of actually occupying the same space with another person, though video calls are a good substitution.

(*Sidenote: The only surprise was height. It’s hard to gauge someone's height when you have no point of reference in their video background. It was fun to see who was taller or shorter than you had thought.)

One other way Chromatic fosters the human connection is through the creation of intentional “coffee zooms” for whoever wants to join. We’ve found it’s a place where you can hang out, chat, ask questions of each other and just generally work together in the same space. We typically have them on Friday mornings or during slow afternoons. We held a Coffee Zoom to send Adam off on his 4-week sabbatical. It was a great touch-point to wish him well and connect before his absence. (P.S. He’s back! Check out a recap of his time off here.)

Physical Connection

Personally, I think there’s an important connection made when we hold something physical, that cannot be replicated in another way. Scott Ziegler, writing for Makovsky, expresses my own feelings when he writes:

Despite being a digital native that fully embraces technology, I yearn for more tangible items. Too many of my possessions and memories I am not able to hold in my hands. There’s nothing like the connection you feel from holding a prized possession like a vintage watch or a keepsake from a meaningful event. I don’t believe I am alone in this.

Chromatic sends welcome packages to our new hires. These include a t-shirt and other swag like a Chromatic coffee mug and stickers. There is something special about slipping on that brand-new t-shirt, with the company logo, and silently declaring, “Here I am world, I’m a Chromatician!” This is especially true in a distributed company. The package arrives their first week, and I think it helps the company feel real. It is a tangible example for our newest team members that they are an existent part of this team.

Along those same lines, Chromatic enthusiastically utilizes one of the “older” methods of communication: snail mail. We send cards and gifts to the team for events like birthdays, hire date anniversaries, wedding anniversaries, and life events. Cards are such a simple memento of human connection. For 55¢ USD you can show someone that they are on your mind, acknowledge what’s happening in their lives, and let them know that they matter. What a small price to pay!

During the holiday season, there’s an extra emphasis on human connections. If you’re like me, you’re focusing on connecting with family, co-workers, friends, and neighbors. At Chromatic we engage in our annual Secret Santa exchange. Gifts, bought by Chromatic, but chosen for each other, start arriving in early-December. We don our holiday sweaters and open our gifts on a team call mid-December. We get to share the surprise altogether through, you guessed it, a video call. A perfect mix of digital and tangible (and fun).

These may not sound like a lot, or like grand gestures. That’s the point! It doesn’t have to be big - it just has to be thoughtful.

The Future is Now

I firmly believe that remote work is the future, and the future is now. In my 10+ years of distributed work, I’ve seen more and more job postings for “work from home” jobs. It is no longer a rare occurrence, but it is a proven intentional business strategy pioneered by companies like Chromatic. The potential of technology is powerful. But with this power comes a very important responsibility: to remember and foster the human connection.