For some reason a lot of the verbs we use in the remote working world seem to start with C. We’re always talking about the ways we collaborate, communicate, co-operate and connect. Today we’re going to throw in something we might not always think about, but is nonetheless very important to how we work together: celebrations.
Celebrating, celebrations… a verb and a noun, embracing meanings which include acknowledging a significant or happy event, performing some kind of ceremony or action around this, and also the act of praising and recognising. All of these manifestations are important in how we relate to one another online, and they all connect to something other than the everyday mundane routine. Celebrating signifies some kind of special moment or recognition, which calls attention to a particular thing and perhaps makes us look at it a bit differently for a while.
As humans in groups we celebrate milestones like anniversaries, community fiestas and holidays. We remember these special events and they give structure to our lives, create a way of socially patterning times, because they are more memorable than the routine times in between. They frame our stories and create richness in our culture, things to connect and reflect over in future times, perhaps when we’re in a less celebratory mood.
This is particularly important in a remote team, for lots of reasons.
Winning at Work: Sometimes it’s the smallest things...
The big work-related things are easy to celebrate. Yes, we just nailed that huge new contract, or released that product - it’s the culmination of a long collaboration, we all knew the exciting milestone was coming, and it’s very natural to take time out to mark the significance of the occasion.
But the smaller things, particularly those involving just one of us, can easily get overlooked in the remote space. If we were in the same room with a colleague who had just got off a challenging but ultimately positively-concluding sales call, we might see them punching the air, and join them for a collective ‘yay!’, even for a spontaneous celebratory donut break. However when it comes to the remote worker, no-one is going to see the air-punch and raise an eyebrow inviting the explanation, and we have to make an active decision whether to communicate the success or not, within our online collaboration platform.
Unless someone asks us how it went with that call, we might feel that sharing could be seen as boastful, because we have to be deliberate about it, and people can find that uncomfortable.
Lots of successful online teams have come up with specific routes to normalise this kind of sharing, like the team at Infinite Red, where they have specific channels within their Slack like #kudos, #gratitude etc, to directly encourage the sharing of our own successes and those of others.
At Convert they have a similar practice using channels called #humblebrag, and also use a Slack app called ‘Hey Taco!’, to enable the sharing of ‘virtual tacos’ very quickly and easily, as a kudo shout-out in any channel - another great move in removing the friction around quick celebratory ‘yays’.
Convert also have regular ‘Wins and Miseries’ meeting sessions which recognise that the wins matter because they’re not a given - work life has both downs and ups, we can learn from and mark both in a psychologically safe place.
The cadence of these different forms is interesting though - sharing a quick taco, vs having a full conversation. Having a regular channel and apps to shout-out the daily wins of all sizes really helps it to be fluid and expected. Conversely, making ‘Wins and Miseries’ a fixed meeting facilitates the deeper learning which can come from reflecting more deliberatively on our experiences good and bad.
Dedicated channels and apps also provide valuable leadership insight: who on the team uses them more or less than others, is anyone feeling that they’re not contributing enough, or important enough? This might become an issue to address with them directly. The taco app can be used to generate analytics, and even a public leaderboard of praise and recognition - so you can decide whether this is something you want to nurture as an incentive.
Celebrations also give us a chance to bring more of our private life into the workplace, if we choose to. This can be particularly valuable for remote teams.
When we rarely (if ever) meet our team mates for completely non-work social interaction, it can habituate that our knowledge of and relation to one another to be ‘all about the work’. We all choose to project specific aspects of our personality and keep others hidden in all relationships, but in the online collaboration space it’s all too easy for this to be very thinly sliced, and to rarely talk about anything except our professional matters, This is to lose the very richness which makes us human beings.
Everyone in our team is more than their professional role or ‘hat’. A hypothetical colleague Sam is the Assistant CMO who runs our marketing and comms, and we all know about that - but, she’s also a mother and wife, triathlete, community organiser, breeder of pedigree puppies, and pursuing an Open University diploma. Of course it’s great to celebrate the successful marketing campaign launches, and it’s really important we do that, but what about all the other myriad milestones in her life, the things which matter to her personally? Celebrating who she is, is as important as celebrating what she achieves, and it can also have a bearing on the energy, context and mood she brings to the team.
We’d have to know about all these aspects of Sam’s life in the first place, of course, and that’s more challenging when we work remotely.
Tim Burgess at ShieldGeo shared an interesting solution to this that they have developed - they ask about personal milestones and interests that a new colleague is happy to share at the on-boarding stage, then they use a Zapier bot to insert this information into the view of everyone on their global Slack team: ‘Hey everyone, it’s Fred’s wedding anniversary!’ ‘Shahid has a local religious holiday today!’ Simply being part of an organisation which takes the time to compile and do this activity for no other reason than helping people celebrate and connect is already creating a warm feeling for me. (We discussed various examples of set-up for this on our recent podcast episode about celebrations, which was also an important anniversary for Virtual Not Distant).
By knowing these things about the people we work with, we start to build a more rounded picture of them as a human being - one we can be honest and vulnerable and authentic with, and bring a little bit more of ourselves to share with in return. There can be times when the work creates tensions and disagreements, makes us feel disconnected with our colleagues, and if work is all we’ve got then this can negatively impact the relationship in a lasting way. But then I remember that what whatever she just said to me about that work screw-up, Sam and I do share a passion for gorgeous puppies. It helps remind us that the colleague criticising our work is also a human we relate to on many levels and that helps us contextualise the criticism as coming from a source we respect, and with whom we have an ongoing connection and relationship.
Celebrating Similarities and Differences
Celebrations might challenge some of our assumptions too. It’s easy to overlook differences in culture, taste, expectation and habit when we only relate professionally, and indeed it can be very challenging coming up with really inclusive ways to celebrate in the first place (which also makes me wonder something about the Taco app actually… is it a bit too culturally specific - does everyone on a global team enjoy tacos as a food/snack, even virtually? And what about my low carb diet, and somebody else’s corn allergy..? Hmm, perhaps I am overthinking a lighthearted and fun idea, but even the default celebratory emoji is often a champagne bottle, which definitely has cultural limitations…)
I once had a really difficult time with the physical logistics of sending a hamper to a new colleague in Egypt, to include her in a team party ritual which had always worked fine across Europe - indeed it ultimately proved physically impossible to include her in the same way. Of course a local refreshment budget was easily provided, but sending her cash to buy her own party food just wasn’t quite the same, and even created an errand for her to accommodate. It’s important that the way we celebrate in online teams doesn’t inadvertently reinforce differences in hybrid teams or satellite teams, instead of bringing them together.
And while sending a voucher or allowance is instant and global, there’s something a bit special about physical post and deliveries - that connectedness between your remote location and the heart of the team, when you actually get a ring on your doorbell with a tangible thing. When Virtual Not Distant Director Pilar left Happy Melly, she received a gift card in the post, and it was so much more meaningful than an email voucher (she ended up keeping the little box for a long time afterwards). This article from MIT Sloan also reminds us of how special it is to receive anything physical in our increasingly digital-first world, and the way this creates a sense of belonging. It needn’t be elaborate, just the occasional handwritten card, or even company swag, is likely to end up adoring the remote workspace for a prolonged period - creating that little burst of endorphins each time it is glanced toward.
The shipping to Egypt example was also a good reminder that in a multicultural team in particular, it’s easy to assume that we’d all choose to celebrate in the same way. As leaders in online teams, we should always ask ourselves, could this amusing or jolly thing actually potentially be awkward or embarrassing or difficult for one of our colleagues?
This also needs to be front of mind when planning face to face retreats as well, as they do at ShieldGeo, for their truly global team. The practical logistics, from visas to accommodation, are really complex but, by considering each individual’s needs and involving everyone in making it happen, they have learned to create events which are really worthwhile, and generate measurable return on investment in terms of creativity and productivity.
When you don’t meet face to face regularly, just having the chance to do so is celebratory in its own right, even if you mostly socialise instead of gathering to actually do work. It deepens the relationships involved. There is some kind of universality to sharing refreshments together, as a way of giving and receiving hospitality - certainly whenever members of the Virtual Not Distant team manage to get together in person, it’s usually at a nice restaurant! But, as any traveller would attest, the way we ‘break bread’ looks completely different in different parts of the world, and the one thing guaranteed to risk offence is to assume your own norms of courteous behaviour are the norms.
Instead, celebrations on diversely distributed teams can be a great way to learn more about each other’s cultures in a fun and relaxed way, as well as gaining that little bit of personal insight into the lives of our co-workers, as well as marking the milestones which matter. We can use technology to mediate new intimacies: I was really touched to once receive a video message greeting on my birthday from a colleague whose beautiful hair I had never before seen, as for cultural/religious reasons she always kept it covered it in team meetings when men were present.
We also loved the example shared with us on the podcast by the author of ‘Secrets of the Remote Workforce’ Teresa Douglas, who works as an analyst at Kaplan Test Prep. They celebrate the 10 year anniversary of their team members by commissioning a caricature portrait of them - a really light-hearted but utterly personal way to celebrate the whole person.
I would feel compelled to use this as my profile pic! And while we have been chatting online to Teresa for ages now, as a podcast guest and avid twitterer, I instantly feel I know her a lot better after seeing this picture, which she kindly invited us to share with you here.
This wonderfully quirky example is a great way to conclude this journey through the sheer variety of ways remote teams can connect with one another to celebrate the big things and the little things… and we haven’t even talked about celebrating endings and transitions as people move on to different roles. Let’s try and generalise some learning points we can all consider applying within our own teams going forward:
Creating a culture of sharing our wins helps lift the mood and boosts the energy - but people might need encouragement - an easy way to do it, appropriate modelling of the desired behaviour, and a little bit of nudging or incentivising
Sharing celebrations can teach us more about the human beings behind our online colleagues, what matters to them and makes them unique - and just taking the time to find out about this can bring us closer together, because it shows we care in the first place
Celebrations should be careful not to exclude people for any reason, and might need a bit more thought in the online space than when you’re all in the same physical space anyway. But the creative examples here might inspire you to find some ideas of your own, and we’d love to hear about them in the comments.
We’re so grateful to all the people who took the time to share their celebration ideas and innovations with us for this article and our 200th episode of the 21st Century Work Life podcast, For everyone who took the time to communicate their celebratory ideas with us in any form, you helped to take us out of our own routine day-to-day, and make us feel more connected to the wonderful remote work community of which we are all a part.
And now you can celebrate getting to the end of a longer-than-usual blog post from us! Congratulations!