For many people, coworkers are their main source of daily human interaction. But with the coronavirus disrupting daily life, including by sending millions home to work remotely for the foreseeable future, office workers across the country are having to navigate new ways of connecting with colleagues they no longer see in-person every day.
And in a time of social distancing, coworkers are quickly becoming an outlet for people to discuss coronavirus-related fears and stress, says Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager at FlexJobs, a remote-work career site.
"It's hard for people to focus on work if they have these thoughts about what they need to do to prepare personally," Weiler Reynolds tells CNBC Make It; finding reassurance from colleagues can help them adjust to a new way of living and working.
Managers should dedicate time during the work day to allow workers to connect, share ideas and provide support over personal matters during the pandemic, says Jason Fried, CEO of the project management company Basecamp. That could mean scheduling a daily check-in or replacing an existing meeting to touch base with one another.
"I would like to see work give up a little bit of time to life," Fried says. "To me, that's more in the spirit of what we need right now."
As important as it is for people to discuss how they're feeling, colleagues are also finding new ways to socialize and re-introduce some normalcy into the day. Here are some ways coworkers are staying connected.
Recreating morning coffee breaks
Workers at the education company General Assembly, which is headquartered in New York City and has campuses worldwide, are trying to take a positive approach to the situation and find ways to inject levity into the day, says Catie Brand, the vice president of HR.
They have a video chatroom link set up for workers to join in the morning for watercooler chat over coffee.
Meg Randall, director of product delivery for General Assembly's tech team, says jumping into these coffee breaks helps her mentally start her day.
"You never know who's going to be in there, but it mirrors what it's like to get coffee in the kitchen at the office," Randall says, adding that there are usually three to five people in the video call at a time. "It's just small talk that lasts for a few minutes, but it's a nice ritual if you're craving that human connection every day, which I have been."
Encouraging friendly competition
Randall has also taken to ending the day by participating in General Assembly's company-wide trivia game. She says the finance department used to do this as a team in the office, but they've since brought the game to the rest of the now fully remote company. Trivia is hosted in a Slack channel with 148 members and growing.
Around 5 or 6 p.m., a trivia emcee will pose one question to the group, and employees submit guesses in a Slack thread until someone responds with the correct answer. The emcee continues this way for four more questions, and the competition can get fierce.
"Everyone jokes afterward they don't need to work out anymore because they got their cardio in by participating in trivia," Randall says. "Now, it's the highlight of my day."
Hosting virtual happy hours
Brandon Jung leads business partnerships at GitLab, an IT company. GitLab has always operated as a fully remote global workforce, so Jung is used to interacting with coworkers virtually. However, the pandemic means he's no longer able to meet business clients in-person over meals and at conferences to pitch products and services.
He's turning to virtual happy hours to bridge the gap.
"I'll say to [clients], Hey, I'll make a margarita — do you want to sit down and chat about what you're dealing with?" Jung says. While it's not a permanent solution, he says it's helped him stay connected with clients to discuss how GitLab can solve their business problems, particularly during a stressful time for all companies.
Team members at General Assembly have moved their happy hours online, too. A few have been scheduled for the whole company, Randall says.
"With the larger ones, what's been successful is [having] an activity that keeps it together and organized," she explains. Organizers might kick off an online word game from a virtual game pack, for example. "The games have helped add structure and keep it light so there's no need for a moderator."
Randall also sets up more impromptu virtual drinks with her colleagues who are also her close friends.
"Sometimes, it's just a coworker and me catching up over a glass of wine at the end of the day," Randall says. "It's something I'd typically do in my normal routine, and being able to mirror that and not feel so alone has been really meaningful."
Helping each other stay relaxed and healthy
Socializing over video isn't always just about injecting fun into the day, either. At General Assembly, workers are using it to balance mental and physical wellness during stressful times. Employees who are certified in various fitness instruction are offering to teach virtual classes to colleagues.
Megan McNeal is an instructor manager at General Assembly's New York City campus and has been teaching yoga for 16 years. She began hosting "Wellness Wednesdays" at the campus in January, which was open to her peers as well as General Assembly students.
When the team was alerted that everyone would start working from home in mid-March, McNeal said it was a no-brainer to continue offering her 15-minute yoga and meditation sessions online. She creates her practices based on physical needs (stretches to alleviate sitting all day) as well as mental needs (meditation to combat the stress of the news).
"I think right now, in our current circumstance with coronavirus and being sheltered in, it's important to be really honest with ourselves about how we feel, and knowing it's OK to not feel OK," McNeal says.
While her in-person classes in January would bring a handful of students to practice, McNeal's first group Zoom session last week had about 20 participants. This week, she plans to stream her wellness session over General Assembly's Instagram Live feed so anyone, both within and outside the company, can follow along.
Involving coworkers' families
Workers at GitLab are using videoconferences to get to know colleagues on another level: through their families. While employees are used to working remotely every day, working parents are learning how work remotely with kids at home following mass closures of schools and child-care providers.
In recent days, if a meeting ends early, employees at GitLab will invite their children to take over for a bit.
"People will throw out, 'Anyone have kids home from school who want to chat with my kids?'" says Darren Murph, who leads employee culture and onboarding at GitLab.
Kids on different continents can videochat, make a new friend, learn about life in another place and keep each other company.
Bonus: Parents can take a few spare minutes to themselves while their kids are occupied.
Working parents are also leaning on tips from colleagues to make homeschooling and child care work. For example, GitLab hosts four company-wide calls per week, where attendees can join a Zoom meeting dedicated to one of a handful of discussion topics, including general coffee conversation, pets, hobbies and family and friends. Jung, who has three kids at home between the ages of 3 and 7, says the "family and friends" meetings have been especially active in recent weeks.
"I've been finding my coworkers have good ideas for homeschooling," Jung says. "I'm guessing people have a higher desire to connect when they're locked into these situations, so these connection points have been helpful."
Setting boundaries around coronavirus-related discussion
Experts say to not overlook the role of instant messaging platforms, too.
Basecamp has dedicated channels where no work-related discussion is allowed, including message boards for workers to chat about personal interests like food, sports and pets: "just for social stuff, funny things, whatever people want to talk about," Fried says.
As coronavirus-related discussion bled into various social channels in recent weeks, Fried called for all topics related to the health pandemic to remain in one place.
"Lots of people at work want to talk COVID-19, but not everyone," Fried wrote on Twitter. "Where you talk about it matters. If it's mixed in with work stuff, then those who don't want to hear about it can't avoid it. So we set up a separate "All Pandemics" project in Basecamp."
Still, conversation in this message thread tends to be social and supportive, says head of marketing Andy Didorosi.
"We talk about what we did last weekend, if people are reading any good books," Didorosi says. "It's interesting to see what other people who work at the company are doing; it gives you a sense of kinship and camaraderie."
At GitLab, Murph says employees have a Slack channel dedicated to sharing feel-good news. He recommends other teams start their own.
"At this point in time, it's something that might be welcome," he says.