Actionable is a completely remote working environment—many of us have never met in person. And yet we know each other on a deeply personal level.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive but I know my colleagues at Actionable, many of whom I’ve never met in person, better than many people I worked with in the same building for years. I might not know how tall my teammates are, or much about how their body language contributes to the way they communicate, but our “virtual” workplace enables us to know each other on a deep level.

How do I know that roughly 87% of our team had bowl cuts when we were young? How do I know that a colleague’s dog is famous online? Or that a teammate who lives in Jaipur once dressed up as Santa Claus for fancy dress in the middle of the summer? Or that another colleague will include a Tom Waits reference every chance she gets (which is often)?

And most importantly, how do I know this without having ever been in the same room as many of my colleagues?

It’s because they told me. But not just me, they told the whole team.

Countless articles and think pieces make the claim that “remote working is the future.” But it wasn’t until I experienced remote working done well that I believed the hype. An effective virtual environment is not an easy thing to achieve, but when worked on day in, day out, it can be extraordinary.

At Actionable, we know that having conversations—not just status updates or progress reports, but real conversations—improve relationships. Relationships are a key factor in employee engagement. And employee engagement influences just about any business metric you’d care to measure. So we make a deliberate effort to get to know each other, even as we work together, virtual shoulder to virtual shoulder, to improve the world of work for everyone.

In a way, our physical distance makes this kind of deeply personal sharing even more possible. In a “normal” office (i.e. your standard office building), most conversations don’t go beyond what you did that weekend. 

As a very eloquent colleague recently put it: “I don’t really care what you did on the weekend, I want to know how you’re making the world a better place, what makes you tick, and what excites you.”

Unfortunately, weekend plans are about as deep as most people get in a regular office environment. Even if you wanted to get to know each other on a deeper level, what would that look like?

I can’t imagine ever gathering together in a set place, and saying, “what did you do as a kid that got you into trouble? Childhood photos definitely encouraged (bonus points for crazy haircuts and thick glasses)?

Can you imagine this? Who would take the initiative? Would it be HR? Marketing? What would the communication look like?

“I would like you all to join me on Tuesday at 2pm in the boardroom with a printed photo of you as a kid in a funny or embarrassing situation. This session is mandatory. Make sure you bring along a full range of emotional responses (look to the attached list of emoji for inspiration): not only a thumbs up, but a smiley face, the winky face, and that dancing lady in a red dress should all be emotionally available. You will each have 30 seconds to describe how you feel about the photo, and its emotional significance for your childhood.

The goal of this session is to ‘create intimacy’ between different teams, and we expect you to discuss this for at least 3 days, both individually, in small groups, and in functional teams, so that it resonates and maintains its significance.

We will be repeating this each and every week to help you know each other better.

See you all there!

Regards, your Head of Fun”

Ludicrous, right? And yet, in our remote working environment, that’s sort of how it went. It was on Slack, not in an email, lacked the formality, and sharing was definitely optional, but our team dove right in and started sharing photos and stories.

We have a wonderful team that makes this a priority in their busy working schedules. Every Tuesday we have trivia day—sharing something about yourself with or without photos. Sometimes the commonalities are striking—like the realization that most of us had the exact same haircut growing up (and there are plenty of good natured jokes to go around regardless).

I actually know more colleagues better because of this way of remote working compared to working in an office setting. In a traditional setting you would never have this mass dispersion of personal information to the team: it would be a closely controlled spread of information depending on who knows who.

The result of our deliberate work to create a great culture really hit me when many of us recently gathered in person for our Annual Partner Summit. Cultivating this kind of connection before you meet in person means that when you get together for the first time you feel like you know each like old friends, and hugging just seems normal. In fact, I have only not hugged one colleague when meeting for the first time—and that was my boss. I have since hugged him, however, I do also know (after he told me) that he actually prefers the handshake hug—something I think is ridiculous. But he’s the boss! At least I now know, and can rib him about it next time I see him.

I know I have been flippantly describing this as if it is easy to recreate in other offices. It’s not. In order to feel comfortable in these kinds of conversations, organizations need to have a robust culture that encourages trust, open communication, and candor. You can’t just make a leap from never talking about personal things straight to sharing pictures of yourselves with bowl cuts.

Developing a deliberate and supportive culture is difficult. It takes work each and every day, and a group of people that support it to make sure it happens. The group of people is key—we all believe in this way of working, and so make sure that we don’t ever have to wear trousers to work again if we don’t want to (I’m wearing shorts right now).

One of the keys to creating a high-performing organization is taking that time to get to know each other, and have structured discussions where you can discuss challenges faced by the individuals, teams, and organization in general. If you’re struggling to think of ways to recreate this dynamic in your organization—I doubt that you’re alone. Start by making time for real conversations, and don’t be afraid to share some personal stories. Over time, with deliberate effort, you can start to shift your culture.

The danger is that collaboration and structured conversation never becomes a part of your culture, regardless of how your office works. Not taking the time to understand your colleagues, those who you spend most of your life with, can result in disengagement and burnout, and no-one wants that for their team.

At the end of the day, knowing what I know about my colleagues—we love some questionable music, we love our organized food consumption, and that someone started their career as a cheerleading teacher—strengthens our personal connection and helps us find more effective ways of working together. That’s Actionable.