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Inspiration for Action
The Newsletter / Edition 006
From Sylvain Labs, this is Progress Report.
In our monthly Off-White Papers, we provide practical guidance on how to respond to our rapidly-changing world. This weekly newsletter explores those topics in real-time, with information and action steps on how to make progress now. 

In today’s newsletter…
  1. A responsibility for relationship intervention from Zach
  2. Why we need to bring back small talk from Katie
  3. Making and keeping friends at work from Jess
  4. The “Uncanny Gap” between virtual and IRL from Ben
And as always, our illustrations from Katie Sadow.
From the Field

01 / Digital Connection > Remote Regression 

From Zach Visotsky
A few weeks ago, Nicole Mo of The Atlantic published a piece on the growing importance of professional relationships: how our new WFH culture inherently, yet inadvertently, threatens them. Professional relationships are good for us (delivering on our need for human connection, amplifying our sense of fulfillment) and for business (driving employee productivity and company loyalty). Before quarantine, companies could rely on the convenience of the office to organically facilitate connections. But as more companies embrace "remote" moving forward, workplace relationships will require extra, active effort.
Why It Matters
It’s intimidating to know how to start to digitize company camaraderie and actually fuel remote relationships. Yet, assuming employees will take initiative (as they often do in the office) is risky and uncertain. Relating remotely means managers must take on some responsibility for relationship-building, actively seeking out the low-hanging fruit of digital connection that might make an outsize difference.
One Thing You Can Do Right Now
Create new company rituals and communal spaces to promote remote relationship building.
  • Host a meeting with senior leaders to assess the state of office relationships and dream up connection-building tactics that  actually might excite your teams
  • Choose a recurring day and time for employees to disconnect from the daily grind, and reconnect with co-workers playing some games (a few of our favorites are riffs off of Scattergories, Pictionary, and Codenames). 
  • Kickstart messaging threads for shared passions (e.g. "basketball", "eats", "obscure science") to give employees an outlet for informal conversation. And don’t be shy about archiving old ones and making room for new themes over time.

02 / Resurrecting Small Talk  

From Katie Driscoll
There’s no disputing that Coronavirus has effectively killed ‘small talk’ as we know it. The once compulsory conversation starter, “How are you?” is now a weighty and dreaded question with no right answer (and most roads leading to obligatory Covid-related discourse). It’s true: the pandemic has infected even the most inconsequential exchanges of our day-to-day. 
Why It Matters
Whether you love it or hate it, small talk is essential to building relationships—both personal and professional. Experts believe that people reach a kind of equilibrium by talking about nothing and that chit-chat is an evolutionary social bonding tool which helps establish closeness. But talking about the pandemic is not talking about nothing and is certainly not the lighthearted exchange we naturally crave at the top of a professional meeting or conversation.
One Thing You Can Do Right Now
Test out alternative conversation starters, leaving “How are you?” behind.
Starting a conversation with “How are you?” is a habit so deeply ingrained that it will be tough to break, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Instead, avoid the Covid conversation trap by opting for something more specific and fun, like “What’s the best show you’ve binged recently?” or “What’s the latest internet rabbit hole you’ve gone down?” Even tried and true questions about the weather or the weekend are preferred over the dreaded blanket question, at least until we are capable of talking about something else again.

03 / Making a True (Work) Friend  

From Jess Vander
A 2018 study highlighted how much time it takes to convert someone to a real friend. No doubt our coworkers, people we might spend more time with each day than anyone else, are prime “friendship conversion” candidates. But while proximity gives teammates an excuse to get to know each other, spending true quality time is the secret ingredient to turning hundreds of hours working together into an actual friendship.
Why It Matters
People who have a “best friend at work” are not only more likely to be happier and healthier, they are also 7x more likely to be engaged in their job. Except at a distance, it’s more awkward than ever for employees to embark upon a search for their "work wife" or even just a friend (for those who had the tough timing of joining a new company right before quarantine).
One Thing You Can Do Right Now
Encourage teams to make a date or two to keep the work friendship flame alive.
Even teammates who had close relationships in the office may realize that, without an excuse to “drop by and say hi” or make a casual request for a coffee-date, they’re spending most of their time with those they work alongside directly. To switch things up, consider what it might look like to set up “blind work dates” between co-workers to instigate conversation.

For new hires without an excuse to break the ice, try virtualizing the obligatory 'new hire "Welcome Donuts”' to encourage folks to say hi by forwarding an “Ask The Newbie About...” to the team email.

04 / Mind the Uncanny Gap  

From Ben Cheney
A recent NYTimes article on dating in the pandemic highlights what we can call the “Uncanny Gap,” the divide between digital and IRL interactions. It notes that, even after striking ‘good vibez’ on video chat dates, in-person dates can quickly go awry when we are finally able to bask in the full glory of a complete set of relational inputs: verbal cues like word choice, gestural cues like eye contact, and proximal cues like stance or posture, not to mention the more subtle inputs that give invaluable insight into one’s personality or lifestyle. 
Why It Matters
Professional relationships may not be quite the same as budding romantic relationships, but the success of both hinges on a true understanding of the other person’s desires and motivations. Digital communication—albeit a linchpin for this socially distanced, quarantine moment—robs our interactions of nearly all of the critical cues. This means we must be more intentional in each interaction (or try new methods)to help communicate our intentions and build trust and fill the Uncanny Gap we’re missing while WFH.
One Thing You Can Do Right Now
Challenge digital interactions to substitute for missing communication cues.
Let’s say our goal is this: to approach every relationship as an ecosystem of interactions that thrives on diversity, depth, and intention. How can we start to challenge the way we interact with each other now? A few questions to ask yourself:
  • How might we leverage a diverse set of communication methods to deepen relationships and understanding with clients and teammates?
  • Could this email be better delivered as a notebook sketch sent via text?
  • Can we increase the intention of an ideation session by sending packets of tactile stimuli to each participant’s home?
  • Should we start this meeting with a quick game to loosen the vibes? How else can we get everyone in the right headspace?

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