How Social Distancing is Bringing Us Closer Together at the Office

I am used to working at the front desk of Cultural Vistas: a bustling office full of international visitors and action. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the way we communicate and work together internally had to change overnight. Programs were canceled left-and-right. Our future was suddenly looking uncertain.

Working remotely has been an adjustment, especially for those who are extroverts (like myself). It became clear to me very quickly that maintaining a sense of community during this period of remote work was going to be more difficult and more important than ever. 

After two-plus months implementing new initiatives, our socially-distant office may be more connected than ever.

Before the Pandemic: Building Community within a Global Office

Most of my work at Cultural Vistas involves bringing people together for events or meetings. I also manage our Washington, DC office of 35 staff and subtenants from five other international exchange organizations. The organization also includes 45 staff from our New York office, five staff members in Berlin, 20-plus board members, and thousands of stakeholders from around the world. 

While Cultural Vistas’ passionate and hard-working employees administer our professional exchange programs, I have a more behind-the-scenes role. Think of me as the keeper of the organization-wide and inter-departmental calendar. I am also the glue filling in gaps connecting leadership to staff, office operations to program efficiency, the board of directors to our mission, and our work to having fun.

Pre-pandemic, my role involved the occasional trip from DC to our New York office. It was always nice to put names with faces. It also gave me a sense of how our two office cultures differed and how much different office spaces can impact how you plan and work together. While we were unified as an organization, our teams were divided up in such a way that it was possible to spend your whole tenure at Cultural Vistas without ever knowing what your colleague in the other office looked like.

Cultural Vistas staff members come together for a retreat in 2019.

Last year, we had a daylong, in-person, all-staff retreat. The DC and New York social committees came together to collaborate on designing icebreakers.

Even though it was successful, it felt like a baby step. I still left the retreat without knowing every single person.

How Our Office Socializes at a Distance

As soon as remote work started, the DC and New York social committees came together to organize virtual social activities. 

Nurturing our internal community and maintaining human connection became a priority. For the first time, we invited the whole organization to participate in open social committee planning sessions. This encouraged broader participation from those who also craved coming together “outside” of work. What used to feel like a rare special occasion and a difficult act of calendar coordination, has now become a regular practice.

Now, my daily lunch is a Zoom call in my home kitchen with different people from both offices every day. It’s always a surprise and a fun opportunity to share a casual meal with someone I have only engaged with over an organized agenda.

A snapshot from the

Instead of  “water cooler talk,” we log in for “coffee roulette.” At these events, we drink coffee with a randomly-assigned staff member using Zoom Breakout Rooms. Each five-minute conversation has a different discussion prompt.

Instead of going out with co-workers for trivia happy hour, we have virtual trivia happy hour using questions submitted by staff on Kahoot. The winner gets an Amazon gift card.

Instead of doing a “Paint and Sip” party at a studio, a staff member hosts a “Sketch and Sip” break. The leader guides staff through some peaceful drawing lessons via Zoom using scratch paper from home.

Applying Our Virtual Community-Building to our Work

While this may seem frivolous to some, we firmly believe it will have a positive impact on our work and our organization. These activities actually tie back into supporting our mission. 

The staff members who participate in many of these fun interactions also administer programs where part of their job is building community among new cohorts of participants. Having tried out some of these activities with their colleagues, they now have experience in how to apply these principles to a virtual program orientation or connecting program alumni. It has been great to see staff across the organization come forward to host or participate.

A Silver Lining

Before the pandemic, our workloads and organizational structure did not always allow us to prioritize these kinds of activities that promote organization-wide bonding and collaboration. 

In a surprising twist, a global pandemic that jeopardizes the future of our entire field has also boosted staff morale. It has shaken up our hierarchical processes and empowered people to step forward and embrace their strengths. We are seeing shifts in behavior, like using more collaboration tools, which had been low on the to-do list before. Also, we’re letting people flow into natural roles for them that might not have fit in their pre-pandemic job descriptions.

Working remotely has been a great equalizer that broke down divisions between departments, borders, the organization’s hierarchy. Our Intercultural Competence, Diversity, and Inclusion taskforce even had collaborative meetings with members of our board of directors, which had never happened in that way before. Suddenly, we were all in this together.

All hands were on deck to keep the organization afloat regardless of what our specific titles or job descriptions outlined. We started working groups to help brainstorm new business ventures and revenue streams that align with our mission. These groups were led by people of all job levels and combined an interdepartmental mix of skills and experiences. 

While it’s natural to have some growing pains, we have come into a good groove of collaborating. We have risen into being comfortable with less structure.

Ultimately, we are an organization comprised of people who facilitate professional exchanges. Connecting people is what we do.

A happy community of people is good for business. As I sit alone at my computer with my cat at my feet, I feel hopeful we will come out of this stronger and encouraged by seeing how much we have come together while being apart.