How to Prioritize Connection in a Remote Workforce with Recess Part 2

11 Dec 2022 Episode 7 Back to episodes
Digital Citizen:

How to Prioritize Connection in a Remote Workforce with Recess Part 2

11 Dec 2022 Season 2

Episode Notes

On this episode of the Digital Citizen podcast, Arielle Yoder and Zack Fine of Recess talk to Fastmail CTO and COO, Ricardo Signes and Helen Horstmann-Allen, about how to foster connections within the remote workplace.

Episode Notes

Hear about how Recess partners with companies to help them integrate play through a series of games that help the team feel more connected.  Arielle and Zack explain the importance of team-building for both in-person and remote teams, the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue and why the transition to work from home early in the pandemic was so difficult, and how companies can foster positive work environments for their staff by investing in their wellbeing.

▶️ Guest Interview – Arielle Yoder and Zack Fine

🗣️ Discussion Points

  • Arielle and Zack have a background in theater, and they founded Recess with this background in view. They had tools to help people have fun and connect more. As the pandemic wore on, they began applying principles of “ensemble building” in the corporate space. As in theater, in the office ensemble building involves building something from the ground up, developing trust, and quickly becoming a family. The building process can be done using play. In the workplace, the building will ideally result in a more unified team and a stronger work culture.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic changed Zoom from a tool used alongside in-office connections to the central medium of corporate life. Gone was water cooler conversation and the casual, organic interactions it facilitated. In this new environment, as 2-D experiences of people became the norm, it was more difficult to engage on a personal level with coworkers. Work took on a new tiring and reductive element. Recess offers a different way to engage in an online space, specifically using play to help people relate in different ways and ultimately restore a sense of connection between teams and team members.
  • The work of Recess is helpful for companies operating on a remote basis, but it’s also useful for companies that have resumed working in-person. One particular part of work life that Arielle and Zack love to be involved with is the onboarding process, as they find that Recess can ease the transition into a new and unfamiliar environment, help new employees get to know others in the workplace, and give these employees a sense of the company’s investment in their social wellbeing.
  • Arielle and Zack also appreciate that the task they help to accomplish is, in a manner of speaking, bigger than them and their company. Different things appeal to and resonate with different people. Recess may not be for everyone. But the goal of Recess, to see people receiving the personal investment they need, should be a driving goal of company leaders. Employees will, by and large, be happier and stay longer if they see leaders investing the extra time and money to address their individual needs as people outside of their output as workers. Arielle and Zack urge leaders to make their employees feel as human as possible, and to take an individualized approach to doing this.

⭐ Takeaways

  • Remote work doesn’t have to mean disconnected work. There are many ways for organizations to build community among a remote workforce, but they have to work at it. It doesn’t just happen!
  • Activities that work in an in-person world don’t always translate well over Zoom. So before you organize your next Zoom happy hour, think about what you can do to foster more connection between the people there — maybe by incorporating games or setting up breakout rooms. You want to find ways for people to connect that aren’t just doing work, ways that let people from different teams who might not naturally connect during the work day talk to each other.
  • Play can be a great way to welcome new hires to the team and make them feel included.
  • Ultimately, building a connected company culture requires investing in the wellbeing of your staff. They need to feel safe, supported, and like the work is not just a slog. Only then can they feel like the people working with them are their teammates and companions on this journey.

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Episode Transcript

Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to the Digital Citizen podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes, the CTO of Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague, Fastmail COO, Helen Horstmann-Allen.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Hi, I’m Helen. Today Rik will be continuing his conversation with Arielle Yoder and Zack Fine from Recess. Rik, can you give our listeners a quick refresh about what Recess is?

Ricardo Signes: Well, Recess help you run a recess period at work, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. You integrate play into your workday through a series of games that are designed to make your team feel more connected.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: So what will the three of you be talking about this week?

Ricardo Signes: We’re going to talk about the importance of team building for both in person and remote teams. Then we’ll be diving into Zoom fatigue and why the transition to working from home early in the pandemic was so difficult. And finally, we’ll discuss how companies can foster positive working environments for their staff by investing in their wellbeing.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Oh, terrific. Rik, you and I have worked together for a long time and we have always worked in person, but we got an early taste of the pandemic when we joined Fastmail and suddenly had all these colleagues who lived very long way away. I think it’s awesome that we have gotten to travel so much and that was one of the things that made the last two years so hard. But before we traveled and even after we traveled for a bit, it can be really hard to forge a connection with people who you only know over Zoom. I don’t know if you remember, but in the early days I used to make a seating chart when we would have all company meetings because there’d be like 15 people on their end and just the two of us on our end. And so they’d be little tiny heads and I couldn’t remember who was who because I could barely see their faces.

Ricardo Signes: For sure.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: But we have done a lot of work since then and you and I have kicked off a lot of, I would say, play inside of Fastmail. Maybe you could share with our listeners a little bit about March Madness.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, March Madness is hard to explain to anybody who knows what March Madness really is and it’s also hard to explain to people who don’t. So for our listeners, whichever group you’re in, I apologize. March Madness is a game that we have at Fastmail, where every year we curate a set of songs that are put together in a bracket and you start off with a bunch of song versus song contests and pick which song wins until you find out which song is the ultimate song of these. And to make us more compelling, we tend to have a theme. We started with original songs and their covers or multiple covers of the same song. This year we’re dealing with songs that best exemplify seasons of the year.

Ricardo Signes: It is a competition that doesn’t really make any sense, but it leads to everybody talking about the music they like and the music they don’t like. And at the end, somebody gets to receive a paper crown that says that they have won March Madness. And it is goofy and I enjoy it and it makes me listen to a bunch of new songs. So it’s pretty great. Pretty great part of the year.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Rik, you’re really underselling this. First of all, it’s not just a paper crown. They get a gold record and that is cool. They get their name on a gold record, still cool.

Ricardo Signes: It is.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Second, what about the value of everybody on the team getting to roll their eyes at how goofy you and I are?

Ricardo Signes: I’m sure that people are rolling their eyes at your goofiness and I enjoy that and try to stand in solidarity with you at this affront. It is good for the team to be able to see that we show up at the office and we do work and we produce a product and we take care of our users. But it can’t just be a miserable place to come and slog, right? You got to have some fun while you’re doing it so you actually care about the people you’re working with.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Yeah. And I think for me, it’s actually really important to say that oftentimes if you are a people leader, if you’re in charge of things, you really do have to be the one leading the way on goofiness, right? You have to be the one sparking it and really leaning into it and being the first one to jump in, I think.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, I think that’s right. And we’ll talk in this episode about why you want to do that, what’s good about having this sense of play and of fun in the workplace and how to go about doing that. If you stick around to the end of the conversation, we’ll also talk about some takeaways that are just things you can actually do based on the advice in this episode. You can also find those on our website at

Ricardo Signes: So last episode, we learned about the benefits of incorporating play in your day as an adult, but what drove you to create Recess?

Zack Fine: Well, we both have a background as theater educators, and so that’s where it began. We come from the theater and I had been teaching clown and games for New York University and a number of other universities and schools and workshops around the world. And so when the pandemic started, we were asked to do some workshops in ensemble building for people who are not in the theater and to bring some of those skills into different environments. And so we just began to realize that making, building ensemble, which is part of our background, was something that people needed in this moment of transition. Where they were no longer in a physical space together and everybody was navigating these video conferencing situations, where they were on Zoom and trying to have meetings and trying to be connected and they were really losing the opportunity to sort of meet at the water cooler or go do something social and build the social fabric of an organization. So as that was fraying, we felt like we had some tools that could help people have fun and connect a little bit more.

Ricardo Signes: So use the phrase ensemble building. Can you tell me how that translates to what you would be doing with a team of people who work at an office?

Arielle Yoder: I guess it is a theatrical term, but what happens when you bring a bunch of actors into a room where you bring an ensemble into the room is you have to become a family very quickly. Because you start building something from the ground up and you have to establish trust early on in the room with whatever you’re building and one way to get at that is through play. There are a lot of rehearsal rooms that use games, team building exercises that we’ve adapted for Zoom with Recess to accomplish that. And so that applies to the corporate world just because you’re bringing a bunch of people together hopefully to build something or build a culture. And one way to get at that is using games in this culture of play. So we use the term ensemble building a lot, but we feel like it could apply to any team, any group of people that have a shared set of values and a shared goal in mind, if that makes sense.

Ricardo Signes: You mentioned the water cooler. This is a conversation I’ve had a number of times with people about the question of what is it that changed when people moved from being in the office to being on Zoom? So the company I work at, we have two offices. We have a company in Philadelphia where I am right now, and we have an office in Melbourne, Australia, which is 16 time zones away, 16,000 kilometers. And I was using Zoom all the time because you want to have these real time conversations. And it’s amazing to me, even though it’s so commonplace now that I can sit and have almost a face to face conversation with someone so far away in real time and it’s delightful to know I can do this. But when that was my day, all day, every day, it was the worst. Like, there is real Zoom fatigue is the phrase I think people use now. Why did that suck? What was the problem? Is it just the water cooler left my life or?

Zack Fine: I have a number of thoughts on that and I’ll start, I’m sure Arielle will kick in with some other thoughts. But I think that in a very simple way, the screen presents a two dimensional view of a person. So we’re actually flat on the screen in these Zoom video conferencing experiences. And when we’re gathering on the screen, we’re more often than not there to do something very specific and the chit chat isn’t as easy to happen and the sort of three dimensionality of a person isn’t truly present in the room physically. And so I think then the binary of the sort of work on, work off reduces the space for a person to just be a person amongst a group of people. And that gets really tiring. And so that’s one part of it that I think we find exhausting as well, which is like if you’re on Zoom all day and it’s just meeting after meeting, after meeting, it’s reductive in a way and people just become about the work.

Zack Fine: And there’s not a lot of space to get to know people in a three dimensional way, which is why we brought in Recess as different ways to engage in that space. So that we’re expanding how we engage with each other and not just asking a question, like, what did everybody do this weekend? Or tell a funny story. Things like that feel like they put people on the spot in a certain way, but if there are ways to be playful and find games that engage people in a different way, you can draw out parts of people’s personalities and you can create opportunities for connection that are separate from work but are contributing to work in some way. And I think that that energizes folks on Zoom in ways that we found really effective.

Arielle Yoder: Yeah. And just to add to that, I mean going back to this idea of the water cooler moment sort of being obsolete now for teams who are permanently distributed or are permanently remote. There is or there was a certain feeling of just an organic moment happening. If you meet in a common area or if you have a lunch together that presents an opportunity for a conversation to just happen naturally or not. You know, even we’ve seen, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, we’ve seen a lot, people are organizing these sort of Zoom happy hours, which is a chance to be on Zoom when it’s not related to work. But it is still sort of like that thing on your calendar that has a specific task associated with it so it’s hard to buy into any kind of, like, natural connection because you are still completing the task of happy hour. And because on Zoom you have the option to just go on mute if you don’t want to engage with something to the natural spark of an organic conversation is somewhat flattened.

Ricardo Signes: Okay, so the thing I heard a lot during lockdown was about how people had switched to working remotely. But really what happened was that one week we all realized we had to take our favorite mugs home on Friday because we wouldn’t be back on Monday and that was it. There wasn’t a careful planning process to become a remote first culture. A lot of what made our culture successful might have been built around in person activity and Recess seems like a lifeline, like an attempt to address what was lost by building something new in its place. So, what can teams do to restore their previously successful working culture?

Zack Fine: This, for me, goes back to just the experience of other human beings connecting. And we have developed over a long time this ability to pick up on the energy and the atmosphere and the environment and the cues of human beings when we’re in the same space with them. And so we’re learning and navigating and connecting with people in a physical space in a way that we’ve developed biologically for a long, long time. Those skills haven’t developed in this medium as successfully and they’re not exactly the same. And so how we connect is a little bit different, but the connection, just building a human connection with people is so essential for restoring that community that might be fraying in this moment of transition. And so I think that the way Recess goes about exploring that is trying to get people to engage in so many different ways through different categories. Whether it be through playful silliness or through problem solving, in a way that’s not related to work, but fun problem solving.

Zack Fine: And then sharing in a sort of soft skill way, how we can facilitate ways for people to get to know each other because the pressure of trying to just say like, “Who are you?”, “How are you?”, “What’s going on?”, isn’t always the easiest for people to engage with, particularly in this over-the-video conferencing situation. So we facilitate the part that is not easy to do any longer because you’re not being offered the opportunity to be standing around with another person waiting for a meeting or something like that and “Hey, how are you? What’d you do this weekend? Or I like that shirt.” Or anything like that. This doesn’t allow for that as easily. And so there needs to be a facilitator right now that helps create that social fabric again. And I think then we can restore the thing that was perhaps positive prior to making this transition, which is just that feeling of connecting on a number of levels.

Arielle Yoder: Yeah, I mean I think for me to answer the question of how to use play to restore what was potentially lost, I think about what exactly was lost. And in my own experience and the experience that I think we’ve had with several clients is that we have all these different communication tools, right? So people are talking and things are getting done because we are a “productive” society, but teams become siloed. And so the opportunities for somebody in sales to get to know somebody from engineering. Those two people never have to talk because they don’t necessarily work side by side or they don’t necessarily have projects that are in tandem with one another. So the siloing causes something bigger to fracture, in my opinion, right? And there are different ways to create communication between teams that are siloed, right? “So we’re going to have a lunch hour and we’re going to pair people up and you’re just going to talk.” And that’s great, but what if you have touch points with that person that you can bring back.

Arielle Yoder: “Oh, remember when we did that drawing thing together. Remember when I learned about the neighborhood that you grew up in and then we did this? Oh, I learned that so and so experience, came here to this company because of this and I wrote a poem about it and so I’m going to reach out to him.” I now have a touch point with that person that I didn’t prior and it didn’t feel like work. It didn’t feel like I had to generate that on my own because I had someone sort of facilitating that for me so that pressure was taken off. I think that is how play can help restore those lost connections between teams.

Zack Fine: Yeah. And we’ve gotten the feedback that it has, which has been really great. That it’s really helped to build and strengthen relationships or to heal relationships that were fraying prior. So when we get into some of the more vulnerable and more emotional aspects of the exercises, those really get at, when a group is really wanting to do that work, those really get at some of the things that are fraying inside of an organization because people aren’t having an opportunity to talk and be present with one another.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. So putting aside Zoom for a minute, a lot of people have gone back into the office. In Philadelphia, we’ve been in the office for a while now. I’m going to guess that the activities that you’re talking about are useful even if you are not stuck on the other end of a two dimensional screen. Have you worked on this with people in person? How does that go? How does that differ?

Arielle Yoder: Yeah, we love working with people in person. We’ve done a couple of in person events. We’re based in New York and we’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of in person sessions and it’s been great for all the reasons that I’m sure you can imagine, right? Because one, you have more space to be expansive with what you’re doing and you don’t necessarily have to adapt the exercise in a myriad of different ways to fit a Zoom screen. So we like the ability to do both.

Ricardo Signes: One thing your site calls out is using play to welcome new hires into your company culture. Early on in lockdown, I wasn’t sure how we’d onboard anybody. I thought I’d be saying all the time, normally things aren’t like this and we’ll be back to normal soon. And that might have been a reasonable thing to say for a week or two, but not for a year or two. So what is the role of play and bringing somebody into the team?

Arielle Yoder: I love doing the new hire sessions. I think they’re so fun because, well one, as I’m sure you know, the onboarding experience especially completely online, it’s a lot. I think a lot of companies have a steep learning curve, so you’re inundated with a lot of information as a new hire. And so taking a break to give your brain a little bit of a reset is really nice. And two, it allows you to one, get to know your fellow new hires and the other members of the company. That I think just purely and simply is what’s great about it. W e provide opportunities for people to get to know each other, to be in breakout rooms with just two or three people getting to know not only who they’re going to be working with, but who is coming on board with them as well. That’s what I like about it.

Zack Fine: I think it indicates to the new hires right away that the company is invested in their social wellbeing. So we often start those sessions with a feeling of a little wind at our back because people are excited to be there and feeling like, “Oh, this company really cares about my wellbeing.”

Ricardo Signes: So you brought up a point that’s really interesting to me, having the company show its staff that they’re interested in their social wellbeing, which is difficult at the best of times. Do you have other things you think are important for those of us who run organizations, who are responsible for the culture sort of as a whole, hings that we should be thinking about that you can see we’re failing at?

Zack Fine: We’ve just noticed that people who are in these organizations and companies that feel that the companies invested in their wellbeing are just so much happier and they stay longer. And so the attrition is significant at a lot of companies who don’t invest in this type of wellbeing and a diversity of offerings for that.

Arielle Yoder: Yeah, I mean it’s a really good question and it’s a hard question to answer because everybody is different. So, you know an online yoga day or an online yoga session is going to be really helpful for some people, for others it’s not. Recess is going to be really helpful to some people. Maybe it won’t be for everybody, you know? We’d love to think that it is, but the bottom line is that it’s probably not. So I think being invested in the individual is actually what’s important because hopefully if an individual feels like they have agency that they’re being heard, that they can say, “This is what I need.” And something is going to be done about that in a real way. I think some people just need more time. Some people just need a meeting taken off of their calendar. Some people need flexible hours because they’re parents and now there’s no line between their work and their home, you know? Quite literally. The more that we do this and the more that we get to know people, the more that we realize that everybody’s going to be different.

Arielle Yoder: And I think companies and leadership teams that are actually invested in learning how their employees are working, what they need and how they’re changing. And are willing to take either the extra time or the extra money to address those individual needs, that’s what makes employees happy in my opinion.

Zack Fine: I think people are going to burn out faster if the company is not invested in who they are outside of just their output. And so that would be my advice is just invest the money and the time in allowing a person to feel as human as possible and not just a worker.

Ricardo Signes: I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Zack and Arielle and we talked a little earlier, you and I, about March Madness. The other thing we should talk about is the Thursday Throwdown at Fastmail.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Oh, I love Thursday Throwdowns. First of all, they happen every Thursday.

Ricardo Signes: So what is Thursday Throwdown?

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Thursday Throwdown came from the idea that everybody’s got all these interests and abilities and we needed a place for them to be showcased. So in Australia it’s called Monday Munchies, but in America, apparently we find Mondays very difficult and we kept skipping them. So we moved it to Thursday, a way better day of the week and renamed it the Thursday Throwdown. Sometimes people talk about their work. Sometimes people talk about their hobbies or interests, like the time Joe dissected a book. It’s a little alarming to see a book ripped open in front of you. I’m going to ask you what your favorite is first, cause I know what mine is.

Ricardo Signes: Well, I think I might name two. One, which I’ll name because everybody seems to name it as their favorite. And that was Supermarket Sweep when we…

Helen Horstmann-Allen: You totally stole mine. Yes, that’s what I was going to say.

Ricardo Signes: Well, that’s what you get for letting me go first, I’ll let you describe it. There was a supermarket sweep, the other one I was going to go with is what makes a good hokey, which I think was an all time classic and very, very on brand for our extremely Philadelphia forward office.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Supermarket Sweep, if you have seen the television game show was absolutely nothing like the television game show, but it was a lot of fun. We split the Philly office up into two teams and gave them a $100 budget and sent them out to purchase snacks of predefined scoring categories of largest quantity by volume. Most unusual and best, both salty and sweet categories. Like March Madness, the scoring means absolutely nothing. All you get is the thrill of declaring how great you are at picking snacks. But everybody had a really good time and we had some really cool snacks in the office.

Ricardo Signes: There’s not nothing, right? Whether you win or lose, you still come out of it with an extremely large quantity of snacks in the snack drawer. And I think that the macaroni and cheese ice cream is still in the freezer.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Because that’s disgusting.

Ricardo Signes: Well, opinions can differ on ice cream. I will let everybody come to their conclusion about macaroni and cheese ice cream on their own. And instead, I will segue to talking about the takeaways from our conversation with Zack and Arielle. First, remote work doesn’t have to mean disconnected work. There’s a lot of different ways for organizations to build community among the remote workforce, but you have to work at it. It doesn’t just happen. Secondly, activities that work in an in-person world don’t always translate well over Zoom. So before you organize your next Zoom happy hour, think about what you can do to foster more connection between the people there. Maybe that’s incorporating games or maybe it’s encouraging people to join breakout rooms where they can have a conversation in groups of a reasonable size.

Ricardo Signes: When you do this, you give people a chance to connect in ways that aren’t just doing work and it lets people from different teams talk to each other who might not otherwise do so in their workday. Play can be a great way to welcome new hires to the team and make them feel included. And ultimately, building a connected company culture requires investing in the wellbeing of your staff. They need to feel safe. They need to feel supported. They need to feel like the work is not just a slog, so that they can feel like the people working with them are their teammates and companions in this journey.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: We hope you learn something new today and got inspired towards better digital citizenship. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new guest, so subscribe if you’d like to listen to our next show.

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