Like most of you reading this, I spent 2020 working out of a home office (and continue to do so as of this writing). This is the first time in my career I’ve worked remotely this much. Before I was always able to augment any virtual introductions with a face to face soon after. For the first six months of my job at Ipreo leading a DevOps transformation I was in NY City twice a month. My kind of work heavily relies on building relationships.
One trick I figured out early last year was to set custom backgrounds and rotate them once a week or so. I started using pictures from my personal travels. I didn’t have an agenda with this at first, they were just photos I liked.
Something great started happening. During those first few minutes when everyone is signing in, un-muting, shooing their kids out of their office (or not), people started asking me about the pictures. It gave me a chance to tell a really quick personal story about where I was when I took it. Most of the time, especially at the beginning, I didn’t know everyone on the call, so it turned into a way to do a really fast but intimate introduction.
One popular photo was of a French road sign. That was from a trip I took with my Mother, Aunt, and Grandmother several years back. My Grandma left France right after WWII ended with her new US Army husband (my Grandpa) on a boat. She hadn’t been back since. We spent a couple weeks going around France and meeting as many of her 13 surviving siblings as we could - it was an unforgettable trip to say the least.
I vividly recall walking around La Rochelle and listening to her tell stories of the German occupation: pointing out an alley where one of her sisters was raped, and another where another of her sisters lured a soldier into a trap set by the resistance, and the corner where her and many others peeled potatoes for the Germans and got to keep the skins to eat themselves. I saw the local community center where her and my Grandpa got married. Those stories helped me connect with my Grandmother on a whole new level and understand much better why she is the way she is.
That’s what stories do - they help us connect. In a remote world where our calendars are packed all day it’s easy to forget that we’re not two dimensional video feeds on a laptop. We’re humans with stories and depth.
I’ve noticed some of my colleagues picking up on the technique to similar effect. Even in cases where they’ve worked together for years I’m hearing people tell stories that are new to each other. It’s a neat way that our current situation opens up a new opportunity. I hope you give it a try and that it works as well for you.
P.S. I’ve been distracted from writing here due to other writing projects and a new role. I joined Edward Jones last year as Director of Digital Branch Experience where I lead around 25 development teams. My group’s mission is to create a really great, cohesive toolkit for our 20k branch teams. It’s an awesome opportunity and I’ve been heads down on getting settled in. We’re hiring like crazy right now so if you’re open to joining us please check out our new careers page and let me know if you have questions about roles you see there.