For almost two decades, Galois had a strong culture of face-to-face, in-office work. We believed—and still believe—in the value of interpersonal relationships and in building solid connections with our clients, and our offices have always been a hub for this type of interaction. Indeed, our spaces are intentionally designed in a way that encourages collaboration, and this has been a very successful approach for us. However, the pandemic challenged these core values and forced us, like many other companies, to rapidly adapt to distributed work. Even now that our offices have reopened, much of our workforce remains distributed, and we have had to adapt accordingly.
Working in a distributed environment is a growing challenge for companies seeking to build healthy connection and collaboration between colleagues. Distributed teams lack the opportunity to engage in casual conversations, grab lunch together, and participate in team building activities. This absence of direct interaction can make it hard for members to build the strong bonds that are necessary for an efficient collaboration. Moreover, working from home can often create feelings of isolation which can lead to decreased productivity and lower morale.
While there are plenty of articles out there with tips and tricks for remote work, the reality is that building connection in a distributed environment is tough. But it is possible. Here I’d like to share some important lessons that we’ve learned the past three years and strategies that we’ve adopted to help our remote Galwegians not just survive, but thrive.
Draw a Separation Between Work and Personal Time
Without the structure of a traditional office environment, it is easy to neglect maintaining consistent working hours. Household errands, family, or other non-work related activities can be distracting. On top of that, when teams are scattered across multiple time zones, there is less overlapping time among team members, which sometimes necessitates modifying the schedule to allow for more overlapping time. As a result, the line between work and personal time can get blurry.
Some of this tension is inevitable—part and parcel to working from home with people in different time zones. We do our best to mitigate this by explicitly allowing for people to set their own hours and work on the schedules they prefer. There are limits, of course, people are expected to be available for meetings and make time for collaboration, but it is quite normal for Galwegians to work for more hours one day in order to free up time on another; or to start work early in order to finish early. “Results over form” is a mantra you’ll hear repeated over and over among Galwegians, and we really do live out that core idea. Clearly separating work and personal time is still quite important, but it is largely dictated by each individual Galwegian and their ability to manage their calendar.
Another way we promote a healthy work-life balance is by encouraging performers to not maintain our internal communication apps on their phones. Removing the expectation for continuous accessibility and communication creates an environment that respects personal boundaries, allowing team members to recharge during non-working hours or PTO.
Joy at Work
The isolation of remote work can take a toll on mental health and there are some simple, daily practices that can help, including taking breaks, going for a walk, and getting some fresh air. And as I discussed in the previous section, disconnecting from work when we are off the clock is also essential.
But it’s not just disconnecting and taking breaks from work that matters; it’s the satisfaction we get from our experience of the work itself. Here at Galois, “Joy at Work” is one of our core principles—the idea that our jobs can and ought to be a source of deep satisfaction and meaning. These aren’t just buzz words on a website or employee handbook; they’re guides for the sorts of work individual employees take, how we approach our workdays, and how we steer the direction of our careers.
For example, each Galwegian has a say in the kind of work and deliverables they commit to. While the ultimate goal of a project is to meet our client’s needs and exceed their expectations, we also understand the importance of ensuring that performers are engaged and motivated. That’s why Galois empowers performers to negotiate the aspects of a project that they find most interesting and fulfilling.
To ensure everyone, remote or not, gets value from work, here at Galois we have also established a stewardship program. This takes the form of regular check-ins from one Galwegian, the “steward,” to another, the “stewardee,” to make sure that the stewardee really is experiencing joy at work and enjoys their projects. Stewards can also serve as coaches and mentors, helping Galwegians navigate conflict or think through how to pursue their professional goals.
In addition, the steward role is very intentionally separate from a customer/manager role, meaning their whole goal as a steward is to help a colleague thrive, not to generate business results for the company. In short, every employee has someone in their corner. Having a steward or being a steward to others is a totally voluntary practice, but 95% of Galwegians participate.
Invest in Communication
Encouraging and proactively seeking casual catch-ups with colleagues is a great way to maintain connections and foster a sense of belonging in a distributed environment. The pandemic brought to light a particularly clear need for such casual conversations. Being a company dominated by computer scientists, Galois’s natural response was to create a coffeebot: an app that randomly matches a small number of colleagues, asks them to schedule a catchup call, and suggests topics for discussion based on people’s interests.
Over the years, “Coffeebot” has allowed me to have conversations with and get to know my coworkers in ways that I otherwise would never have done. I’ve talked about jazz music with an engineer, learned about a project lead’s passion for hiking in the mountains, and even learned a thing or two about cooking from an amateur chef. These are sides of my colleagues that I never would have discovered in our normal business meetings about this or that project, and I get to have these conversations on the clock. As a result, I have been able to build deeper, stronger relationships with my fellow Galwegians, making work that much better.
In addition, weekly “All Hands” meetings have played a pivotal role in fostering inclusiveness and comfort, and regular 1-1 check-ins with my projects’ customers, my steward, and my “Jedi customer” (our term for, more or less, an engineering manager) have created a supportive environment that provides a clear path to my professional growth.
Schedule Office Visits when Possible
Remote workers rely heavily on fixed-time digital communication. For many, like me, the limitations of digital communication can not only lead to feelings of isolation, but overthinking or overanalyzing conversations.
Scheduling regular (for example once every 2-3 months) office visits and in-person team activities can help break down communication barriers and create a more relaxed atmosphere. Moreover, by spending time at the office, employees can get a better sense of the business culture and gain insight that can help them better understand their role in the company. Galois not only allows, but encourages office visits – building travel into employee budgets and allowing employees to visit offices as they see fit, typically without requiring approval. This approach alleviates much of the stress associated with travel and office visits, further supporting a strong sense of connection among team members.
Building connection and fostering collaboration in a distributed environment is a multifaceted challenge that many companies like Galois have had to face in the wake of the pandemic. By focusing on clear work-life boundaries, promoting joy at work, implementing a stewardship program, emphasizing effective communication, and scheduling regular office visits when possible, we have adapted and maintained our close-knit culture despite distance.
Still, we’re not perfect. We haven’t cracked the code once and for all or mastered the art of keeping all our employees totally connected all the time. Let’s face it, nurturing a strong, connected workforce in a distributed setup is an ongoing journey that requires constant reflection, learning, and adjustment. And that’s what we are trying to do—always seeking to listen, learn, and grow better. By sharing our insights and experiences, we hope to inspire and support other businesses navigating similar challenges in this ever-evolving landscape of remote and hybrid work.