Ever been to a cringey Zoom social hour at work, playing online trivia or doing awkward icebreakers with your colleagues? Sometimes virtual socializing at work is great. And sometimes… it feels like a waste of time. But in workplaces where IRL hangs aren’t possible, should we really skip socializing altogether?
For our first ever live show, recorded at Atlassian’s Team ’23 conference in Vegas, debaters Deb Lao and Marshall Walker Lee took to the stage to debate this thorny topic. Deb defended virtual socializing, citing the benefits of a workplace BFF and the value of dedicating work time to culture building. Marshall countered, making the case that so many of these Zoom hangs are poorly executed, and should be canceled so more organic team bonding can flourish.
The Increasing Importance of a Best Friend at Work
Research from Gallup
Research from Atlassian
COVID-19 Pandemic Continues To Reshape Work in America
Research from Pew Institute
Christine: Hello and welcome to Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian where we debate whether the workplace practices of today are still working for us. Hello Atlassian community!
Oh, nicely done. That was a test, you passed. Great job.
I'm your host, Christine Dela Rosa, and instead of being both host and judge as I normally am for all these episodes, today I'm just your host. As you heard a little bit earlier, you are actually all gonna decide on who the winner is. So, at the very end of the debate, you will, by applause, decide who has moved you to their side?
But you're not here to listen to all these announcements. You are here for the talent, our debaters for today we have Deb Lao and Marshall Walker Lee. Please welcome them to the stage.
Deb: Hello, hello everybody.
Christine: That was an awkward hello. We did some winks that you couldn't see and then, um, almost high-fived and then didn't, so that's the exhilarating thing that you're gonna see from today, from this debate. But, uh, I'm just gonna jump right in. I'm gonna get started for our first ever live show.
Deb: Sounds good.
Christine: Deb, Marshall. I like my remote hangs like, I like my magic show participation. At first, I'm all sweaty, I'm dreading the fact that I was picked to go up, but then afterwards I am relieved cause I got to see magic up close!
Marshall: Very on brand.
Christine: That's right. Today we're talking about virtual socializing. Uh, and just to level set, uh, as we do for every episode. Let's just define what that means. Virtual socializing. We're talking about a whole team dedicating time, putting it on their calendars for people to come together and not necessarily talk about work. This could be chit-chat, this could be catch up. This could be an AMA with different members, but essentially it's a departure from talking about, uh, moving work forward. Does that work?
Marshall: May I ask one clarifying question?
Christine: Of course you can, Marshall.
Marshall: So all those examples you gave, they would all be happening during working hours, right?
Christine: Yes. That's correct. During the workday. Whatever that may be for your team.
Christine: Cool. All right. Um, before we get into our actual debates, we're gonna start out with some opening statements.
Deb: All right.
Christine: Since you're on my left, Marshall, why don't we start with you?
Marshall: Great. Are we gonna put time up on the clock? I was told I only had 90 seconds.
Christine: Actually yeah.
Marshall: Oh no, that is terrifying. Alright.
Christine: I like this font, this is very intimidating.
Marshall: Wait. The clock is ticking. I have to go. Okay. All right. I wanna start by asking, asking the audience a question, I need your help. So I want you to applaud if you agree with the following statement: who here has way more time than they need to get their work done.
(The audience is quiet.)
Okay. Well, for the audience listening at home, that silence you're hearing, it's confirming what I assumed, which is that we are all very busy. In the remote and hybrid world, many of us barely have enough time to get our own work done. And Christine, you said that all of the social events we're talking about today would be happening during working hours.
Yes, correct. All right. So at the risk of stating the obvious, I wanna state the obvious. If it's happening during working hours and I'm expected to attend, it is work, period. The aim of the meeting might be lofty building relationships or reinforcing values, but at the end of the day, if it's a happy hour or a virtual scavenger hunt, if it's happening at 2:00 PM on Thursday, it's work. It's another meeting.
So just like we do with our other meetings, we need to inspect these social events to make sure that they're actually meaningful, right? We need to ask, do they have a clear purpose? Are they actually achieving that purpose? And critically, could we be doing something else instead that might be more effective?
So to cut to the chase, Christine, Deb, today I'm going to be arguing that virtual socializing has no purpose at all.
Christine: Hmm. Bold.
Marshall: Maybe a murky purpose at best, and that it's actually crowding out other activities that could more meaningfully get us to a place where we are happier and more productive at work.
Christine: Um, and time. Great job. Uh, that's me commenting on you being within the time limit. Not necessarily my opinion. Just to clarify, Deb, um, there's a lot of, uh, high level thoughts. Strong statements. What do you got for us?
Deb: Very bold, Marshall. Yes, I'll give it to you, they're sometimes very cringey, but I, I truly believe that they're worth it in the end.
We need something to stay connected with each other now that we're hybrid and remote and our teams are distributed across the globe.
Deb: Virtual hangs are a way to build connective tissue that successful teams have. I'm talking about psychological safety. I'm talking about comradery. A sense of trust that you have with your teammates. It helps you also stay familiar with the teammates that you barely work with and maintain those relationships, so when the time comes that you need to work with that person, you're not starting at zero.
Deb: And hybrid work now means that we need to intentionally make space for organic small talk to happen. Like we don't have the water coolers, we don't have the elevator rides. We don't have the hot lunch line to catch up. I will admit it's not a one-to-one replacement for in person, but it's the best we have, and not having anything I think is bleak and just makes it all about transactions.
Christine: Another great job staying within time. I just wanna say for both of your opening statements, those are really great thought starters in terms of what are the questions that we should be asking and evaluating this debate. Are we evaluating the right thing? And if we are evaluating the right thing, do we have the right means, the right practices in place to carry them out?
Great job, again, on your opening statements, because that is gonna transition us into our head to head round. Keep it light, keep it tight. And let's get started. Marshall, you're up first.
Marshall: Yeah. So I wanna start by just quickly addressing – Deb, I think the last thing you said, I heard you say that a world without virtual socializing, if we're remote and hybrid, would be bleak and transactional, is that what you…?
Deb: That's right.
Marshall: Okay, so I just wanna make sure I'm clear with everybody here today and everybody listening, that I'm not advocating for a world where we optimize every moment of work for productivity. I'm not saying we should do away with socializing entirely. I'm certainly not saying that we shouldn't be building relationships with our colleagues. I just think there is a better way to do it than all getting on a Zoom together, but we'll, we'll talk about that more later.
So I wanna start by being vulnerable with the two of you.
Christine: Great. And everyone in front of us.
Marshall: And I suppose all of these strangers in the audience. All right. So I'm confused, deeply, alright. All right.
Christine: Sorry, that's not the right reaction. Oh, tell me more. So sorry.
Marshall: Thank you, you just went into therapist mode and I appreciate that.
Honestly, after dozens and dozens of virtual gatherings, I still don't understand what the purpose of these events is supposed to be, and I don't think anyone else does either, which is why they're so jumbled and unpredictable and awkward.
So I, I asked some coworkers what they thought the purpose of virtual socializing at work was, and their answers were predictably all over the place.
One person said that they were supposed to help us build relationships. Another person said that they were supposed to relieve tension and help the team move past stressful events and trauma. And a third said that they're kind of like medicine, I like this one, they’re something that we kind of have to take even though we don't like it, because somehow it's good for us, even though we don't know why.
Christine: Great analogy.
Marshall: So my very informal survey revealed that the outcome we're trying to drive with these virtual socializing events is fuzzy at best. So I thought rather than starting by making a point, I would just start by asking a question. Deb, do you…?
Marshall: Thank you. I knew you were listening, but then you said my name and confirmed it, and I appreciate that.
Christine: Look at this.
Marshall: Do you feel like you understand the purpose of virtual socializing with your team? Can you enlighten me?
Deb: I will enlighten you, Marshall. I say the outcome that we're striving for here is connectedness, whether that's small, like getting familiar with near-strangers on your team, or the big ways that we can be connected to each other, say, we become friends with someone that you'd wanna invite to your wedding.
Familiarity greases the wheels to make working with each other easier. I'm more likely to send a DM or give feedback to a colleague after having a few low stakes hangs with them.
Christine: No, I totally relate to that. I, sorry to cut you off. I am kind of a nervous person.
Marshall: No, I don't believe it.
Christine: That's because we have developed comradery.
Marshall: Oh, okay.
Christine: And we have connectedness Marshall.
Marshall: Point taken.
Christine: But if I just met you, if I just joined your team, um, I don't know what you're like, I don't know how you're gonna react to me. And so if we have some social hangs, some good social credit in the bank, I can take that forward and know that I can rely on some good times and not just assume that the first experience I have with you may not be the best one.
Deb: Right, right, exactly, Christine. And for example, my team did a virtual social hour where we shared our Enneagram results with each other. And I got to learn that my colleague, George and I are both “helpers,” any helpers in the house? Thank you. Um, so now, because I know more about what motivates George, what drives him, I feel like I have a Cliffs Notes on how we can best collaborate together on future projects.
The bigger connectedness point. Friendship, right? That's way less common. We can't engineer becoming best friends with someone at work.
Deb: But because we spend so much time at work and so much time with our work team, it's crucial to have ways to make actual friends at work. Who here has a workplace best friend? Anyone?
(The audience applauds.)
Thank you. And who feels happier at work because of that friend?
(The audience applauds.)
Christine: Oh, did I just hear more applause than the first round?
Deb: Marshall, I hope you're paying attention to all that clapping.
Marshall: I thought you were my workplace best friend, Deb. And I didn't see you clap.
Deb: I didn’t clap cause I'm really close to the mic.
Deb: But I would've.
Christine: You know, I'm sitting between the both of you right now.
Deb: So work friends make us happier at work and make us more likely to stay at our jobs. Um, I actually have data to back this up. So data from Gallup showed that having a work best friend became even more important during the pandemic.
People who had a close friend at work were more likely to recommend their workplace to others, stay at their job and they reported more job satisfaction.
Christine: Oh yeah, I've seen those studies.
Deb: Yeah. Our own state of teams research confirms that.
Christine: Oh yeah. That's why I've seen that.
Deb: That you did! So, back to you, Marshall.
Marshall: Okay. There's a lot to respond to there. So I agree and I think that your point about building friendships in order to feel connected is important. I stumbled across very similar research. I think it'd be fair to say that right now we're experiencing at work a crisis of connectedness.
Marshall: Connectedness doesn't just make us more productive. It makes us, uh, more likely to stick around, more efficient, more likely to deliver value to customers, and also critically happier. Um, and it's plummeted since the beginning of the pandemic, I think I saw a statistic that 70% of workers say they feel less connected than they did four years ago, right? So connectedness is a serious problem and it's one worth solving.
I, I think the challenge and the crux of the argument today is that I don't believe that organized, virtual social events are likely to solve it. And to circle back to what I said in my opening statement, I think they are crowding out other opportunities that we could be giving people to build that connectedness through different kinds of actions, different kinds of experiences.
So several studies have shown that you are exactly right, Deb.
Deb: Yes, I know this.
Marshall: Friendship, friendship is the key to connectedness, right? It is better to have deeper connections with a smaller number of people at work rather than to feel a surface level connection with a large group, it's much more likely that you'll stick around if you have, as you said, a work best friend, not a lot of work acquaintances, right?
So here's why I think that virtual socializing, the way we currently practice it, is unlikely to help us build those friendships and build this sense of connectedness. First of all, virtual group events are too often right now, just a pale imitation of all the things we used to do in person, IRL, all jammed into this one zoom size package. Christine, you know, I love to talk about Maslow's Hammer.
Christine: Sure do.
Marshall: Yeah. And so this is yet another situation, just like on our video call episode of the podcast, where we are using video calling technology as a Maslow's hammer and approaching every problem, like that's the solution to it, right?
Marshall: So I think in order to give people with different preferences, more opportunities to build different types of connections, we need to let them break out. We need to let them have different types of opportunities to connect.
I think another problem with the organized virtual socializing events we have now is that they're forced, they're mandated. People aren't very good at building connections when they're forced to do it. We need to allow people to connect organically. We need to let people find their work best friends. We don't push work best friends together.
And as a final point here, I'll just say that work friendships are great. Fully in support of work friendships, but they can force you to walk a very fine line. If you're a people manager, if you're somebody whose job requires you to give a lot of constructive criticism in order to improve work, it can be tricky when the people that you're having to give that criticism to are your friends.
I was in a situation several years ago where I became work best friends with a coworker of mine, and then our roles changed and I became his boss.
Marshall: And my job was to give him a lot of critical feedback and so I found myself on a daily basis having to decide if I wanted to risk producing lower quality work or risk harming my friendship with my work best friend.
Deb: That sounds terrible.
Christine: What did you do?
Marshall: I think I did both things badly, but I learned, and I would probably approach it differently today.
So, wrapping it up, I will just say, I do think that the key here is that everybody has different preferences and people want to connect in different ways, so we need more opportunities for organic, ad hoc, self-organized activities, not mandated Zoom calls.
Christine: Hm, I wonder though if what you're saying Marshall is true, that we have better ways to do it and then the question is whether or not it's the best use of time and which activities will help have the most impact on the top priorities?
Marshall: Yeah, I think that's right.
Christine: Got it. Deb, what do you think about that?
Deb: Oh, Marshall, you said a lot. You said a lot there.
I'm gonna go back to, I think what your main point is, is that we should just allow these things to happen organically, people should just sort of self-organize hangs with the people they wanna hang with, the people they're interested in. And I think that's great, I'm not saying that you can't do that. I'm actually just saying that teams need to make space for all kinds of personalities on their team. Say you're shy, say you're new to the team. Yeah. Hi Christine.
Christine: Oh, sorry.
Deb: She raised her hand.
Christine: Audio medium, but I raised my hand. That's me.
Deb: You know, these shy, new people to the team, they're probably not gonna be included in these like organic hangs that are being organized on like private channels, like they're not gonna know about them. What about those people? Then they become even more sort of wall flowery. I just think that people need ways to break down barriers of getting to know someone. Like after playing a Jackbox game, with my team, together and my team is like, about like 50 people deep now.
I feel like it's easier to create a connection or reach out after that game, for an organic, one-on-one coffee chat. Like, oh, that joke you made was like really funny.
Deb: You mentioned you liked a show that I like. Um, let's talk about it. Um, let's talk about Beef. And this is happening in a DM after the social hang.
Christine: I know you're saying all the cues that appeal to me right now. I'm not the judge for this event. Just to remind everyone, right.
Marshall: I haven't finished Beef yet, so can we keep the Beef talk to a minimum?
Deb: Yes, yes.
Christine: I actually, I actually wanna say I relate to that. It's not just people who are perpetually shy. I consider myself a shy person, but once I get to know you, once I have a relationship on a team, I'm pretty good. But if I'm brand new, so earlier in my career, I joined and everyone was so loud. In a good way! But their personalities were naturally like, I'm gonna be out there, I'm gonna take up a lot of space in the room, and I just don't do that.
And so guess what? A whole bunch of people that I was supposed to be working with, I didn't know what they did, and I was too scared to ask them because it was a weird way to, am I gonna set up a meeting and be like, I'd like to, I'd like to just get to know you and figure out how we can better get along?
Like, it seems like such a simple thing. And actually I do that practice now, but at the time and a very early stage, a young person in my career – too scared to do it. If someone had facilitated that meet and greet or that conversation for me, uh, I would've appreciated it.
Deb: Right, right. And you know, honestly, I'm just afraid that, you know, purely ad hoc organic socializing is gonna leave a lot of people out and it can reinforce a culture that supports like cliques within the team.
Marshall: Interesting. Well, so as evidenced by the fact that I'm on a stage with you right now, Deb, recording a podcast, I'm not a shy person, uh, but I am an introvert. Uh, I think we've got some other introverts on the stage. How about the audience? Introverts make some noise.
(The audience claps.)
Marshall: Uh, look at the introverts. They love, love to clap. Woot, woot.
Christine: Great job.
Marshall: Uh, no, but seriously, I am an introvert. I find having to participate in these events deeply exhausting.
Marshall: Uh, so if I have to spend an hour in the middle of my day going on a virtual scavenger hunt and then return to work for the next three hours, I'm spent. And that is not how I would organize my energy if I had say so, right? I'm being forced to do it.
I, I think that the problem here is that we're assuming that shy people, people who are introverted, are suddenly going to benefit from these forced group activities that might shine a spotlight on them and compel them to step forward and share personal information about their lives, or demonstrate a skill they don't have, like escaping a virtual room, which I was not able to do by the way, twice. Yeah.
Christine: Yeah, I mean, both as a shy and introverted person, offsites, especially offsites that are longer than a day, really, really draining. And when we try to make them virtual, and I'm on a screen, and we're doing both, um, intense work, deep sessions in addition to social hangs online. Uh, I can't do anything else, even after work. I just need to be by myself in a dark room and close my eyes.
Marshall: Yeah, and I'll also add, it's not just introverts or people who are a little more recessive who might not wanna socialize. There's lots of reasons why people might have a different appetite, a lower appetite for socializing.
Marshall: Somebody who's single and 25 and looking to make new friends might be much more interested in devoting time to socializing than somebody who's frankly like me, older and a parent and really boring.
Christine: Debate for a separate time.
Marshall: So I, I wanna share one quick debate for a separate time. I wanna share one quick story. Several years ago, my wife was on a team. She moved to a new team. The team was full of 24, 25, 26 year olds. Okay. Now, this was an in-person team, but they, they also had the opportunity to work hybrid. So they incorporated some virtual socializing and a lot of in-person socializing.
Marshall: So much so that it began to make it impossible for her to meet her work deadlines. They would. Two hour lunches in the middle of the day, they would sometimes take an entire afternoon off to go play top golf or drive go-karts, right?
Marshall: And there was a lot of social pressure on my wife to participate. Now my wife was a little bit older, she was married, she had kids she wanted to get home to. The younger people on her team, didn't mind missing out on several hours of work in the middle of the day. Because they just ended up staying late together and then going out for drinks at 9:00 PM when they wrapped up work.
Marshall: So my wife every day had to decide, well, do I want to alienate myself from this team or do I want to miss time with my family, right? And so the same dynamic can start appearing when we're virtually socializing and our time is so precious.
Deb: Yikes, Marshall, I mean, that's not great for your wife, but I think the, the problem that, uh, is really here is that your wife's job scheduled virtual social time without taking away tasks, and without moving project deadlines, they treated it as like an add-on, which I think is really unfair.
We've gotta approach this at a systems level. Uh, we absolutely need to take things away from people's plates to make the space and time for social hangs. And, you know, I, I could speak from experience, on our team, I'm a designer on the creative team at Atlassian. We structure every biweekly meeting to open with an icebreaker, and then someone spends like 20 minutes doing an About Me presentation and, uh, sharing about themselves with the group.
And by doing, it demonstrates that our culture, our team culture, we value connection and teamwork. It's a way that we live our values. So before I, uh, make my, uh, final point, who in the audience has regularly occurring, like date nights with their partner or with their friends?
Gimme some applause if you have calendared, uh, quality time.
(The audience applauds.)
Thank you. So a lot of you, right? And what I'm uh, suggesting here is what if we viewed regular virtual social hangs with our teammates like an intentional date night?
Deb: So I know it feels weird and unnatural that you're like scheduling quality time into your calendars. But I think doing so says that you prioritize those relationships and that you value making space for knowing them better.
Marshall: Hmm. I have a lot of mixed emotions there because on the one hand I feel like you just told me that my wife should have gone on dates with her team instead of with me, and that hurts.
Deb: That's not what I was saying, but…
Marshall: But on the other hand, I feel like I heard you say that I should be allowed to move my deadline so that I can go, go-karting. So that's great. And Scott and MCB are here. So if you wanna pitch that, I think now's the best time.
So, yeah, it's, it's interesting this question of can we remove items from the calendar? I think we'd all like to believe that in theory, yes. I think in practice we all find that to be challenging, if not impossible. And I, I think of this being like a little, like a garden. The garden's starting to get full of weeds. If we want the garden to flourish, if we want new things to grow, we have to pull some of the weeds.
And I think that once we do that, there's a lot of interesting things that we could explore that might be a little better designed, a little more intentional, that could help us build this sense of connectedness.
In fact, there's a great Atlassian work life article all about this, ways that you can connect both sync and async with your team, suggest things like building a Spotify playlist together and sharing gifts over Slack or over Trello. I think even if we want to keep using Zoom, there's more interesting ways we can do it. We can make time for Donuts and other one-on-one connections where we have the opportunity to build deeper relationships and get past small talk.
I think if we tried to live our values day in and day out, which I'm sure most of us do, we might find that the work itself could help us feel more connected. And I love this idea of using our work practices, whether there are agile ceremonies, or our one-on-ones, or just our Slack conversations as an opportunity, a location where more meaningful socializing and connection can happen if we show up with our full selves, with our full humanity.
Personally, I, I've never felt more connected to my teammates than when we're really humming, working well together, respecting each other, and producing great work that delivers value.
So in the end, I, I'd just like to close by saying, I love the idea of being able to socialize with an entire group of people with whom you're connected because you build projects together, you ship work together. I don't think we have the tools to do it now, and I think the much more important problem is that spending time doing it actually makes us less likely that we'll get the outcome we want, this feeling of connectedness, this feeling of having really purposeful social bonding at work.
I think that's more likely to emerge through other channels and those channels will open up once we pull some of the weeds, so to speak.
Christine: I like the metaphor continuation. Deb, do you?
Deb: Do I like that metaphor? It was a good metaphor. I'll give Marshall that. But for me, I, I don't think we should throw out the baby with the bath water.
Marshall: Ooh, metaphor upon metaphor.
Deb: Had to hit you with one. Um, though there isn't a universally successful formula, like we haven't hit it yet, um, for virtual social time, there are versions that work well for many people. So I just feel like the demand for connectedness is just gonna skyrocket as we become more distributed across time zones.
And so, so what I wanna do is, let's lift the baby out of the tub. Let's dry her off. Let's pour out the bath water, right?
Christine: Okay? Got it.
Deb: And take a look in the mirror. Okay. Let's be honest with ourselves about what's working and what's not. Let's try out some new tactics to see what activities and what cadence works for each team. We can be agile about this Marshall. And let's not let perfect be the enemy of the good.
Marshall: Wow. You turned it up to 11. I appreciate that.
Deb: Was that a mic drop?
Christine: Honestly, I kind of feel like you're both agreeing, like you both want this connectedness. We are all acknowledging that we are feeling less connected to each other. We're becoming more distributed on our teams.
Christine: And we need to find ways to improve that situation. And the big question that both of you are asking is, is virtual socializing the way to do it? And at what point do we decide, hey, That's probably been enough, we should try a different tactic and start from scratch or, hey, there's some benefits and that's enough of a positive indication that we should continue to explore and figure this out further.
But thankfully for me, I don't need to decide what the answer to this debate question is. In fact, all of you out there in the Atlassian community are gonna get to decide. So if you think that Marshall is today's winner, that teams should not dedicate time for virtual socializing, please let me hear you by applause. And, screams.
(The audience applauds.)
Cool. Cool. All right. Some sustained applause there. Hear are a lot of general chatter.
Marshall: I think the people have spoken. We can stop there.
Christine: Okay, if you think Deb should win and you agree that teams should dedicate time for virtual socializing. Let's hear it, Deb’s side.
(The audience applauds even more.)
Deb: Thank you. Thank you.
Christine: Okay. I did not anticipate that I would not be able to tell the difference between which side was louder, so I'm gonna actually go into our sound team.
Deb: Come, come on, Shawn.
Shawn: Deb’s the winner!
Christine: I’d like to award the winner of the side for Deb. Uh, that teams should dedicate time for virtual socializing.
Marshall: I feel like this is rigged cuz I know for a fact that Deb had dinner with Shawn last night.
Deb: So did you, so did you!
Christine: Great. Well, let's keep the jokes going in our own, uh, perhaps virtual socializing after this conference.
Deb: Nice work Marshall.
Christine: But in the meantime, while I have the mic and I'm on the stage in front of all of you, I'd like to just publicly thank everyone that has been involved in this process for not just this episode and this debate, but for the show. Uh, wanna thank of course our debaters today Deb Lao and Marshall Walker Lee, um, as well as the rest of our debaters from season three.
Just gonna list them off. Marin Hotvedt, Rani Shaw, David Shaw, Shannon Winter, and Kelvin Yap. Also shout out to Joey Sabio and Deb Lao for their artwork on the show, digital support from Jessica Lynn and Jamey Austin.
And finally, Work Check is produced with the huge help of the team at Pacific Content, including Pippa Johnstone, Annie Rueter, Karla Hilton, and with sound designed by Robyn Edgar and Shawn Cole. Round of applause for all those folks please.