Creating connections at work can be a challenge. Being quickly transitioned into remote work has made creating meaningful connections even more difficult. For many, remote work was viewed as a temporary thing, and so many of the typical frameworks for building connections at work were simply put on hold until things “return to normal.” Normal is a fallacy and remote work is not going anywhere. Thus, building solid connections with peers amidst the reality of remote work is critical to healthy working relationships. As has been demonstrated in numerous articles like this one, the consequences of working through what equates to remote, solitary confinement can be stark.
My hypothesis is that technologists can build strong work connections by regularly sharing written thoughts via an internal blog. This isn’t a new idea – the folks at Atlassian are well known for doing this and “drinking their own champagne” with Confluence. However, I was curious if I could introduce this sort of culture change at my place of work. My motivation was a desire to make a positive change for others by offering a framework to build connections and an outlet for sharing thoughts.
Laying the Groundwork
I started by designing a framework that would allow for a community of technologists to write blog posts and share them with one another. I needed a tool that was simple, intuitive, and teamwork focused. I selected Confluence because it has ubiquitous search, is simple to use, and excels at knowledge management.
I received a Confluence license from IT and proceeded with creation of my own personal Space. I started blogging the very first week of my employment because it is important to lead by example.
My goals for the beginning of the project:
- Capture my experiences on a weekly basis and share them.
- Loop in existing employees to better understand the new hire experience.
- Meet with new hire employees to network and build connections while sharing my blog content to relate their new hire experience to mine. I feel this sets a better level of normalcy to the stresses of starting a new job.
- Build data points for future performance or promotional reviews.
Reflecting back, none of this is revolutionary or outside of common sense. The “secret sauce” is in combining these elements into a repeatable process that returns immediate, valuable feedback.
Building a Process
For the first 6 months or so, blogging was almost exclusively something that I did alone. At times, this was hard. I figured that surely others would give it a whirl and start seeing the benefits. However, I had made a design error: most folks had little or no free time to write a blog. Writing a blog is something that must be of value to the person, and that’s a difficult leap to make if you’ve not done it before. What I really needed to account for was giving someone the time necessary to write blog posts so that they could have the lightbulb moment and realize the value.
Ultimately, I wrote a fairly comprehensive onboarding document and made blogging a requirement for my team. In return, time is blocked off every week for writing blog posts. I expect a weekly blog post on whatever topic the person wishes to write about and in any format desired. I commit to reading them all and using the information shared to build a connection with my team above and beyond our 1-on-1 meetings. I perceive this as a fair trade and a net positive relationship for both sides.
Below is a snipet from my original mind map:
My experiences have given rise to the belief that anyone can be a writer but few of us have been shown the path to value. I constructed data points to help uncover the value of frequent writing exercises:
- Becoming a great writer is core to accelerated career progression. Being able to articulate thoughts in written format results in huge wins regardless of the project or topic. Documentation is often cited as the largest gap that any organization experiences.
- The only way to get better at writing is to keep writing.
- Getting thoughts out of your head frees up space for new creative thoughts. Once you learn or do something, write it down and move on to the next task.
- Blogging is a timeline of events that can be referred to when similar problems, patterns, or challenges present themselves. It becomes a “second brain” to avoid losing the valuable learnings that occur during day-to-day work.
- Performance and growth reviews become streamlined. Writing down events that align to your employer’s core values and core expectations provide rich data points to reference when it’s time for a quarterly snapshot or year-end review.
With a process in place and data points given, I onboarded my team through the creation of a blog and their first blog posts.
I received some pushback on the idea of writing a blog. At first glance, it just sounds like extra work and yet another thing to do. Some folks are just uncomfortable with the idea of writing something for others to read, especially if they had been given assignments from previous leaders that failed to yield value. My advice was to try things out for a month and see how the process felt, what value was being gained, and to be honest about the experience with me. If at the end of a month the process was of no value to either of us, we would pivot to something else.
I also realized that people who are not native English speakers will be at a disadvantage. It will take more time for them to think of something to write in their native language, translate that in their head, and then write it down in English. My advice was to work on smaller topics, keep the writing short, and take their time to get through the content. The hope was that frequent writing in English would improve written communications and make the process easier.
Ultimately, I made sure to point out that the end goals – improved writing abilities, improved communication skills, a journal of data points for future insights, and greater connection across the team – are worthy investments to make. The process takes time and trust must be built, but having clearly defined goals and expectations in the beginning helps keep the entire project transparent.
Picking a Topic
Knowing that picking a topic can be difficult, I offered my blog posts as a reference.
I also wrote down a few jump-off topics to help break the ice:
- A new skill or capability that you’ve learned and desire to document and share with others.
- A challenge that stumped you until you found key information.
- Something fun or cool that you’re doing at home.
- An event or training that you attended along with ideas, feedback, or other notes.
- Ideas on how to build or create something that you’re sharing for feedback.
- Some detail that is stuck in your head and you want to document it for later and free up brain space.
With that, I was interested to see what everyone would come up with for their first round of topics.
For the first several weeks, my team and I wrote our blog posts and learned a lot about each other. Some wrote about project learnings or technical topics while others wrote about their hobbies and passions in life. One of my team members tends to write blog posts with catchy titles that rhyme. We all read each other’s blog posts and make comments where we can, even if it’s just to suggest a new Austin taco lunch spot.
Some folks outside of our team contributed comments and interacted with the blog posts, giving evidence of building new connections with peers to support my original hypothesis! I was most interested in seeing the comments evolve over time, because new hires would come read the blogs weeks or months after being written and add their own thoughts, too. It is truly delightful to see a written idea blossom and iterate in such a way.
During this, I kept a few things in mind:
- This is a new experience for my team, and so my primary mission is to get them excited about blogging because it actually saves time and builds new work connections while also looking fantastic when it comes time for a performance review.
- I don’t care about spelling and grammar. Not everyone knows English as their first language, and even fewer write on a regular basis. I do not make comments or edits based on spelling or grammar. So long as the point is made and we all understand one another, it’s all good. Otherwise, I kindly ask clarifying questions.
- While my expectation is weekly blog posts, it’s not going to happen. Missed weeks and time away are completely fine. I put the responsibility on the writer to determine when those breaks need to occur and to feel empowered to simply take the time.
On a personal note, I loved reading my team’s blog posts and felt much more connected, too. Part of this comes from being a person who greatly enjoys reading longer form content. Writing thoughts requires putting yourself on paper, so to speak, and helps understand how the author performs critical thinking and decision making. This is why keeping the content free of requirements is key – writing is a creative process and needs freedom of expression.
I realize that not all company cultures will foster an environment where sharing thoughts and building connections on a blog will feel appropriate or natural. There is nothing to stop people from posting “bland” content that does little to build real connections. It’s important that people feel safe when posting to a blog. Psychological safety is paramount for any organization’s culture.
I made sure to lead by example when writing my own blog posts. I share concerns and fears over learning new technologies, the sadness experienced when not feeling connected with others, and even made an entire blog post on the depression experienced while being locked away during the COVID-19 pandemic. The love and support from my peers has been fantastic. It helps me feel more connected and valued as a human being while also showing hard proof of the type of culture that permeates my place of work to new bloggers.
I would not expect anyone else to share something that I myself am not comfortable with sharing. Additionally, I don’t expect anyone to share something they themselves are not comfortable sharing.
Tangible Benefits of Connection
The process of writing and sharing blog posts has resulted in some interesting and tangible benefits.
- Several individuals learned that they were all working on similar certifications from reading each other’s blog posts and goals. They banded together to form a study group, offer each other support and good vibes, and have a Slack channel to keep the conversation going.
- One of our recruiters wrote about hiring patterns, recruiting techniques, and how to build connections with modern tooling. The technologists reading the blog responded with great comments ranging from how much they learned to their desire to invest in our hiring process as a partner. This helped break down a silo between two groups that now better understand one another.
- New happy hours and socially distant outdoor events have sprung up from a general sense of connection coming from blog posts. One of our leaders wrote a blog post about wanting to hang out and connect, sparking new conversations to set up quality time across individuals.
- Technologists from other practices often share their written thoughts on practical techniques, frameworks, and processes. In particular, one post was all about testing triangles and proven approaches to adding unit tests, end-to-end tests, and other sorts of capabilities to a data pipeline. Myself and others are learning more about functional areas outside of our own daily practice, thus improving our overall market’s ability to deliver exceptional results to clients.
It’s worth noting that members of leadership are both contributing their own blog posts and commenting on others blog posts. For example, one senior leader posted tips for people new to the Austin area with restaurants, parks, outdoor venues, concerts, and other things to do or see. This level of investment helps drive more connections and also flattens the organizational chart in new and interesting ways.
This is the part I’m still working on. There are now about a dozen bloggers that actively contribute new posts. Considering that the number was just one blogger at the beginning of the year, I consider this a huge win. Additionally, I’m seeing all sorts of first time bloggers popping up from other teams and other practices and hope to see subsequent posts to follow.
One problem with creating more spaces and generating more blog posts is organization. There must be a structured design for the layout of team spaces. We chose hub-and-spoke due to the ability for each team to have a modular approach to how they wanted to arrange their hub, and also to make tapping into team knowledge much more explicit when following content updates.
Each team has a hub Confluence space. This is where team rosters, news, how-to documents, and the like are stored. Additionally, each team hub displays a dynamic feed of the team’s personal blog posts in the overview section. This offers the team two methods for sharing information:
- Individuals can post blog posts on their own space, giving them full control over all aspects of the experience. This is the default configuration.
- Individuals can post blog posts on their team space, giving them a zero-effort platform to maintain while still being able to share their thoughts.
Both styles have an impact on the design flow of information. I prefer the individual spaces design (the former from above) because it allows the most granular subscription preferences. Meaning, as a consumer of information, I can subscribe to specific people’s blog feeds. I can also subscribe to the team blog feed as well, if desired. If everyone publishes blog posts to the team’s hub space, more effort is required if only specific information streams are desired in the blog feed. Either way, the team makes the decision because it’s important that design flexibility is present to meet the composition and desires of the team.
Technologists can build strong work connections by regularly sharing written thoughts via an internal blog. I’ve spent the majority of this year introducing this sort of culture shift at my employer. This has yielded so many personal and professional gains for both my team and myself. I’m seeing writing skills vastly improving, confidence building in budding new writers, and a strong sense of connection among many different people within and across teams. This has all been driven by my motivation to make a positive change for others by offering a framework to build connections and an outlet for sharing thoughts. Seeing this come to a reality has been a true joy and flames a passion for making work not suck.