On optimism and team engagement in the time of COVID

Last edited on April 15, 2020

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    My guiltiest pleasure right now is watching apocalypse films. It’s less escapism than it is catharsis, and there’s usually a happy ending (or at the very least---they have an ending).

    When you watch these apocalyptic movies, the audience is always focused on the hero, holding the door closed against some encroaching danger. Few people are paying attention to the guy in the corner of the room sitting with others, telling some wild story or caught in the middle of some elaborate joke, trying to get a smile out of people in crisis.

    That’s me.

    I’d shake your hand, but… Nice to e-meet you. My name is Evan Atkinson and I’m the Culture and Workplace Associate here at Cockroach Labs. Traditionally my job consists of handling culture-related activities and programs and trying to inject some fun into the workweek. Now that we’ve transitioned to working entirely remotely, I’ve become somewhat of a Patch Adams for generalized anxiety.

    There is no way to minimize the enormity or the emotional toll of our current situation, but I am working hard to provide some much needed optimism and levity to our team.

    Act I: “Are you working from your closet?”Copy Icon

    In the first week of our remote transition, the main focus was on making a comfortable and effective home workstation. For a lot of people, that meant taking their laptop to the couch or figuring out how to make a kitchen table look like a hostage negotiator’s set up from 24. For me in a New York apartment with square footage that matched the reading on the thermostat, I had to get creative.


    I stacked my monitor on top of a speaker, took a coffee table and flipped it sideways, and used my bed as an armrest (I was also able to snag a comfy chair and other tech with the budget that we gave each employee to set up their workspaces).

    I was (am) incredibly proud of my own bit of desk MacGyvering and wanted to see how my other coworkers had fared in the first few days of WFH, so I hosted an MTV Cribs style house tour for people to share what they had built. I was almost unanimously dunked on for my tiny set-up, but it was great to see how resourceful other folks had been in such a short amount of time.

    Engagements like these house tours have since been formalized into something called “Spinning-Up”, a 30 minute video call to get people socializing and out of their work mindset before our All-Hands team meetings each Tuesday.

    Act II: “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t tentacles.”Copy Icon

    Okay, great. Everyone has settled into their workspaces and we’ve all collectively learned how to set up a desk in our home that doesn’t compromise our spines. Now comes the hard part: mental wellbeing.

    During the sudden shift to working from home, work became much more about… well, work. I don’t bump into any coworkers on my way to grab my 3rd afternoon coffee, or anyone for that matter. It can be easy to reduce your relationship with your coworkers to something purely results based: “here is what I got done today, talk tomorrow.”

    At Cockroach Labs, our culture is one of our greatest assets. It’s the whole reason I’m here. Preserving a sense of connection and culture while physically isolated has allowed us to continue doing great things in spite of a world-changing event. We are built resilient.

    My part in all of this is to create more opportunities for organic social interaction and provide moments for levity, and frankly, to stop you from working for just a moment. The first step was creating a #watercooler channel on Slack, an always-on video call where employees can effectively “bump” into each other and have a moment to connect.


    Virtual Team All-Hands

    I’ve seen virtual jam bands pop-up, I’ve seen people playing games, at one point I ate a mystery can of food from my pantry on camera just because. Do you need to spend 15 minutes of your work day watching me try to figure out not just the how, but the why, of eating preserved octopus? Absolutely not, but I can guarantee that for those 15 excruciating minutes, you aren’t thinking about the danger at the door, or the weight on your shoulders.

    Act III: “ birth cry will be the sound of every phone on this planet ringing in unison.”Copy Icon

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Lawnmower Man, a 1992 Sci-Fi film so bad that Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the title. In the film, Jobe attempts to upload his consciousness to the internet to make all of the phones in the world ring at the same time (they never really explain why). In that terrible movie, Jobe is the villain, but I think that we share a similar motivation: to take humanity and bring it into the virtual space.


    We are all Lawnmower Man

    The first step in this transition was bringing effort was transitioning key legacy legacy IRL engagements into a virtual format. Every Thursday I host different hour-long “Tea Times” that invite Roachers to participate in some kind of activity as a fun end to the workweek. Before Coronavirus (BC), Tea Times were biweekly in the NYC Headquarters and involved employees hosting a unique shared experience, maybe a grilled cheese cook-off or a potato chip taste test, something to get people away from their desks and send them off to their homes with a story.


    Sample Cockroach Labs trivia night question

    Virtual Tea Time serves the same purpose as it always has, but right now it feels deeply vital. Some past examples include movie screenings, trivia competitions (pro tip: host the trivia on Zoom so the trivia teams can strategize in smaller Google Hangouts to mitigate "who's muted?" confusion), and game nights. We’ve also added activities like art classes, Family Feud, and open mic. It’s heartening to see everyone laughing together at the end of another week and more practically, it’s helpful to keep track of what day it is and separate the weekend from the workweek.

    Act IV: “That’s the yeast of your problems” Copy Icon

    When COVID-19 hit, every person on the internet wanted to tell you about their sourdough starter and every company wrote the “Ultimate Guide to Transitioning to Remote Work.” We did, too. We’re coming up on the start of month two of a new normal for work in the tech industry, we’re still at home, and we’re connecting seemingly more than ever before.

    I am immensely thrilled and fortunate to be a part of an organization that values joy and encourages us to take care of ourselves. Cockroach Labs is a culture-first company and that’s what has kept us moving forward and allowed us to transition to an entirely new workplace structure with minor hiccups.

    In the disaster movie that we are all watching play out before our eyes, it can be so easy to focus on manning the door, focusing on this invisible danger on the other side. At Cockroach Labs, we locked the door early on, and now people can gather together after work and tell a story, or even eat an octopus. We don’t know the ending just yet, but in the meantime, we’re all here working together and sharing a laugh or two along the way.

    remote work
    employee experience