May 1 2020 Remote Work challenges our team spirit: idea of Secret Santa

With the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the number of companies offering remote work is on the rise. Working from home initially gave rise to excitement and we were free from the crowded commuter trains. However, despite all of that excitement, some of us may start to feel uneasy and stressed from this unexpectedly long period away from the office.

We would like to share our observations on remote work from a team spirit perspective. We hope this will give you some insight to understanding the cause of the stress that you may be feeling. Following this, we would like to share one initiative that we used in our team to overcome those difficulties – Secret (Work From Home) Santa. We hope that this article will be of help in understanding your current remote work situation and possibly give you some ideas to share with your employer!

Challenges of Work From Home 1: Limited random encounters

When we are working in the office, we have a lot of “random” chance encounters, which helps us to start conversation and build relationships. For example, we may bump into each other going to the bathroom and we may have a quick chat, complimenting each other – “Your shirt is really cool! Where did you get it from?” Or, we may catch a coworker putting their lunch from home into the microwave bringing up conversations like “Hey who cooked that for you? It smells so good!” We have a lot of opportunities to start random conversations when we are sharing the physical office space together.

However, when we are working from home, we neither hear nor see what our colleagues are doing – we can’t see what bright new colors they are sporting, nor can we get a whiff of their home-cooked lunch. In a sense, doing remote work is like working with horse blinders on – we can’t see anything but what we are doing and it naturally limits our random encounters with others.

Challenges of Work From Home 2: Thinking of others

Working remotely, we need to be extra conscious in thinking of our colleagues. In the office, we can hear people sigh, we can feel their busyness, and we can sense their difficulties. In these situations it’s easy to reach out to someone and invite them for a coffee and to give them some compassion.

However, during remote work it’s easy to forget that there are other people working alongside us that have human emotions and feelings too. A lot of our expression and emotion is lost through the plainness of text, email and messaging. Even emojis can easily mask people’s true feelings. Unless people voice up their issues through shared communication channels (e.g. Slack or Zoom) it’s hard for us to know exactly what they are thinking or feeling.

We also must not forget that it’s easy to be complacent and only focus on those who we are comfortable around, or those with whom we have shared responsibilities. We work with other teams and other departments, and we all need to support each other. Thus, in times of remote work, we need to be more conscious of being considerate of others working with us – beyond our own comfort groups and beyond our own teams.

What is Secret (Work from home) Santa?

As we mentioned above, remote work can challenge our team spirit. We would like to share how our initiative, Secret WFH Santa, helped us to overcome some of those challenges. For those of you who don’t know, Secret Santa is a Christmas tradition where everyone is assigned to secretly be the gift giver (Secret Santa) for another person. The recipient then guesses who got them the gift. (For more information on Secret Santa

In Active Connector, it has been our Christmas tradition since 2015. It started when one of our former colleagues suggested the idea and we have been practicing it every year since then. We’ve had a lot of fun over the past years. You can see our Secret Santa history in our blog article (In Japanese):

To raise our spirits and encourage more interactions during this period of extended remote work, we decided to do Secret WFH Santa as follows:

  1. Everybody is assigned to be someone else’s secret santa using a gift exchange site (
  2. Everyone secretly decides on what to get their designated recipient (gift receiver) to help them enjoy his/her work from home. We set a budget of 2000JPY
  3. Active Connector purchases the item on behalf of the Secret Santas from Amazon and anonymously delivers the item to each recipient’s home.
  4. During the all-hands meeting via Zoom, the first person opens their gift, and guesses who their Secret Santa is.
  5. Once their Secret Santa is identified, the Secret Santa explains why they got that gift for their assigned recipient.
  6. The Secret Santa then opens their present and the process continues until the last person in the team.


Here is a photo of the team before the gift opening. 

Here is a photo of the team after everyone has opened their gifts! 

Some of the gifts people received and their Secret Santa’s comments: 

Fancy cookies – “Because he likes to drink coffee. I thought he would enjoy it with these cookies”

Bluetooth earphone – “I thought it would help with remote meetings or calls”

Fragrant hand cream – “She can relax while working from home with this”

Overcoming difficulties of Remote Work

Although Secret Santa is not a structured system designed to tackle the root cause of remote work difficulties, we would like to share how Secret WFH Santa can be one way of addressing some of these issues.

In a sense, our Secret WFH Santa initiative has helped foster some of our much needed random encounters. In lieu of actual random encounters, random name allocation has served the purpose of allowing people to interact with those who they wouldn’t have normally. It is definitely different to bumping into somebody in the office and striking up a conversation about their clothes or food, but nevertheless it creates a new bond between people. Secret WFH Santa has also helped foster a caring spirit amongst our staff as people need to consider others when deciding on a gift for them.

Remote work is not a solo work

In the beginning, many people celebrated the liberty that remote work gave us. We all had the tools necessary, such as Zoom and Slack, however, we were mostly constrained to using them only when there was a “need” to communicate. It wasn’t possible to see when others were free for a quick chat, or to have a random chance encounter. Even when we do communicate with these tools, a lot of nonverbal communication can be lacking.

With situations like this, there is a risk of “work from home” becoming “work on your own.”

Thus, it is important for us to structure and facilitate communication beyond our daily work needs. As a team we need to put in a bit of extra effort to go beyond our comfort zones and take whatever initiatives we can. Secret WFH Santa is just one idea, but it’s something you and your team might like to consider.



Author: Asami Matsumoto (CEO/Founder of Active Connector) Edited by Peter Raymond 

Born in Japan, but had been moving around the globe and has experienced living in different parts of the world. She has lived in the United Kingdom, Canada, Ghana, and even Pakistan. She is a traveller with a passion for bridging cultural differences through respect and understanding. Asami’s Interview    Linked in  

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