I've been working remotely for a startup for almost a year now and noticed that all my interactions with my co-workers are purely transactional. Software engineering is a team sport and I have never experienced such apathy towards the people I work with. Is this the default in remote work? How do folks who are 100% remote find ways to build relationships with other engineers?
Software engineering is a team sport and I have never experienced such apathy towards the people I work with.
I love your self-awareness with this one - it's hard to admit that you feel this way! Awareness if the first step toward addressing this - and we all need to feel like we are part of a great team to excel :)
Is this the default in remote work?
I don't know if it's the default; I do know that, even prior to remote work becoming more accepted during covid, remote work always had extra communication challenges.
For example, one of the core aspect of showing up in a team is presence, and while we have tools that allow remote folks to simulate in-person presence to a degree, nothing we have comes close to speaking to a person face to face yet. (Or even just watching a teammate physically come into the office, working hard on their own.)
You might want to check out this question on remote communication for suggestions on what you can do.
Lastly, if you are genuinely looking to build genuine relationships, the most important thing to focus on is getting to know the people on an individual basis. For example, do you know who on the teams shares similar hobbies as you? Or who has the most interesting side-gigs? Do you know what are the career goals of your fellow teammates? And what motivates them to work for the seed stage startup you all work at? You'll likely have to take the initiative to get to know them and ask them questions first before they reciprocate for you.
Fellow remote, also at a Startup here. From my experience so far, the social climate seems predominantly swayed by management and then the engineers in leadership positions. There were times when I felt like I was on a team and times when I felt like I hardly knew anyone; our interactions were tense and vapid, I think akin to what you're describing. The former was when we had a leaders who strived to be inclusive and transparent as possible whereas during the latter, there was a lot of tension in upper management, which then led to lead engineers getting over-burdened and micromanaged, whose stress infected the rest of us.
That said, I do believe not all hope is lost (especially in regards to building relationships), just that there is more proactivity required from us. The following are ways that have helped me (and continue to regardless of company climate):
Potentially a cop-out answer: could you meet up IRL with your coworkers every so often? (presumably on the company's dime)
You said you're 100% remote, but I know many companies which are 100% remote that still have offsite every 3-6 months. The whole team (or the whole company, since you're at a Seed Stage startup) flies into a city for discussion, hangout, and a fun time.
The trust you build with these meetings is incredibly powerful and effectively acts as the fuel for the activities that Kuan and Grace suggested.
I feel you, I had that issue with my first remote job. You can definitely build meaningful relationships, I have, but it will take some effort and vulnerability. I don't know if it's necessarily the default with remote work, but it's way easier to fall into comfortable disconnected patterns, especially with the focused work of developers.
It's easy for interactions to be transactional when they're about work. A code review is way less personal than raving about your favorite tv show or venting about a frustration in your life. I found making an effort to be fun, kind, and human makes it easy for others to return the favor.
One way to break the ice of vulnerability is with public praise. Either in a public slack channel or decent sized meeting, give a coworker a shoutout for something helpful they do. I remember almost every time someone has given me a genuine compliment and it makes it much easier for me to connect with them on a personal level.
A few things I found useful
If you try to make an effort, other people will reciprocate. So just find a way that to reach out that makes you the least uncomfortable.