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How to Help Your Team Feel Connected in the Virtual Workplace

By Bob Biglin, CEO, and Alicia Del Real, president – The Center for Advanced Emotional Intelligence

Key,Thought Leadership

Remember the break room? The place you would linger with your co-workers and shoot the breeze about everything from your latest Netflix obsession to the cute thing your toddler did the other day? Remember how good it felt to decompress and share a few laughs?

You miss it, don’t you?

As much as many of us have become accustomed to working virtually and connecting with our colleagues via Zoom or similar technologies, it’s just not the same as seeing each other in person. With virtual team meetings, we tend to skip the niceties. The hint of awkwardness that is inherent with video meetings compels us to “rush into business,” and that comes at the cost of relationship-building and fostering a sense of belonging.

There are aspects of working remotely that many of us are enjoying. A recent survey of knowledge workers by Slack found that on the whole we are more satisfied working remotely. Respondents reported that satisfaction with work-life balance is up 25 percent, and productivity has increased 10 percent. What dropped in that survey? You guessed it, a sense belonging.

What to do?

First, resist the urge to try and recreate how you used to connect in the physical office. Taking in-person team-building strategies and simply shifting them to the virtual environment doesn’t always work. Instead of “lifting and shifting,” we need to adapt how we work together virtually. Below are eight strategies to do just that:

Reimagine your weekly team meeting

Most teams gather together for some sort of weekly meeting. Shifting those meetings to the virtual environment requires asking some fundamental questions: Is weekly the right timing? With everyone on video conferences all day, will yet another virtual meeting just acerbate “Zoom fatigue”? What other means can be used to track the status of key projects, while saving video for issues that require real-time interaction and discussion?

Rethink who leads virtual meetings

Don’t wear your team out with the same face floating on their computer screens during every meeting. Rotate who facilitates meetings as a way to bring more voices (and faces) into the dialogue. Keep your meetings interesting and fresh by giving team members an opportunity to lead and shine. We’ve seen instances where weekly meetings have been facilitated by younger members of a team, which proved to be a great development experience for them. It also relieved the team leader from having to plan for and facilitate every meeting. Truly a win-win situation.
 

Use check-in questions to “bring everyone into the room”
This is a strategy that can delay the “rush into business” and recreate the collegiality of the informal conversations that usually mark the beginning of in-person gatherings. Have fun by introducing ice-breaker-type questions. These can reflective or entertaining, “What are the TV series from your childhood that you’ve gone back to rewatch during the pandemic?” or inspiring, “What hobbies have you taken up since the pandemic began?”
 

Keep doing one-on-ones with your team
Yes, leaders are suffering from video fatigue as much as their teams, but don’t sacrifice your one-on-one time with your team members. Those highly personalized check-ins have taken on an increased importance in the virtual environment. People are craving connection, and one-on-one meetings are built for connecting. Individual team members typically take comfort in knowing they will have that dedicated time to meet with their manager, or individual colleagues. It gives them the time and space to speak their minds and be heard. That fosters a greater sense of belonging. It also provides a regular forum for you to engage in important coaching and development conversations with the individuals on your team.
 

Remember that we bring our entire selves to the job

We are more than our “work selves,” and that has never been more apparent than now. We need to stop seeing each other exclusively through a work prism. The strains that all of us have been under during the pandemic are unprecedented and intense. For many of us, it’s taking a toll. People who live alone are at particular risk of social isolation. Those with families have their own challenges, especially when trying to meet with clients or complete a critical project with a child at your knee demanding attention. Not to mention the spouses who are now sharing a home office space, or switching between the bedroom and the kitchen table. The point is, be mindful of the challenges everyone is facing and talk about it openly. Ask your team, “What help do you need to work effectively right now? What things can we adapt to make that possible?”

Pay special attention to new members of the team

Starting a new job amid the pandemic can be particularly challenging. Everyone wants to make a good first impression and get off on the right foot with their co-workers. That can be hard to do virtually. Dedicate extra time to connect with new employees to help them become an integral part of the team – both professionally and socially. Think about assigning “buddies” or mentors, just as you would during their first month in the office. Make sure that their immediate supervisors take the time to provide the training needed, or assign partners to help them get up to speed. Take the extra time to develop a comprehensive plan for their first 30 or 60 days, including connecting with, and building relationships with, people who will be important for them to know to be successful in their roles.

Schedule meetings that aren’t about work

We need to connect about more than just work. As we referenced in the beginning of this article, the hallway conversations are now but a memory for many of us. We need to recreate those light-hearted, friendship-creating conversations. Consider scheduling a 30-minute team call followed by a 30-minute mandatory recess for team members so they can recharge. Virtual happy hours have become increasingly popular. Schedule a guest beer expert or sommelier to make it both fun and educational! Take the time to explore new ways to make your team smile. Seek their feedback on what they feel would be fun and increase their sense of belonging. This has been one of the more surprising areas of success for some of our clients. They’ve found these virtual coffee chats, lunches, and home-made “master classes” to be very effective in maintaining and strengthening relationships within their organizations.
 

Recognize the importance of empathy in the virtual environment

Let’s be honest, the shift to working from home has been hard. Dealing with the pandemic has added enormous stresses to all of our lives. To help us get through it all - and get though it together - we need to recognize the importance of empathy in the virtual environment. Showing empathy is core to fostering relationships, which is the foundation of any high-performing team. Empathy shows we care. Empathy contributes to the psychological safety that is foundational to high-performing teams.

The truth is, we don’t know how long we’ll be working in the virtual environment. For many of us, it could become a permanent way we do business. The key is to listen, ask questions, explore new ways to make connections, assume positive intent, pick the right communication channels, act with empathy and compassion, and adapt as the needs of your team and organization evolve.

The Center for Advanced Emotional Intelligence (AEI) is an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm that works with senior leaders to enhance their leadership capabilities and build thriving, sustainable organizations.

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