Staying Connected When Your Team Is Apart

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All over the world, teams that have found themselves in a prolonged and unplanned remote work environment are struggling to stay connected. Face-to-face interactions are often key to building strong work relationships; watercooler chats, hallway conversations and all the little moments add up. When these connections are gone, the days feel longer, and team members can easily feel isolated.

Many leaders were swift to take action to protect their company’s culture and keep team members connected as more offices transitioned to remote operations. Virtual happy hours seemed like a great option, one that would nurture relationships and enable teams to connect outside of meetings — but, quickly, these added to the problem. Zoom fatigue was uncovered, and this supposedly social activity felt like just another meeting.

Strong office relationships are paramount to a healthy company culture, but how can you nurture those bonds when everything and everyone is virtual and apart?

My team recently told me that since the pandemic, they feel more connected to each other than ever before. I wrote this article with hopes that it would help others foster connection in an unusually isolated time. Here are three ways we achieved a new level of camaraderie while being apart.

We embrace empathy.

I’ve long believed that an environment of trust and courage strengthens a team. Without both, team members will struggle to communicate, and creativity and connection will suffer. But healthy teams make everyone feel comfortable. Creativity thrives when people feel connected by ideas and can celebrate success together.

“Collective courage in an organization is the absolute best predictor of that organization’s ability to be successful in terms of its culture, to develop leaders, and to meet its mission,” says social psychologist Brené Brown.

Especially in changing or unpredictable environments, a team that embraces empathy will be stronger for it. And when leaders demonstrate empathy in difficult situations, it becomes a pervasive team quality. Challenges still happen, but through openness, they are worked through. Those are the moments that strengthen connection between team members.

Tactical advice: Stay focused during time with your team. Avoid checking email, sending Slack messages or looking at your phone when meeting with others. It’s hard to build trust and make people feel safe to be open when you’re not fully present.

We encourage spontaneity.

Change is an inevitable part of business. Some change is small and requires little adaptation. Others are big and disrupt our entire way of life. Fortunately for most of us, most change is somewhere in the middle (pandemics don’t happen every year, thank goodness.)

You might say our team has fully embraced the advice, “Change before you have to,” spoken by former General Electric CEO and author Jack Welch.

Planned spontaneity may be an oxymoron, but it is a reliable way to prepare your team for the unexpected. Teams that can gracefully adapt, improvise and pivot are ready for anything.

I’ve learned that some amount of change is necessary to keep everyone engaged and in their most creative space. If things remain the same for too long, team members can get bored and jobs become monotonous. Encouraging spontaneity can boost productivity and help ensure your team doesn’t get stuck in a rut. Organizations that nurture spontaneity have employees who are adaptable, engaged and who lean in when things get tough.

Tactical advice: Creating opportunities does not need to mean creating time crunches and anxiety. Introduce small projects such as a new pitch deck or small campaign budget with a tight turnaround. Or if your team has been operating at full capacity, give them an unplanned afternoon off. Both require them to adjust their calendars and react quickly.

We share experiences.

The virtual happy hours were such a great idea, so much so that they weren’t just happening at work. Friends and family were scheduling virtual events, too. By week three of working remotely, my team and I found ourselves jumping between one to three Zoom gatherings per evening. And not until after the last one could we finally close our laptops.

Aside from Zoom fatigue, the time itself never felt that impactful. Grabbing a beverage and chatting over a digital platform just didn’t feel the same as in-person happy hours had.

“Shared experiences are important for anyone who wants to form a high-performing team, fast,” says Augusto Giacoman, director at Strategy&, part of the PwC network. “Once you have shared experiences, you bond as a team and are able to work faster and better together.”

All too frequently, the conversations during happy hour drifted back to business. For these events to serve their intended purpose, they must create shared experiences. During one of our early team events, I led the team in a game of Where’s Waldo? Using Zoom features, team members could X on Waldo when they found him. For the first time since being dispersed, we laughed together. To create shared experiences, leaders must facilitate activities that will create moments the team will remember and enjoy reflecting on and laughing at beyond that moment in time.

Tactical advice: Create activities that engage everyone because it’s easier for wallflowers to hide in virtual environments. Choosing different team members to lead each activity can also help ensure everyone gets engaged.

As the number of days that we are apart grow, being apart will feel less like change and more like a new normal. But what our team is like in that new environment is up to us as leaders. By developing an environment and a team that embraces empathy, encourages spontaneity and shares experiences, our new normal is one we are happy in — and one where our team is closer than ever.

Angela Earl is vice president of global marketing at RFPIO. Her mission is to empower motivated teams to produce quality work that drives results. She is the host of MarTalk, a podcast for marketing professionals.

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