For many people, the defining shift at work over the past two years has been the predominance of their screen — the ‘magic mirror’ through which working culture has been filtered to an unprecedented effect. Many people who started new roles in lockdown might not have actually been in a room with their team. For many more, the balance of ‘real life’ to ‘digital interaction’ has tipped, with hybrid or even total remote working now the norm.
Building and maintaining relationships with people that you only ever see on screen is now a key skill. As in real life, transparency, likeability, credibility and trust are key to good interpersonal and group dynamics — but demonstrating those qualities in virtual situations requires awareness of the different skills this modality demands. For managers, the onus is on building a strong team dynamic by getting to know team members and facilitating inclusion and collaboration as well as morale. For colleagues, it will include growing and fostering interactions with the people they’re working with as well as opening up opportunities for career-critical activities such as networking and receiving feedback. In addition, both will have to make up for the lack of everyday ephemeral office interactions that oil the wheels of working life and engender personal connection — everything from office chitchat to birthday celebrations. And, of course, all of this applies as much to post-pandemic online work situations as it does to people who may have international teams that they work with remotely. The good news? By applying strategic creativity there is plenty you can do to create meaningful and positive connections that work for you and your digital team.
Don’t just talk about work at work
Resist the temptation to use the time-effective nature of virtual working and videoconferencing to keep it all work and no play. Relaxed and friendly interaction is one of the key functions of group dynamics (even when you’re working hard), and a little easy-breezy banter will go a long way.
If you’re a manager: Try starting your meetings with an icebreaker question, but make it an open one — ‘How was your weekend’ is likely be met with ‘fine’. Instead, make your questions intriguing, amusing or searching…and the answers you get back will likely be too. Know Your Team used its data to find the 25 most popular ‘get to know you’ work questions if you need inspiration.
If you’re a colleague: Encourage the ‘watercooler chat’ of an in-person office through one of the many online workplace comms platforms. This is the place to let off steam and recreate the natural banter so integral to an IRL workspace, allowing you to connect with others and stop work communication becoming purely transactional.
Research shows that the tendency for many women to self-deprecate at work, and to put their heads down and get on with their jobs can impact their career paths, from reducing the likelihood of promotion to limiting the flow of opportunities. Boosting visibility at work is especially important when you are working remotely as it’s even easier to disappear into the ‘ether’, creating deliverables but without the chance to raise your profile or your needs in everyday, in-person interactions.
If you’re a manager: Help everyone maintain a public profile in the team by instigating a ‘weekly wins’ meeting, where team members get to talk about the gains they have made in the week, what they’re proud of, or what they need help or collaboration on.
If you’re a colleague: Nominate colleagues for any office commendation awards, or send a note of appreciation to them for work that has impressed you and outline how it has impacted on the team’s performance. Showing awareness and appreciation helps to create a collaborative group dynamic — and it can build positive personal interactions too.
Create informal spaces to mix
Multiple surveys over lockdown showed that fostering a sense of connection on a team without a shared location was seen as the most difficult part of being a remote manager, and of working remotely in general. YouGov research indicated that for 65% of workers, socialising was what they missed most when working remotely. Scheduling in regular social events to your teamwork calendar can provide spaces — albeit digital ones — in which you and your team can chat and relax together.
If you’re a manager: Poll your team on their preferences then put a social event in your week, whether that’s a 30-minute online coffee break for everyone (or in breakout rooms between randomly assigned team members), fun activities such as Friday happy hour beers or a book club, exercise class or group video gaming.
If you’re a colleague: Get involved. Offer to run a regular event online for your team and you’ll not only provide a space in which colleagues can meet to hang out, but you’ll also make yourself more visible in the team as well as getting to know everyone that bit better.
Lift up your voice(s)
Research has shown that online meetings tend to replicate the biases and challenges of real-world ones, with women — whose communication styles are often more succinct, self-deprecating and/or indirect — often trying to make themselves heard over louder, male voices. Unlike in-person meetings though, there is a mute button at hand — and judicious use of technology and strategic boundaries can increase participation and equity of contribution, allowing team members to get to know and hear from each other.
If you’re a manager: Foster inclusivity in your team by limiting group sizes if possible; send round an agenda before the meeting to give people time to prepare and ask everyone in the meeting specific questions to give them an opportunity to speak. Encouraging interaction by modelling respectful. non-judgemental discussion can also help colleagues to connect around ideas and team objectives.
If you’re a colleague: Commit to speaking up early in meetings to put your voice into the mix. Discussing the points and suggestions that come up is a great way to make connections with colleagues around projects, explore possible collaborative elements and raise your visibility to others in the process.
Check in with people
Working together in a physical office provides plenty of chances for serendipitous interactions: whether that’s greeting someone as you walk past their desk or noticing a colleague seems down and asking how they are. These types of sentiments are crucial for building what psychologists call ‘affective trust’, a form of trust based on emotional bond and interpersonal relatedness are a social glue that can be lost without conscious attention to it in a remote-working world.
If you’re a manager: Don’t assume that people will tell you what they need or what their challenges are. A virtual world requires an increase in touch points, so send periodic checking-in emails to ensure that people know channels of communication are open: this can be something as simple as ‘How are you doing? What do you need from me?’ Such an opening invites honest communication and can help to surface small problems or stresses before they become big ones.
If you’re a colleague: Keep your ear to the ground and a note of news and important personal events that might be coming up for colleagues, from birthdays and moving house to running a marathon, if they are mentioned in emails or virtual coffee breaks. Digital or even physical notes of celebration, awareness or support at these key points will help foster a natural bonhomie.