The workplace has changed considerably in the past year. Many leaders, myself included, have seen great things come out of what appeared to be a worst-case work scenario. And despite what we first thought, working virtually has many positives. For example, the size of a conference room no longer dictates how many people can attend a meeting. Video conferencing provides a level playing field; regardless of title, role, or responsibility, every person occupies the same-sized square on the screen.
We are now skilled in facilitating small-group breakouts via Zoom and Teams where people can engage in authentic group dialogue – a departure from using these tools mainly for one-way presentations to large groups. And as in-person interactions were put on hold, people had the time and a new motivation to connect – without having to consider location or arrange travel plans.
But despite these positives, people are still struggling.
People Feel Isolated
A global survey conducted last spring noted that “75% of respondents reported feeling more socially isolated since the start of the pandemic.” Additionally, recent research shows that our professional and personal networks have shrunk by close to 16% — or by more than 200 people — during the pandemic.
This tells us that despite all the great things that are happening virtually, folks are still feeling less connected and even less valued by their organizations and teams. They aren’t interacting and connecting like they were before March 2020. Not addressing this issue has the potential to lead to bigger problems. Because when people don’t feel like they are involved, that they aren’t fostering relationships that help propel their careers forward, they often come to their own conclusions as to why.
For example, if people are under the impression that they aren’t invited to as many meetings as their counterparts, they will start thinking, “Do my leaders not care what I think?” “Are there certain ‘superstar’ employees that leaders go to instead?” “Am I not important?” Most likely, none of this will be the truth, but the stories we tell ourselves when we are not connected, when we don’t feel valued, or when we think we’re the second string or backup can quickly slip into the zone of negativity.
These stories are dangerous. They become our new reality and create a sense of non-belonging, leading people to question their self-worth. So, the question for leaders is: How can we build meaningful relationships when we don’t have a chance to be together? How do we create relationships when small things can get in the way and create dysfunction among the team – especially if these relationships don’t have a longstanding foundation?
Today, virtual offices and working from home are the norm, requiring leaders to be more thoughtful, proactive, and intentional when it comes to creating connections. Here are some simple but powerful actions they can take.
Be on the lookout for clues.
While all leaders must ensure they respect the boundaries of privacy and what their people are willing and not willing to share about themselves, there are ways to “open the door” to learn new things about colleagues now that most are working from home.
For example, if it makes sense for your organization and is within your people’s comfort zones, ask team members to consider turning off their virtual backgrounds occasionally. Why? Because seeing attendees’ real-life workspaces can be a great way to get to know them. Do they have a dog, a cat, a menagerie of pets? Do they always drink coffee or a specific brand of bubbly water?
Learning about an individual’s daily, seemingly inconsequential habits can connect people in very real and personal ways. Starting virtual meetings with an icebreaker activity can also be a great way to learn more about the people in attendance. For example, consider asking folks to go on a quick “scavenger hunt” to share a favorite gift they’ve received or something blue. This will give everyone the opportunity to speak and connect with coworkers about something non-work-related.
Don’t stop using Root Learning Map® experiences.
For decades, Root has worked with clients to create Learning Map modules to help people in an organization talk about what is happening, what should change, how they can work together to make it happen, and to think through the most pressing issues of the business together. These sessions are discovery-based, exceptionally detailed, and interactive – intentionally created to help a group of people get a true understanding of each other’s perspectives.
We have always insisted on the importance of inviting small, diverse groups of people – mixing titles, divisions, groups, folks based in different geographical locations – to sit face to face and share their unfiltered thoughts. A CEO might be seated next to an R&D intern who is seated next to a rising leader from marketing who is seated next to an admin from finance. We can’t meet face to face right now, but that doesn’t mean this incredibly valuable tool needs to be put to the wayside. Learning Map sessions, which have been the great equalizer for many years, are still effective in a virtual environment. In fact, they can be instrumental in creating powerful conversations and connections throughout an organization.
Block out an hour a day to connect – and be relentless in this commitment.
I once said, “If you don’t feel you’re of value, you’ll spend all of your time trying to validate it for yourself rather than creating it for others.” And nothing positive comes from someone focused on proving his or her value. It doesn’t create great teams. It doesn’t help a business succeed. Individuals are left playing an appearance game rather than a team game. But leaders can mitigate this. All it takes is time.
Leaders should have time blocked each day to connect with someone different. Make a list – a long list, because everyone needs validation – and make calls, send emails and texts. Use the approach that will work best for that person. Say hi; ask about their emotional state, their projects, whatever feels right. This small act will go far in ensuring people feel valued.
Creating Connected Teams is Different Now
It’s no longer easy to have impromptu chats with people in the halls. We can’t pop by someone’s desk to see how they’re doing, and we can’t loiter outside the conference room sharing jokes or seeking advice. This means it’s critical for leaders to establish new habits that foster connections and help people feel valued. Creating highly connected and bonded teams is different now. And it’s going to continue to be different.
Feeling undervalued as a remote worker is dangerous, because it doesn’t take much for a whisper of doubt to become a shout. But the solutions to mitigate this issue aren’t costly or laborious. It’s important to care about creating relationships and bonds when we’re physically far apart. It’s about humanizing leaders and teams in a way that fosters a sense of connection. It might not be what you used to do, but it’s what must be done.