By Clemens Binder
This year brought us some unimagined challenges. Even if collaborating in digital environments was far from completely new to you, the intensity with which we now depend on digital communication and collaboration during months of travel restrictions, home office and lockdowns has increased for most of us. Our workplaces shifted towards online spaces in a glimpse of an eye, which meant a lot of disruption in the way we work. In this article I will look at how you can bring your team together and create a sense of connection and trust while working online.
What is connection and why is it needed?
Why should you even care about having a sense of connection in your team? In the seminal Aristotle study, Google researchers looked at what matters most in effective team collaboration. They found that what matters even more than who is in a team is how the team works together. The five aspects that came out on top of their list are, in order of their respective importance, psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.
The connection felt between team members addresses three of these key aspects: psychological safety, dependability and meaning. It refers to questions like:
- Is it safe for everyone to bring in new ideas and to ask questions?
- Can we depend on each other? Do we have each other’s back?
- Can we trust others to bring in a similar level of commitment as we do?
- As well as: What is our shared sense of why our work is relevant?
You might have experienced that if those questions go unaddressed, it is near to impossible to keep the team spirit up and for everyone to find focus and joy in their collective efforts.
How can we create connection?
Many things that foster a sense of connection face-to-face are good practices for online connection building as well. This includes things like:
- Modeling authentic and honest communication which creates a space for others to be courageous to speak up and be honest.
- Practicing quality listening as often as possible to support others to feel seen and heard. Sharing appreciation and acknowledging each other’s efforts.
- Bringing in a healthy dose of playfulness which makes work more than just a burden to carry, but something that makes you thrive.
- Finding a good level and frequency of interaction with your colleagues; and if you don’t know what that is, start by interacting with your team members just a little more often (and not exclusively about work stuff).
- Exploring shared team values, not by deciding on and announcing them, but by listening and co-creating them (Just imagine asking your team the questions above and then listening to each and every one of them with pure curiosity and without judgement).
What changes when we connect online?
Now there are some specific challenges to doing that when only interacting virtually.
- It’s harder to transmit non-verbal cues and body language
- Often you are limited in time
- Technical issues and connection problems
- The outcome can never be controlled
- It’s hard to recreate the spontaneity of a chat over a coffee in the kitchen
In the next section we’ll take a look at these challenges and how you might tackle them.
Fostering connection online
There are some very basic requirements for making sure people can connect. They might seem obvious, yet if you don’t take care of them it will definitely affect your team’s capacity to connect online.
Planning for outcomes
Online meetings need planning. Of course face-to-face meetings do as well, but it is much easier to get a feeling of where the other people are at when you share the same office space and can easily read body language. Spontaneity is more difficult online and changing agendas and directions during an online meeting will require just a little more time for making sure everyone could contribute. Virtual collaboration benefits from some extra buffer time – as well as sharing the meeting agenda upfront, to enable everyone to come prepared. How is that related to team connection? Well, making sure you plan enough time and that you respect the allotted time makes everyone more relaxed and present. Time boxing is a very important habit to make meetings less draining.
Creating space without specific outcomes
To reduce time in online meetings and to evade the notorious Zoom fatigue, it is wise to limit your team meetings to really important meetings with clear agendas. While (co-creatively) pre-defined agendas are important for ensuring outcomes and decisions, we have also found it worthwhile to plan in time with less attachment to the outcome. Playing games, drawing on a Zoom whiteboard or eating food together changes the game. Why? Being outcome-focused all the time makes it really easy to forget about who the others are: Human-beings with needs, emotions, experiences, distractions and reflections.
Dealing with technical challenges
Last but not least, we found technical issues can be quite detrimental to feeling connected, quite literally. If somebody is struggling to use a specific online tool, it’s hard to have the capacity to connect with the others. We always plan in time upfront to ensure everyone is prepared to meet the technological challenges. During a meeting itself, it’s much harder to compensate for technical problems. A few things that help include: taking minutes so anyone with connection problems can catch up later; as well as having a back-up person for important roles such as the facilitator or input givers, so that you can still come together, even when conference tool installations or the internet connection turn bad.
Taking time to check-in
Before diving into the agenda, take into account the differing “energies” that are present. Some people might feel enthusiastic, burning for action and empowered, while others feel tired, overwhelmed, numb, or something completely different. Not everyone will feel the same. Make it your job to give that space in a brief check-in. This can be a quick thing where everyone shows their energy level from 1 (no energy) to 5 (high energy) on their fingers with the fingers, or a longer check-in by asking a question. “How are you doing?” always works, but it can also be more specific, such as “What would support you to be fully present during the next 90 minutes?” Make sure everyone has a chance to share, and no one feels forced to share if they don’t want to share anything.
Appreciation and celebration
You cannot make sure everyone feels alright, and neither is that a good goal. Yet you can make sure everyone has a chance to be heard and to feel appreciated. Recognizing contributions – and making this a habit everyone can engage in – will contribute to everyone’s morale. This works when things don’t work out, well as when things are going well. Try saying something along the lines of: “I see you are disappointed by the outcome of this project, but I also see and appreciate your courage to tackle it in the first place! Thank you for that. Does anyone else feel like giving a high-five to anyone, before we get into the agenda?” Also, asking your team to share what support each person needs and taking time to reflect on what you are learning together helps to grow as a team even in the most challenging times. As does celebrating your team’s successes instead of taking them for granted.
Tools for Connecting: Choose your weapons wisely
There’s an infinite bunch of tools, methods and games out there which can support your team to have some quality time. I’m happy to share those that worked in our team and some that friends and partners have recommended. Not all of them work for everyone, but some might.
Relaxing & hanging out
- Draw and guess together on https://skribbl.io/
- Feed the Snake: Share a Spotify-Playlist that everyone can contribute to and listen to it while you have some hang out time. (Works best with groups up to 5 people)
- Who in your team could offer an occasional session of meditation, yoga, or simply stretching?
- Blackstories https://www.cram.com/flashcards/black-stories-3539866
- Ask questions and put a sticky note in front of the camera. If the answer is “yes” that person takes it down (Similar to “Never have I ever…” and also works well in big groups)
- Play a round of activity (charade /pantomime). You can use a word generator online.
- Ask everyone to run around their room and find something “red” (or any other colour or type of object). You can either play for “Who’s the fastest?” or ask people to share what they chose.
- Improv theater games, e.g. by collaboratively trying to “end a story”
- Musical chairs: Move around your chair in a circle and get back to your chair as fast as possible when the music stops
- 2 truths and 1 lie: Everyone gets to share three little stories, of which two are truthful and one is not; the others will have to guess which of the three is the lie.
- Telling a story from your personal life and asking the others: “Is this a true story?” (Also taking turns here)
- Talk on the phone while taking a walk. The best ideas arise when walking.
- Collect feedback anonymously. And listen.
- Wall of appreciation: taking turns to go around the group and share what you appreciate about that person, via chat or out loud.
What are the tools, methods and games that worked for you? Feel welcome to share them in the comments.