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4 Steps to create connection in a remote world

This article was co-authored by Dr. Michael Gerharz & Ariana Friedlander

“Hey, have you seen the new prototype? It blows my mind how thin it is.”

Mel was on her way to getting a coffee when Justin bumped into her. She agreed: “Yeah, the team did a phenomenal job.“

Ariana & Michael making connections online

It’s the kind of conversations that both of them love. Sometimes it’s purely business, other times it’s just an anecdote of a beautiful weekend trip or some deep diving discussion of last night’s sports match. More than once these small interactions evolved into a group chat with several team members joining them. It’s what ties a team together.

In our pandemic-ridden, remote world that’s driven mainly by virtual communication people miss these kinds of interactions. The random bouncing into each other. The personal conversations. A word of encouragement when you feel that Kathy is sad. And the cheering for Rick who got promoted. Or just singing a “Happy birthday” for Amy.

When checking in with clients and business leaders to ask how their teams were doing during this pandemic, we both heard the same thing over and over again. People miss working together in-person. More specifically, they don't feel as connected to their colleagues.

Professionals that have transitioned from an office environment to working remotely are experiencing a loss. The random bumping into colleagues that leads to fulfilling personal conversations are not happening in the land of remote working. Remote conversations are often scheduled and follow an agenda. They are purely about work most of the time. That’s certainly efficient. But is it also effective?

The absence of connection at work impacts everything. Trust is developed through connection. When we feel disconnected we begin to lose trust. When trust erodes conflicts escalate and communication dwindles – a negative ripple effect.

As humans, we are hardwired to want to connect and belong. When we don't experience connection and belonging we become lonely, feel isolated, sad, and even depressed. This isn't an introvert or extrovert thing, connection and belonging are a human need.

That is why it is so important for leaders to pro-actively take steps to create connections for teams that are working remotely. From many conversations we’ve had in the recent months with leaders and their teams, we consistently observed 4 steps that help teams find connection in a remote world:

1. Bring it up - show up, be vulnerable

We are all in this together. All of us are trying to figure things out in this remote world. It’s likely that your teammates are feeling quite similar to you. They miss connecting as much as you do.

Just bringing that up is a form of connecting. They will feel seen and heard. By telling people that you miss them you open doors for them to speak about how they feel and what they miss about seeing each other.

So, don‘t hide. Show up and speak up. Bring it up.

2. Listen to your teammates

When the two of us met for the first time this January, it was online. Actually, we’ve never met in person. Yet, it feels like we’ve known each other for years. We think that a major factor that enabled this connection was being open and listening carefully to each other.

Empathy was always important in building connections. But today, when all we see of each other is an image on a small screen, it’s more important than ever. It’s a powerful connection building tool when your teammates get a feeling of, wow, she saw me and she heard me. It's like we recognize we're both human in that moment and we see ourselves in each other when we listen carefully.

So, when your team members bring something up, listen to them and give them a feeling of being heard and seen. Just like we have managed to build a connection by listening to each other, you can, too.

3. Ask questions

One thing that we have consistently found to make a huge difference in creating connections is to ask a simple question: “What do you think we could do differently?”

It’s much more effective than the typical reaction that occurs so often when someone brings up their feelings. The default behavior for many people is to quickly jump in with recommendations, tips and tricks. “Have you tried this?” or “Did you do that?”

But that misses the point. The people in your team likely aren’t looking for recommendations to deal with the situation themselves. They want to connect with you. They want not a solution for themselves but for the team as a group.

By asking open and honest questions, you invite them to explore solutions for the group. You tap into the creativity of your coworkers. When everyone gets a chance to chime in, you’ll find solutions that you never thought of yourself.

One team we spoke to has established a daily virtual coffee break. Another team meets for virtual lunch. Yet another team gathers on Saturday evenings for a virtual disco where one of the team members is the DJ and the others dance – all via a video meeting platform.

While none of this might be for you, the beauty of co-creation is that you’re much more likely to find a solution that is for you.

When you co-create solutions, everyone has a chance to chime in. And everyone is much more likely to be excited about the solution when they feel like they were a part in creating it – instead of being forced to show up for something that doesn’t fit for them or feels a little bit disingenuous or they were turned off by the way it was forced on them.

Asking questions and opening up a co-creation space is a powerful way to discover ways to connect in a remote world that suit the needs of your team as a whole.

4. Agree to Take action

Amazing things can and have been planned that never saw the light of day. They have never been put into action. Teams that manage to create and maintain remote connections are teams that take action.

The lunch-break has to be scheduled. The virtual retreat needs to be planned. Who speaks first? Who’s responsible for the handouts that we send each other beforehand? Who will be the moderator? Who sets up the video conference? Who will send out the reminders?

These are the small details that make or break a plan. Taking action and committing to doing the work is what ultimately makes the difference.

So, these are our four steps to creating connections in a remote world: 1. Bring up your feelings and be vulnerable! 2. Listen to your peers and give them a feeling of being heard and seen! 3. Ask questions to co-create a solution that works for the whole team! 4. And then agree to take action and make it happen!

When team members feel connected, they have high trust. And when teams have high trust they openly discuss problems. Teams who openly discuss problems are able to co-create new and innovative solutions.

Right now, organizations of all types and sizes need to co-create innovative solutions in order to successfully navigate this crisis. Therefore right now, organizations of all types and sizes need to enable their teams to connect in a remote world.

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