5 Ways to Keep Your Team Connected Remotely

Leaders — it starts with you

Negin Safdari
Mar 23, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Well, here we are. A mandated social experiment, to see what exactly happens to our teams when we work from home. Some of us are thriving but others not so much. The informal water cooler or coffee chats are gone, lunches together are no more and you can’t swivel your chair to quickly ask a question.

Leaders want to keep their teams engaged virtually, which presents different difficulties than in the office. Zoom and Slack help (the #random channel’s moment to shine) but for authentic connection, you need more than technology. Your tech stack is the medium, not the strategy itself.

While some leaders feel frustrated with these changes, others recognize this is a time to try something new. You have very little red tape to maneuver now, folks. If you burst into your Zoom meeting with a new idea to keep your team connected, no one will question why you want to. Your team won’t feel offended at new suggestions, you won’t be implying they need a change.

Rather, the change is needed because of the circumstances, not because of them. As you suggest new ideas to keep everyone connected, you’ll improve your team(s)’ bond and cohesion.

For my visual friends, imagine a glue between your team members that represent their bond and cohesion. The glue gets thinner without natural social interactions that occur face-to-face. The following practices are designed to make your glue stickier by, to strengthen the adhesive (bond and cohesion) between your team.

Let’s dive in.

Create rituals

We thrive in routine, in knowing what comes next. Now our routines are out the window and we’re clumsily re-adjusting to working from home. While you can’t help your team’s individual routines, you can create rituals for them to experience together.

When I say ritual, I mean an act or action you perform together to signal your bond to one another. Sports teams are the best example of rituals: they high-five each other after free throws(regardless if the basket was made), volleyball players huddle after every point, and kids chant their team name. We know sports teams are glued to one another; we should emulate what works for them in the workplace.

My team at work signals the end of a meeting by counting down from 3 and at 0, we all clap once. One single clap to end the meeting. We laugh when we’re off, and oooo when the clap sounds crisp. Now as we’re remote, we try to time the clap on Zoom and laugh when we fail miserably.

That single clap means every meeting ends on a good note, even if the meeting covered a sensitive or difficult topic. We leave on a high, and the key is we enter the meeting knowing we’ll leave on a high. In addition to strengthening our glue, the ritual creates an expectation of what comes next. In other words, our clap creates certainty for us, which is what your team needs right now.

Other examples of rituals include: hosting a 10-minute morning “Zoom coffee break” to kick-start your day with your team, holding weekly “remote-lunches”, wearing your company swag to certain meetings, taking a picture together on Zoom every meeting (Zoom-Chronicles, anyone?), etc.

Tell stories

You tell your sales reps to sell through stories, but do you walk your talk? Stories are a “pull” method to influence because they pull your listeners in, draw them closer as you weave a narrative. Now is the best time for stories. Have a story about hiding from your dog or kid as you work from home? How about a toilet-paper story? What about how you want to strangle your partner as you work from home together in a tiny apartment?

Your employees are struggling through these experiences too. Stories work because they represent common experiences between groups. Stories make you feel less alone and make the best of bad situations. We’re drowning in bad news, offer your team a break from reality by telling them a funny story. If you fail miserably, make a joke of it and laugh it off. We’ll talk about humor more, shortly.

The Story Factor is a lovely book on the power of stories by Annette Simmons. Now that you can’t (or shouldn’t) leave your house, you have all the time in the world for a book that will change your life. No, I don’t get paid if you buy the book. It’s just a great book.

Label your team — carefully

Nouns are more powerful than you think. Nouns, you ask? Yes, nouns. The labels we give ourselves (and our teams) impact our actions.

A 2014 study of children aged 3–6 found that calling children “helpers” — the noun — made them more likely to help with four tasks, compared to the verb “helping”. In other words, the noun condition motivated children to pursue and maintain a positive identity. A 2004 experiment at Harvard found noun labels (“Susan is a chocolate-eater”) are stronger, more stable and more resilient than descriptive action verbs (“Susan eats chocolate a lot”). The research concluded with,

“These results show that attitudes are plastic constructions shaped by subtle but pervasive cognitive and social input from the environment”

In plain terms, your team’s attitude is created and shaped by the labels they’re given, socially. Leaders have the opportunity to label their team, to shape their attitudes and actions.

We know this to be true for ourselves, as adults. If you’re told you’re a top performer, you feel pressured to maintain the top performer status, don’t you? The noun “top performer” — the label — becomes part of your identity. You want to keep it that way, so you act and work as a top performer.

In this difficult time, label your team as hard-working, dedicated and compassionate. They will enact the labels you give them: they will become hard-working, dedicated and compassionate if they’re not yet already. If they truly are those traits, they will maintain them. The reverse is also true: if you notice team performance slipping, do not call them lazy, inactive or sluggish. You risk them identifying through that label and becoming more lazy, inactive or sluggish.

Actions don’t always speak louder than words — words sway actions, too.

Avoid flight behaviors

What are flight behaviors, you may wonder? Flight behavior is refusing to participate with your team, intentionally or inadvertently. For example: checking your phone or iWatch, giggling with the person next to you in large meetings, sitting along in a corner day after day. These behaviors signal to your team, that you couldn’t care less.

If the leader doesn’t care, why should they?

Remote meetings make flight behavior easier; some reasons can be excused. A distraction via your child or your pet isn’t flight behavior, it’s the reality of the new situation we’re in. Scrolling through social media while on a call, thinking you’re being sneaky — is flight behavior. Answering emails is flight behavior. Checking Slack channels is flight behavior.

Your lacking attention is clear to others: it’s rude, it’s demotivating, and it’s unnecessary. Lead by example: make your team feel valued and heard.

Create (and use) inside jokes

To understand inside jokes, you must understand the internal-reference it makes. By understanding the internal-reference, you know you belong to the group: in other words, you’re part of the in-group. Have you ever been around an inside-joke you didn’t “get”, and immediately felt awkward? In those moments, you’re in the “out-group”.

In-groups will do wonders for your team by making everyone feel included and important. You reference their connection to each other. That’s what your team needs right now: connection. Not to mention, the power of a joke itself. Research shows laughter reduces stress, boosts the immune system, releases serotonin and endorphins (found in anti-depressants).

Michael Kerr, intentional business speaker, president of Humor at Work and author of The Humour Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank lists dozens of surveys suggesting that humor is at least one of the keys to success.

“A Robert Half International survey, for instance, found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Another study by Bell Leadership Institute found that the two most desirable traits in leaders were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.”

Forbes.com, 10 Reasons Why Humor Is A Key To Success At Work

Kerr adds, “Research shows that humor is a fabulous tension breaker in the workplace…People who laugh in response to a conflict tend to shift from convergent thinking where they can see only one solution, to divergent thinking where multiple ideas are considered.”

In addition to resolving conflict, humor improves creative thinking: it lowers internal critics, puts challenges in a new light and makes new connections. You’re facing new problems and challenges in light of COVID-19 and you need a strong team more than ever. Yet your team is drowning in negativity, despair, and uncertainty.

Throw them a lifeline — tell a joke.

In fact, keeping your team connected remotely is eerily similar to keeping your team connected in the office. The difference now is how dearly your team needs connection, as they lack their natural interactions in the office.

It’s similar to being sick: you always need sufficient vitamins and minerals, but only when your body fails you, do you realize you took self-care for-granted… but should have paid more attention, all along.

Turns out, our teams deserved top-tier care all along.

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