In this time of uncertainty brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a curious outcome that the one certainty we do have is that we’re living in an age of collective disruption, where the reality of how things were always done around here is fast being replaced with questions of how do we operate differently going forward.
Perhaps the most tangible example of this wave of collective disruption has been the meteoric rise in the number of people working remotely.
Of course, with so many of us now conducting our meetings and conversations online, there’s another unforeseen change leaders are now having to address – a symptom that’s often referred to as “Zoom fatigue”, which many experts cite is due in part to the fact that video calls require us to focus more than we do during in person meetings.
But there’s another reason why so many of us are feeling exhausted from these virtual conference calls and it stems from the emotional disconnect we feel as we rely more and more on these digital channels to communicate. As Insead associate professor Gianpiero Petriglieri puts it, “the video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together.”
It’s an issue Karin Hurt asked me about for her LinkedIn video series, “Asking For A Friend”, where I shared some tips on how we can stay emotionally connected with our team members while working remotely. As such, I’d like to share 5 simple steps you can take that will help you improve your ability to communicate and connect emotionally with your employees through these virtual communication channels.
1. Make time to connect about things not on the agenda
As I shared in my conversation with Karin, typically when we have a group meeting, there is time spent both before and after the actual meeting where we’re just connecting with others in our team as people make their way into the meeting room. Before the restrictions brought on by COVID-19, many of us probably didn’t give much thought to these interactions. But now that we’re having to communicate remotely, it’s important that we recognize the value of these non-work related interactions.
Obviously, in a virtual team meeting, it’s hard to replicate these impromptu conversations as it’d lead to a cacophony of voices talking over each other. But what you can do is set time aside either at the start or at the end of the meeting to just check in with your employees to ask how they are doing.
The goal behind this effort is to better understand and relate to your employees’ current circumstances working from home, as well as finding those commonalities that allow you to foster a sense of connection and relatedness.
2. Pay attention to who’s connecting in real time and who’s not
Just as with in person meetings, in these virtual meetings it’s only natural that some of your team members will be more comfortable communicating and sharing, while others spend most of the time watching instead of engaging. In some cases, this might be due to their lack of familiarity with the virtual communication platform. In other cases, it can be a reflection of their discomfort and sense of disconnect with others attending this virtual conference call.
For these employees, ask them questions that you know they’d be comfortable answering because it’s in their field of expertise. This will reduce their apprehension and make them more willing to engage in the conversation.
You may need to do this over a couple of meetings to ease them in, but doing so will help them feel less like they’re an observer and more an active participant, which is what you need them to be. After all, everyone who’s at that meeting is there because they have something of value to offer. So if they’re not actively participating, it’s your job to create conditions that will facilitate them to.
3. Ask clarifying questions to offset the loss of non-verbal cues
As psychologists and communication experts have pointed out, one of the challenges we face with virtual communications is our difficulty in being able to pick up the non-verbal cues that provide an emotional context for what others are trying to tell us.
To help offset this loss of those non-verbal cues, be sure to ask more questions, particularly ones that help to provide clarity for everyone on the team. You can start these questions off by saying things like “to make sure I understood you correctly, are you saying …”.
Remember, we’re no longer in our office spaces where we can have these random check-ins with our employees to see how things are progressing. So it’s important that you avoid any ambiguities over what your employees are telling you, as well as what you’re telling them.
4. Offer words of recognition and praise to reinforce what matters
Even if we weren’t all personally dealing with feelings of uncertainty and stress over the long term impacts of the current health pandemic, working remotely can be challenging for your employees in terms of getting that much needed feedback that lets them know they’re not only doing a good job, but that someone’s paying attention to their efforts and appreciates how they’re helping the organization move forward despite all the restrictions we currently have to navigate.
To that end, it’s important that you make time during these virtual gatherings to make a point of recognizing the various contributions and efforts being made by your employees. This will help your employees understand the benefits others derive from their efforts and how it’s helping the team move forward. It will also reduce feelings of isolation because it will foster those emotional connections of community and belonging.
5. Schedule an ‘after hours’ virtual gathering
Another measure that will help improve your team’s ability to truly connect and engage with one another is to schedule an ‘after hours’ virtual gathering. Use these gatherings to encourage more personal conversations with your employees by going around the virtual table and encouraging your employees to share something about what they’ve been doing at home with their family and kids. You could even have them introduce the team to their dog or cat or their kids to help foster and reinforce those emotional connections that are otherwise missing in these virtual gatherings.
One point to note here, though, is that you don’t have to schedule these ‘after hours’ gatherings based on what your office schedule was before COVID-19. Rather, you should embrace the disruptive nature of this global pandemic and schedule it at a time you wouldn’t normally have such a gathering, like the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday, for example.
This will send the message to your employees that you do recognize that these are unprecedented and uncertain times, but that doesn’t mean you can’t collectively adapt and change in response to it.
The fact remains that whether we like it or not, things will not return to the way it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, more and more surveys are being released that show a majority of employees would prefer to continue working remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic is finally past us.
As such, it’s important for leaders to understand that you need to employ these measures not just over the short term, but that you be prepared to develop and strengthen these skills once this health crisis is over and your employees look to you to help them pivot from simply adapting to survive to adapting to thrive in that new reality.