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7 tips for leading & building connection across your team (in a virtual world)

Mitch Shepard

7 tips for leading & building connection across your team (in a virtual world)

I have been leading many Burnout Prevention workshops lately and have had my ear to the ground about what is causing burnout. There are many things of course, but one that I am beginning to hear in higher frequency is the level of social disconnection across teams, given the work-from-home protocols.

People do not want to feel like a cog in a wheel. They want to feel heard, valued, respected, and well, connected to the people they work with.

Connecting at work used to take care of itself. A casual chat as you walk to a meeting. A five minute conversation about your weekend as you grab a cup of coffee. Or perhaps somebody injects some humor or a funny story just before a meeting begins. You used to be able to pop over to someone's office real quick to ask a question and get something resolved. Now this same question requires yet another meeting. And people have meeting fatigue like never before. One of my clients refers to this as the heightened “coordination tax”. This causes many to feel as though their workplaces and teams have become very transactional.

There is a perfect storm is brewing: less human to human connection combined with outrageous workload, intense velocity, and no real end in sight.

Something has to give.

How does a leader create connection, when you no longer see people face to face? How can you use the current COVID-19 pandemic to fine tune your own skill as leaders and build trust & connection within your team?

Here are a few ideas:

#1 Ask people how they are doing. Sounds simple, right? It is simple, but it’s not easy. Especially when your 1:1 or team meetings are traditionally oriented solely around the business of the business. At a time like this, a great way to make deposits in the trust bank account is to tune into your people, and show that you care. As Teddy Roosevelt is famous for saying,“People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.” If you want a real answer to the question How are you doing, you’ll have to be specific, otherwise you’re likely to get a meaningless answer like “fine” or “good, all things considered.” Instead, think of 3 ways to ask a similar question, such as:

· How are you feeling these days, given all that is going on?

· What has it been like for you to work from home?

· What is working well and not so well across our team, since all these work-from-home protocols went into effect?

· Do you have others at home with you? How is that going?

· Are there any specific ways I (or team) can support you through this time?

#2. Share. How YOU are doing? Shared vulnerability builds trust. If you have been cycling between appreciating the slower pace of life, while also feeling fearful, sad, uncertain or unfocused at times….well, that means you are normal (particularly in a time like this). This is not a time to show your superhuman powers. It is a time to show your humanity. Be real with people. Doing this will give your people license to do the same.

#3. Check your assumptions. Don’t assume everyone is handling or experiencing this pandemic in the same way. There are several factors that affect a person’s feelings and reactions to the current situation. For those who have school-aged kids at home they are likely worried about the impact of this pandemic on their kids academics. They are trying their best to function well at work, while also being present when their kids need assistance. This is a hard time for parents. From what I can tell, the degree of overwhelm, exhaustion, worry and guilt is off the charts for most parents these days. If you have employees who fall into a higher-risk category for catching the virus, they may be riddled with fear. Employees have different degrees of privacy and space in their homes to do their work and focus. Those who live alone may be feeling lonely, and those with families may be experiencing a bit too much “togetherness”. If your employee cares for an elderly parent, special needs child, or has a spouse out of work, these could be particularly trying times. Be curious. Be empathetic. Be flexible.

#3. Build connection across your team. Think of clever questions to help your team connect in new ways — human to human — that are outside of the usual business talk. As an example, start your weekly team meetings inviting each person to do a 1-minute share on a specific question, such as:

· Your highlight and low-light from the past 48 hours?

· A favorite show, movie or book from the past 2 weeks?

· What’s keeping you up at night (these days)?

· Something uplifting you have observed or experienced over the past week?

· Something that made you laugh recently.

· What you’re ‘famous for’ at home?

You get the idea, be creative…the options are endless.

#4. Don’t Micro-Manage. Many of you are up against critical project deadlines & deliverables that have not changed, or may have even increased in recent days/weeks. It could be tempting to ride people harder than normal or monitor them more closely. Resist this temptation. Instead, focus on purpose, outcomes, goals and key priorities. As a leader, your job is to communicate the why and what. Your employees’ job is to figure out the how and when. Set target dates, yes, but have your team share in creating these dates & milestones, when possible. People are more invested if they have shaped the plan, and if they feel some control over how things get done. Remember, people support what they help to create.

#5. Say thank you. Years ago, I was coaching a CEO who shared during one of our weekly calls that he was having a hard day, as a result of a 13-year veteran employees quitting. While her resignation took him by surprise, he accepted it, but not before thanking her for her valuable contributions over the years. As he expressed his gratitude, she began to cry. When he asked why she was crying, her response stopped him in his tracks. I had no idea you felt that way, she said. This was a wake-up call for my client. He felt gratitude but hadn’t expressed gratitude. By the time he did, it was too late. During these high-stress, world-turned-upside-down times, it is more important than ever to give specific and meaningful acknowledgement to people. Say thank you. Be specific. Mean it. People who feel appreciate will always work harder, feel better about it, and stay longer.

#6. Above all…Be a good human. I have made a personal commitment to do something kind or thoughtful for someone every day during this pandemic. So far, this has included baking muffins for a neighbor, sending updated financial figures to an employee to quell their financial fears, offering to grocery shop for an elderly person, giving free phone consults to a couple of clients in crisis, offering to walk a neighbors dog, writing a thank you email to the principal of my daughters school, and more. Think about your opportunity to be a good human, given your position as a leader. What could you do to make someone’s day today? Send a gift card. Pick up the phone and check in. Send a funny video. Send a hand-written thank you note. Email out a team photo from a past fun event. Give someone a day off. Have groceries delivered. Subscribe to a meal delivery service for that person on your team who is a single parent or who is caring for an elderly relative or special needs child. The good feelings you will generate (in yourself and others) by going above and beyond, is the fuel we all need to get through this.