With nearly everyone still working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations have launched virtual water coolers and happy hours, ice breakers and interest-based Slack channels in a deliberate effort to bring coworkers closer together.
It turns out that these activities aren’t all about fun and games—they are scientifically proven to build trust and a psychologically safe environment that encourages information-sharing among knowledge workers, according to Andrew Mawson, founder of the Advanced Workplace Institute, a virtual company that has conducted research on managing the virtual workplace.
To help you forge meaningful connections, here are some ways to socialize effectively with colleagues while working remotely… and some mistakes you definitely want to avoid.
Look for Reasons to Connect
The pandemic is forcing organizations to become flatter and faster, Mawson explained. To succeed in a structure with fewer levels of management, individual contributors need to take responsibility for building and maintaining social relationships not only with your teammates, but throughout the organization.
How? Don’t just reach out through public channels when you need something, or assume that your teammates who’re working remotely are “doing fine,” advised Darrin Murriner, CEO and co-founder of Cloverleaf.
“Be intentional, look for reasons to connect with people on a more personal level,” he suggested. For instance, spend the first few minutes of every meeting sharing small talk or retrospective moments. Make a list of topics or issues that people or managers mention, then use one of them as a reason to initiate a private phone conversation.
Set Yourself Up for Success
The best practices and etiquette that apply to online meetings also apply to virtual team-building activities, noted David Goldstein, COO (Creator of Opportunities) for team-building firm TeamBonding.
For example, dress appropriately, test your equipment beforehand, and turn off distractions such as email and text messaging so you can be in the moment and have fun. “Allow yourself to escape from your work and feel comfortable participating in a team-building event, whether that’s a lot or just a little,” Goldstein said.
Don’t Wing It
Don’t skip a water cooler discussion or event that’s outside your wheelhouse for fear of not fitting in. Even if you don’t know bourbon from scotch or have no idea how to pair cheese with beer, you can still research the topic, show interest and ask questions. Otherwise, you may be viewed as someone who isn’t a team player, which is especially problematic when people are all working remotely and can’t have organic, face-to-face interactions.
Get Comfortable, But Not Too Comfortable
Engaging wholeheartedly in social activities and sharing personal information makes you more authentic and vulnerable, builds trust, and enhances your ability to forge valuable relationships.
In other words, don’t be afraid to give your colleagues a peek behind the curtain into your cozy home office and family life while everyone’s working remotely.
Having said that, it’s important not to let your guard down completely, which can be tempting when you’re working from home. The virus, protests and state of the economy have all created a heightened awareness of what is happening and high sensitivity to what is being said.
Given the mood of the country, practicing intentional communication, being conscious of what you say, how you say it and who you’re saying it to, is vital. After all, you want to make sure that what you say in the heat of an intense team competition doesn’t offend a colleague or get lost in translation.
Give People the Benefit of the Doubt
In the pre-COVID world, the trust between managers, workers and teammates was earned over time, through a combination of virtual and personal interactions.
To build a psychologically safe environment where assembled (and virtual) team members feel free to contribute and be themselves, you need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt or leverage something called “swift trust” while relationships are being built. To accelerate the trust-building process, provide plenty of proactive opportunities for team members to bond and prove both their competence and trustworthiness.
Don’t Be Afraid to Mix Things Up
You don’t have to stick with traditional topics for team-building events. If there’s something that you’re passionate and enthusiastic about—such as kayaking, collecting art or coaching youth soccer—toss it out there, Murriner said. Incorporate virtual whiteboards, chat tools, videos and home-delivered kits to shake things up.
“People don’t realize what’s possible, from a virtual standpoint,” Goldstein added. For instance, some really popular team-building events include making a movie trailer about a project or integrating something physical such as a tea and coffee tasting kit or mozzarella making kit into a virtual event. You’re not limited for options when working remotely, in other words.
“Believe it or not, it is possible to have fun working from home, if you let yourself,” he noted.
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