Last week I wrote about in-person bias and the challenges it causes for companies that are introducing more flexibility in when and where their employees work.
It’s natural. You can’t care deeply about all 7,929,161,471 humans. Those you see daily take up more of your thoughts. They have your empathy, trust, and attention.
In larger companies, where people collaborate across multiple offices, this has always created friction. The gears run smoothly in each individual office, but when the clockwork is put together, the gears grind. The connections between offices are rusty.
With the flexibility to work from home, this effect is experienced even by smaller companies since they now, in a sense, have more offices than employees.
This requires leaders to rethink how we connect at work.
It’s no longer enough to rely on people’s natural desire to socialise and the chance meetings that do occur in an office. What’s needed is a supplement of socialisation that doesn’t rely on the office but takes advantage of virtual collaboration.
Here are 3 ways.
1. Install a Virtual Water Cooler
The first thing leaders should do, is to install a water cooler in their hybrid workplace—or a coffee machine, or a tea corner, depending on what’s the prefered drink in your part of the world.
But it’s not a physical water cooler. It’s a virtual water cooler. You need a virtual place like the water cooler, where colleagues can meet, chat, and tune in on what others are talking about.
Microsoft Teams and Slack are two popular choices. While many companies use these tools, they are often just treated as an extra email account. Employees believe they should read all messages and write in a formal tone.
Loosen up. Don’t worry about reading every single post, and feel free to sprinkle in some emojis. Scroll through the feeds once a day and skim-read. The highlights will pop at you, and otherwise, rely on your colleagues to tag you if there’s something important that you must see.
You wouldn’t stand by the water cooler in your office all day to hear every word of every conversation. You go there now and then to pick up on what’s buzzing. Treat the virtual water cooler the same way.
2. Host Virtual Social Meetings
In an office, socialisation happens naturally. We bump into each other, overhear a story about somebody’s weekend, and so we connect.
But when working remote, it can’t be taken for granted. Socialisation is something teams deliberately have to prioritise.
Have you ever gotten an email from someone you didn’t know and had a hard time determining their tone? When he writes a message this short, is it because he is stern or is he always this brief?
Meeting people helps, even if it’s virtual.
I was once responsible for onboarding new team members onto a large project. As feedback, one of the newcomers shared how valuable it had been for her to attend the project’s weekly half-hour social meeting. “After seeing people on video, it became much less intimidating to reach out to them.” she said.
It shows how crucial socialisation is for good collaboration. The meetings helped her put a face to the writing.
If you want to introduce virtual social meetings, see what to consider when planning virtual social meetings.
3. Try Written Socialisation
In some teams, it’s a challenge to schedule social meetings because of differences in working hours or time zones. Or maybe they already have enough meetings. Try written socialisation instead.
Create a channel in your virtual water cooler solely for non-work stuff. Get people to share their weekend plans each Friday or post a question everyone can answer.
For many, especially introverts, this is a great way of connecting. Team members choose what to share for themselves and are never put on the spot. It doesn’t cause the same fatigue that some experience when socialising in person.
I have had many colleagues which I only got to know privately after using written socialisation. Usually, they weren’t the most talkative, but in writing, they could communicate on their own terms.
Socialising in writing also has the benefit that it doesn’t need to be synchronous. People can make a post, and others can reply and react whenever it suits them.
Focus on Virtual
These 3 advice focus solely on creating more virtual connections in your teams. That’s intentional.
It’s not because in-person connections aren’t important. It’s because in-person connections happen so naturally that leaders don’t have to worry about them. Put people in an office, and they will socialise.
Because in-person connections are so easy, virtual connections are being neglected. In the hybrid workplace, where both are needed, leaders therefore need to focus their attention on virtual.
If done well, however, your company can benefit. Having many ways of connecting virtually enables networks that aren’t limited by space but can span across offices, skills areas, and countries. It creates the possibility for more connections than the physical workplace ever could.