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Boosting Team Connection In A Virtual World

There are currently two epidemics. One is the coronavirus. The other is loneliness.

person sitting at laptop in a dark room
person sitting at laptop in a dark room

It's fairly well documented that one of the biggest challenge people face with distributed working is loneliness . Now, thanks to COVID-19, a whole swath of new folks are going to discover this too.

The way we communicate online has left many of us feeling lonelier than ever. We connect with more people, more frequently but quantity is not the same as quality. The key to feeling less lonely is to have deeper connections. Instead of endless slack posts, facebook threads and gifs, we need to spend time talking face-to-face. But who said that needs to be IRL (in-real-life)? Let's make the most of video conferencing tools like Zoom and BlueJeans.

It's the relationships that fuel a sense of team, not the physical proximity.

Since the virus outbreak, many teams are now further embracing video conferencing. They understand how to use the features and functionality. But they are still a little unsure about how to engage and connect with each other more deeply.

There are a lot of creative ways to connect with each other. We all have access to these ideas. But we have to stop self-censoring, be a little bit vulnerable and get comfortable with a little sprinkle of play!

In the past few days, I've been part of dozens of conversations on this topic. I'm sharing my top tips to get you started and of course, if you'd like support, contact me.

Tools

As a facilitator I use a lot of different tools and techniques to support team connection and engagement. I'm sharing three key tools below.

Check-ins

Check-ins encourage folks to show up authentically. A check-in gives everyone a chance to speak before getting into the heart of the gathering. It helps people to transition from their previous activity into this session. It can also act as a primer for the level of engagement you'll want or need in the gathering.

🚦Traffic Light (check-in)

Ask each person to share whether they are feeling red, orange or green in the current moment. It's a great way to prepare everyone for the conversation.

For example. Imagine you're going to ask an individual to speed up the timeline on a project. Also imagine that person checks-in as red. You might want to think about adjusting your tone or language to account for the way that person has shown up.

traffic light on green
traffic light on green
  • Red means you're overwhelmed, stressed, upset or generally having a tough time
  • Orange means things aren't ideal but you're coping
  • Green means you're feeling good about things

You can either have people share only the color or ask them for a sentence to expand on the color. Each person names the next person.

It's important to recognize that all feelings are valid and this isn't a session to fix or address anyone's color.

Note, if someone says red, it's a great idea to follow up with them afterwards. Let them know you've got their back and are there for support.

Games

A short, engaging game to support the gathering. Games are an incredible way of raising energy and engagement. Taking a moment to play relaxes the brain and the body and activates our innate creativity.

It might be at the start of a workshop, or after a break - or at any point where energy and focus is lagging. (Though note, it's not a substitute for a break).

👍🏼/ 👎🏻 Always or Never (game)

I particularly like this game for product teams.

In this simple game, you do a quick round of always and then another round of never. Each person says something your team or product should always be or do or have. Then that person names someone else to go next. Once you've done a round of always, do a round of never. To close the game, ask people to write their favorite always or never in the chat window. This can serve as an actionable piece of data.

An example

Team focused...

  • Our team should always...think about our customers
  • Our team should never...exclude people

Product focused...

  • Our product should always... be fun to use
  • Our product should never.... put arbitrary barriers in the way of users

Check-outs

Check-outs are a quick way of polling people for reflections on the session. It helps bring a sense of closure to the gathering and helps people mentally and emotionally transition out of the conversation.

Virtual Campfire (check-out)

To prepare, each person opens a campfire in a new window/tab on their computer...

If possible, participants should also stand up. Then (one-by-one) they name something they are grateful for. Or something they observed from the gathering. At the same time they symbolically throw an imaginary log onto the fire. Each person who completes a turn, names the next person until everyone has had the opportunity to contribute.

Conversation Starters

There are tons of good questions to help make deep connections with others. You can use these questions as meeting openers or make them part of a virtual coffee / lunch session.

When you decide to use a conversation starter, make sure you post it in the chat once it's asked. This helps to ensure everyone focuses on it. Sometimes a momentary blip in the tech can mean you mishear a question or lose an important bit of context. Recording items in the chat helps keep things on track.

Categories

When it comes to conversation starters, there are three categories to consider...

1. Fun & Inconsequential (Favorite cereal?)

2. Personal & Connected (What would you rather hear first, good news or bad news?)

3. Deep & Valuable (What kind of leader qualities are most important to you?)

Choices

Different situations call for different types of conversation starters. Here are some things to consider when you're choosing a conversation starter:

Group size: If it's a large group, you probably don't want to skew too personal. The level of courage required is often proportionate to the number of people in the gathering. Sharing personal thoughts in a large meeting requires people to be more vulnerable than they would be in a smaller meeting.

Group familiarity: Is this a close knit team that works together day-to-day or a collection of folks who have only met once or twice? Balance the level of comfort with the level of challenge. Are there any new people in the group?

Something I often reiterate when I'm working with teams is that the team is a new team every time someone joins or leaves. It's a fresh dynamic.

Duration of the gathering: How long is the gathering scheduled for? Conversation starters should account for a small fraction of the gathering time.

Purpose of the gathering: How can the conversation starter connect with and support the rest of the agenda and the purpose of the gathering? What are you gathering for? Is it an important or contentious meeting? Is it a casual lunch hang-out session? Think about the tone of the question in connection with the meeting. Imagine you're having a meeting about layoffs. It would be pretty weird to use the breakfast cereal conversation starter.

You might think there is no good conversation starter for that type of meeting but it might surprise you. In that case, an effective starter might be "How can we balance the conflicting needs in our lives?" (given that layoffs are likely to bring about a feeling of conflict and tension).

Question Bank

Here's a bank of questions in each conversation starter category for you to experiment with...

Fun & Inconsequential

  1. What's your favorite afternoon snack?
  2. Outside of work, what activity makes you lose track of time?
  3. What's the last book or article you read that you really enjoyed?
  4. What's your favorite kitchen tool or gadget?
  5. If you could meet with anyone in the world - who would you choose and why?
  6. Which song or musician are you listening to a lot right now?
  7. If you had all the time and skills you needed to write a book, what would you write about?
  8. What's one strange or amusing thing you used to believe as a child?
  9. What's one TV show you think your whole team should watch? Why?
  10. If your current mood was a song title, what would it be?

Personal & Connected

  1. What recent team accomplishment brings you the most joy? Why?
  2. How do you switch off at the end of the week?
  3. What's one small moment of success you experienced recently?
  4. Which meetings at work do you most enjoy and why?
  5. What small thing are you especially grateful for?
  6. How do you handle changes to your daily routine?
  7. Where do you find inspiration for your life and work?
  8. What's something you've learned in the past month?
  9. What's a part of your job you particularly enjoy?
  10. What's your favorite charitable or non-profit organization? Why?

Deep & Valuable

  1. How do you recognize when you're stressed?
  2. How do you like to receive feedback?
  3. What would be helpful for your teammates to know about the way you communicate?
  4. Is anything causing you stress right now - what is it?
  5. Which leadership traits matter most to you?
  6. What's a valuable piece of feedback you've received from a colleague?
  7. What's one thing that most people don't know about you?
  8. Think of a time when feedback felt like a gift. Why did it feel that way?
  9. What's an area of your life on which you wish you were spending more time?
  10. Describe a real-life situation where you stood up for someone or something

Bonus Set

These are a few extra questions that work well with team retrospectives and reflection style sessions...

  • What was the last team decision that felt like it took too long? Why did it take so long?
  • How do you think our organization can be more adaptable to change?
  • What's something you find challenging about working in this team or company?

Adjusting to working from home

If you're still adjusting to working from home, there's a lot of great advice out there. I thought I'd share one thing that I find particularly helpful; using music to nudge my mood.

To use the traffic light analogy again...

Red - Feeling overwhelmed: Relaxing Acoustic Guitar

Orange - Feeling just okay: Kygo and Friends

Green - Feeling good: Gloria - Laura Brannigan