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Mind the Gap: Best Ways to Connect in the Virtual Workplace

After more than three months, working remotely is no longer the “new” normal. And with fears of new waves of COVID-19 cases emerging daily, many organizations are offering workers the opportunity to continue virtual work arrangements through the end of 2020 or beyond. If this will be our future, what more permanent behavioral changes are needed to allow workers to connect effectively?

Mind the Gap

It’s like the old saying, you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe you’re missing key information, but you don’t realize it until a problem arises. Without in-person interactions, so much is lost. Although technology has become increasingly advanced, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick up on nonverbal cues over email, text, IMs or even in video meetings.

Because of this, people need to be mindful of the gaps and evaluate where they are occurring. For some, it may require stepping out of their comfort zone or adding new habits to their day. But the better the connection, the better the results, and the less stress for all.

Employees: Be Your Own Narrator

Because you’re not physically in front of your coworkers, you may need to “narrate” your own story. For example, people can’t see that you’re having a busy day or that you’re away from your desk for a few minutes. So, in a virtual working environment, you have to provide that context, and connect with them on a regular basis. Here are some ideas to help you connect more effectively with colleagues and managers.

Make the invisible, visible. Ask yourself, what can people not see about my work? What information are they missing and how do I share it? Making a conscious effort to communicate may be a bit more work, but the benefits are worth it. You’ll feel more connected to the team, there will be less second-guessing from others, and you’ll be more productive because you’ll be on the right track to begin with.

Make your schedule more transparent. Let your coworkers and boss know when you are available and when you are not. Don’t fill your calendar with private appointments unless they are truly confidential – be transparent so colleagues know when they can reach out.

Create regular check-ins with your manager. And overall, communicate more with your coworkers, even if it’s just a text or short phone call. It might feel like you are over-communicating or bothering people. You may think, “I don’t want to bug my boss and tell her every single thing.” However, if there’s a meaningful change to your schedule, or your mentality or mindset, it’s important to share.

Share non-work challenges. Many people are struggling right now with working remotely, and honestly, life in general. Whether it’s distractions at home, childcare responsibilities, or even loneliness, it’s an emotional and stressful time. This is why it’s important to also share with your boss (and teammates, when appropriate) non-work challenges that are impacting your work. If you don’t, they have no way of knowing what you are up against that may be interfering with your productivity.

For instance, some days are just going to be tougher than others. Some days you just need to take a break and go for a long walk. That’s understandable. Share this with your manager so that they know what you are doing to keep yourself healthy and productive, and how they can support you.

With colleagues, reach out to see how they are doing, and maybe gain some insights into how to handle your challenges. It’s a time to lean on other people, if you’re comfortable doing that, and asking teammates questions like, “What’s worked for you while working from home? What’s been a struggle?”

Managers: Reach Out and Make the Effort to Connect

Right now, our society is facing a great deal of uncertainty. Employees working from home are dealing with stressors they didn’t have in the office. As a manager, it’s important to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible, and that means you may have to connect more often and ask your employees to share more information than they normally would. It may feel like micromanaging, so make sure you explain the “why,” so people will understand.

Here are some ideas for how you, as a manager, can keep the lines of communication open and make sure your employees have what they need to do the job.

Schedule times to connect. Let employees know when they can depend on talking to you. Emphasize to them that it doesn’t have to just be about work. Create an agenda that includes time to talk about work, but also specific time to just check in. You can even make a call or send a text just to say, “how’s it going?”

Pave the way. You want to know how people are feeling and how they are handling this unusual situation, but to do this you may have to work a little harder. Your employees aren’t just going to open up one day and be vulnerable and emotional with you unless it feels safe. It means more than just saying, “Isn’t this tough?” You need to connect with them on a personal level. Consider more specific, open-ended questions like:

  • “How are you feeling about what you’ve accomplished this week?”
  • “What were your challenges?”
  • “How are you taking care of yourself?”
  • “What can I do to support you?”

It’s crucial for people to understand that if they’re having trouble, they can come to you. Strive for open communication, sensing where the employee is and not just moving on to the next item on your list.

Know your people. You know your people and what motivates them. What worked three months ago, has probably changed. For example, your more extroverted staff may have thrived on the energy in the office environment. But how can they get charged working alone at home? Urge them to make virtual lunch appointments and participate in other virtual social events. Encourage them to get out of the house (while being safe, of course).

Working alone at home is perhaps a bit easier for introverts. However, the drawback for them is that everything now relies on verbal communication. Gone is context. For instance, maybe an introverted person does a lot more writing in meetings, which shows they are engaged. Right now, this act doesn’t register. As their manager, make sure they feel good about the work they’re putting in, and encourage their participation in meetings.

To Zoom or not to Zoom. Many companies have come to rely heavily on video meetings during this time. Maybe they feel their employees are more engaged this way. It feels better to see people face-to-face, but a video call isn’t always easy or preferable. Maybe the employee is having technical issues or their child is having a really hard day or their “office” is really messy. Whenever possible, make video optional on your Zooms. It’s important to give employees the option of how to communicate, rather than create more stress.

In the end, you’re only going to be productive as a company if you’re able to motivate and engage your employees.

The Opportunity to Connect

This is a particularly important time for understanding and compassion. It’s also an opportunity – to expand your communication skills, deepen your connections with staff and colleagues, and advocate for yourself and your feelings in a way that isn’t always typical in traditional business and office settings.

Photo credit: JeShoots on Unsplash

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