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Lessons from Leading Remote: Social Connections

remote work May 25, 2022

We’ve known for decades that there are certain limitations to phone calls, emails or letters when it comes to meaningful conversation. Certain aspects of emotional connection don’t translate quite as well when we are not together face-to-face. The advent of video calls has certainly made it more likely for us to create that needed connection and, yet, it still feels like there is something missing.

Forced to move my in-person trainings to virtual platforms, I was amazed to discover how well the virtual learning activities appeared to rival those I did in person. Imagine my surprise though when I returned on-site and realized what I had been missing. Even with great learning activities, my intuition in catching the pulse of the group had been unknowingly compromised and my efforts to create meaningful connections in the “virtual room” had been more difficult than I initially recognized.

What have we learned about trust and tribe from leading remote?

This loss of the natural social connections from being in the physical presence of others is one of the most significant drawbacks to remote work. Which often leads even a “remote-first” kind of workforce to consider hybrid options or returning to a co-located workplace. People are looking for a “tribe”, a sense of belonging. And that’s just harder to achieve in a remote setting.

One of the elements at play here centers on trust. For instance, are people able to put their trust in me?  Can I trust them to collaborate effectively? Tsedal Neeley, in her book Remote Work Revolution, discusses two foundational aspects to trust-building on a team. First there is cognitive trust which is built by consistent behavior over time demonstrating team members are reliable and qualified to do the task. The kind of trust that says — “I can depend on you.” The second is emotional trust which is built by demonstrating care and concern for one another. It’s less tangible because it is evidenced by positive feelings and emotional bonds. 

“While an intense level of cognitive trust is typically reached fairly quickly with remote colleagues, it takes longer to reach emotional trust.” ~Tsedal Neeley

How do we approach creating more emotional trust in the way we work? 

It’s harder to create emotional bonds in a remote setting when you don’t have the casual opportunities by the water cooler, impromptu conversations or natural social interactions. In response to the experience of the last few years, people are even more inclined to want that sense of belonging and connection with colleagues.

We know that building emotional trust is easier co-located. It’s probably no surprise, though, that there are also co-located teams who struggle with trying to create that sense of trust and tribe. While it may be more easily accomplished by default if you are co-located, your potential for building trust and camaraderie increases by being intentional with tangible, deliberate and purposeful activities. 

How can you increase the emotional bond that fuels team performance?

The last two years have forced experimentation as a response to quick changes in the world around us. Now that the dust has settled it’s time to take stock. Which experiments have been successful? How do you know it was a success? What kind of feedback has been helpful? What would you keep doing regardless of how you continue to work going forward? What would you change or not do again? 

I’ll get the ball rolling with a few ideas:

  • Pair up employees for monthly 1:1 personal chats. Switch pairs quarterly.
  • Hold a short virtual meeting for everyone to share “wins” from the last month in 2 minutes or less.
  • Schedule dedicated meetings for challenging tasks that must be done together.
  • Incorporate fun activities: show and tell, virtual scavenger hunt, video slack channel
  • Reserve a half day to do volunteer activities outside work and then have a “report out” meeting to share experiences.
  • Create contests for best baby picture, best holiday artwork, best virtual background, etc.
  • Suggest optional book clubs or shared virtual learning activity.
  • Build a sense of community and inclusion. Ask for feedback. Ask for ideas. Show how these are being used.
  • Walk the talk. Follow through on your commitments. This helps highlight that you value the relationships that exist amongst the team.

Setting intention, experimenting and then evaluating the success of the experiment(s) can help you identify some purposeful ways to grow the emotional bond and emotional trust of the team. When you have that, it becomes an accelerant for success. 

What has worked for you or your team to create emotional trust that accelerates team performance? Comment below! Let’s chat next week about how great communication can be a foundational tool to building the kind of trust and tribe you need whether remote, co-located or hybrid. 

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