Connecting Your Team Virtually During Social Distancing

Updated: May 13




With the recent edict to “socially distance” ourselves, each of us are realizing just how much we value connection and community. (Even those introverts out there are starting to reach their fill of alone time!) If your team has been required to work from home for the first time, it is essential to help them connect to stay engaged.


In another article “Leading a (Newly) Remote Team – 10 Suggestions to Make it Work," I highlighted the importance of bringing your team together virtually. Let’s go into a little more detail on just how to do this.


Use technology, but be patient

While a simple conference call is better than nothing, I strongly encourage you to identify a technology such as Zoom or WebEx and use the video capability. (Note: If cost is an issue, at the time of this article publication Zoom is offering a free version for video calls up to 40 minutes.) Allowing people to see each other, especially in this environment, plays a critical role in connecting in a meaningful way.


Recognize the technology may be new to people, so be patient, show them how it works and recognize the first time may not go smoothly. If you are new to the technology yourself, there are many people willing to show you the ropes and help you get started. The main thing is to just do it. You will be glad you did. The technology available today is fairly user friendly and most of the platforms are very reliable.


Focus on people first

Once you figure out the technology, focus on people first. Yes, as a leader you probably have a lot of projects and work that needs to get done; however, creating a space that allows employees to connect on a more personal level first is very critical. They need to hear from you as their leader, have some face time with their colleagues and be able to share where they are on this unusual and stressful journey. This will go a long way in helping them be productive later and have a long-term impact on employee engagement.


During each meeting you will want to do some type of “check-in” to see how people are doing. In the first few sessions it is best if this can be verbal so each voice is heard. Later, as you get into a rhythm, you may need to be more efficient with check-ins so perhaps some of them can be via chat in the technology platform. A few check-in examples as we deal with the situation at hand include:

  • What are you finding most challenging right now?

  • What is something good that has come out of the recent developments?

  • What’s one word to describe how you are feeling?

  • How is your family dealing with the situation?

  • What other “new roles” do you have? (Examples: Teacher, Chef, Babysitter)

  • What are you personally doing to cope?


Provide focus on evolving priorities

Once people feel connected it is time to help the team get focused on the organization’s priorities. It’s possible that these priorities have shifted greatly. Help them understand how they should spend their time and energy. Because things are changing rapidly, focus on the next 30 days versus a plan for the rest of the year. Use the virtual meeting for priority setting, collaboration and connection. Try not to use it for report outs and other actions that can be done in other ways. Consider using tools such as Microsoft Teams to share information, updates, metrics, etc., instead of hours of report outs. This is a good rule for meetings any time, but especially now in this new way of working.


Establish a regular cadence and new communications protocols

Set up a regular cadence to meet with your team and for one-on-one meetings. Getting into a rhythm will also help provide some structure and stability for the team. Be sure to identify in the meeting notice whether video is expected or not.


While you may have worked together for years, in this new environment it is important to talk about communication methods. People may be reluctant to call you knowing that you are at home. Discuss how the team will communicate. Is text now an acceptable method? Will you leverage MS Teams or other technology? Do what works best for the team and for you and discuss it as a team to ensure everyone is on the same page.


Video, video, video

Earlier in this article I mentioned the importance of using video to help people connect. If this is new for your team, they may be reluctant at first. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is for connection and it will minimize multi-tasking. Keep in mind many people are working out of their homes and therefore they may not have the ideal work environment. In many cases there is more than one remote worker in the home, not to mention all of the kids trying to do virtual schooling.


The new work space (anything will have to do)

If you don’t have a home office or if it is now occupied by someone else in the household, find another comfortable location. Some people would like to have a “work spot” which will help them focus. Others are trying to balance their work with keeping an eye on the kids or other tasks. Encourage people to do what works for them. Normally, people are worried about their background setting or random noises when on video calls. Given this unusual situation, help people recognize that it’s okay to improvise and they should do the best they can. A few tips that may help in the adjustment are listed below.


  • Use the technology. Some platforms offer “virtual backgrounds” or “blurred backgrounds” so other participants won’t be distracted by your actual background. There are even ways to “enhance your look” on the video.

  • Remember to put your phone on mute when not speaking, but everyone should understand in this environment if they hear barking, chatter or a screaming child.

  • While your company may still have professional or business casual policies in the workplace, make it acceptable for casual dress (even t-shirts, etc.). In this situation, allow for more comfortable attire.


Be flexible, this is new for most

Recognize everyone’s situation will be a little different. Some will be balancing their workload with their new role as “home school teacher.” Others will be trying to carve out some space in their already crowded home. Whatever the case is, your employees are likely thrilled to still be employed during a time when so many people are losing their jobs. Assume they will do their best in this ever evolving, unprecedented situation.


Get creative, increase employee engagement

Employee engagement is always important to organizations. During this time, leaders have an opportunity to engage their employees in new, creative and meaningful ways. Employee engagement has always been about getting at not only the “head” but also the “heart.” Showing you care and helping people navigate these uncharted waters (some with children in tow) will engage employees in a whole new way. Doing the things discussed above WILL make a difference. Below is a list of additional fun things to consider for the virtual environment.


  • Set up a virtual coffee break (bring your coffee and just chat)

  • Identify a meeting to “bring your daughter/son” (ask the kids to share something)

  • Pet friendly meetings – welcome pets to your video calls

  • Celebrate birthdays/work anniversaries with a virtual party – share pics of the guest of honor

  • Host a virtual happy/social hour

  • Use fun virtual backgrounds (ask people to talk about it) or share their screen to show a picture

  • 6’ Distancing photo contest – share a pic of something you are doing during lock-down

  • “Doing good” contest – share what you are doing to help your community


The possibilities are limitless; share your ideas in the comment section! But more importantly, take time to try out some of these ideas and make a difference in your employees’ lives.


Conclusion

As stated at the beginning, people crave community and connections. In the last couple of weeks I have not only hosted work meetings, but numerous “social” meetings to help people connect in a remote but socially effective way. I recently participated in a session with approximately 50 people (all using their webcams) in my field sharing how we are helping our clients navigate these uncharted waters. While the content and the discussion during the virtual session was valuable, upon reflection on our experiences, most of us shared our excitement about feeling refreshed, connected and encouraged. That special connection time gave each one of us the boost we needed to energize us to go do good for our clients. The personal connection piece CANNOT be underestimated.


People always reflect back on stressful times in their life (a death in the family, the birth of a new child, or in this case a major virus spreading across the globe) and they remember how their leader and organization handled the situation. How you show up matters now – big time! Use these tips and ideas to connect with your team and engage them in new and different ways!


About the Author:

Louise Keefe has worked with leaders around the globe for the last 20 years focused on leadership and talent development. She designs creative talent strategies and programs to help leaders become their best. She has worked remotely for almost 10 years, first at a large global corporation and now as the Owner and Principal Consultant at Perspektives (www.Perspektives.com). For more information on leading teams, working virtually, facilitating virtual learning or anything related to talent development you can contact her at LouiseKeefe@Perspektives.com.