5 actions to create meaningful conversations in our new normal

Virtual work has been an adjustment for all of us, but many of the leaders I coach have been pleasantly surprised by their team’s performance working remotely. Most say work is getting done as well (or better), meetings are more efficient, and team members appreciate the flexibility to integrate home and work responsibilities.

But a common concern they bring up is the loss of informal, unplanned, “serendipitous” interactions between team members. Situations such as the small talk with a new colleague that builds a relationship, the overheard conversation that leads to cross-pollination and innovation, or the small cues that a colleague is stressed and in need of support.

Even working virtually, there is still plenty that leaders can do to create team connections. Here are five actions you can take with your remote employees to create meaningful conversations in our new normal.

  • Make “check-ins” part of every call and online meeting. Ask participants, “Please give us a sentence or two about the ‘weather between your ears’ and anything that might be distracting from the conversation we’re about to have.” Pro-tip: Share first and model both openness and brevity in your check-in.
  • Include “breakouts” in at least one team call each week. Pose a question and then send people to discuss in small groups of two or three. For example, one client ends the week with this conversation-starter: “What’s a challenge you overcame this week—and which of your skills enabled you to do it?” Another leader takes 10 minutes of their Monday morning call for small group discussion: “What are your three biggest to-dos for this week—and how will you set yourself up for success?” Pro-tip: These conversation prompts are great because they get people to share what they’re doing and maintain a healthy perspective.
  • Put “open-door time” on your calendar and invite team members to “drop in”. One of my clients has told her team that she’s at her desk with Zoom up and running every Tuesday and Thursday from 3-430 p.m. and all are welcome to “stop by” for a chat. Pro-tip: Our client reports that uptake on this was slow, but she’s glad she’s persevered; some days she gets four or five people on the line … and on the other days she catches up on email!
  • Take time to “manage-by-walking-around” (MBWA). Several clients make it a goal to spend at least 15 minutes one-on-one with each of their direct reports each week. Some put these appointments on their calendars, others take a less structured approach. Pro-tip: Sometimes other trusted, non-management colleagues will hear things people might not share with you. Consider asking one of these people to make their own MBWA calls from time to time.
  • Use text messages for “light-touch” connections and expressions of support. Several of my colleagues have made it a practice to reach out to three or four people each day by sending a brief text message. Simple expressions of support can go a long way for both the sender and the recipient. Pro-tip: Messages of appreciation work best when they’re specific. “I’m glad you’re on the team” is nice and true, even, but “I’ve been thinking about that question you asked at the end of the meeting Tuesday. So glad you’re on the team” is better.

I look forward to the day when our teams can get back to face-to-face work, but the past several months have convinced me that there’s real value in remote-work, and at some level, working-from-home is here to stay. It’s up to us, as leaders of ‘remote’ or ‘virtual’ to invest a bit more time and effort to re-create the accidental, but vital interactions that make teams so powerful.

This article first appeared in the Sep 2020 issue of HR.com Magazine. Download a .pdf version of the article here.