Restoring Lost Connections in a Virtual World

“My team has gotten a lot tighter since the start of the pandemic,” my client Zoe recently told me. “Our weekly meetings are super-productive, and we’re constantly Slack-chatting back and forth throughout the week. In fact, since we went remote, we’ve learned more about each other’s lives than we probably ever could have if we were back in our office cubicles. The problem is, we feel almost completely disconnected from other teams. It’s as if our team was launched into space in a rocket ship, and someone cut the cord.”

Zoe is not alone. In a world where the return to office is on-again, off-again, then back on, and now off indefinitely, many of us feel increasingly disconnected from people outside of our immediate teams. We’re living in a constant state of uncertainty, about where we’ll be working, for whom, with whom, when, and how. We tend to gravitate to people in our own teams to seek some sense of stability, and by doing so, we may be inadvertently cutting off connections with others.

Whether you’re longing for meaningful conversations that go beyond reviewing the weekly status report or want to connect with people outside of your own team for any conversation, consider bringing people together for “community conversations,” which can take many forms. (And if you work independently like I do, there are many ways that you, too, can bring people together for conversations that matter.)

Here I offer some ideas for convening communities of people for conversations that can rejuvenate, enlighten, inspire, motivate and energize. (By “conversations,” I am referring here to same-time meetings, vs. asynchronous exchanges. So yes, this may mean more meetings, but I bet they’ll be some of the best meetings you will have had for a long time!)

  • Consider which teams, functions, or other organizational entities would benefit from cross-pollinating knowledge, sharing challenges or opportunities, or brainstorming ideas. Start with a topic that most people would likely benefit from discussing with people from other teams. (Examples: Making sense of the new corporate strategy. Identifying and addressing critical mutual dependencies. Brainstorming ideas to boost customer retention. Identifying ways to streamline time-consuming processes.) Try polling a cross-section of representative cross-functional team members for their ideas by asking what they would most like to share with or learn from people on other teams, what functions or organizations would they like to know more about or work better with, or which teams might have the greatest impact on each other’s success.
  • Determine your tangible and experiential objectives. For example, is the tangible goal to share lessons learned, relay experiences, brainstorm ideas, create solutions, surface issues, map out action plans or learn new skills? Experiential goals might include building trust, forging new connections, strengthening professional networks or galvanizing a larger team.
  • Limit conversations to a smallish group where everyone has time and a real opportunity to speak. I recommend no more than 6-8 people for most conversations, which may mean convening a larger group at first to set the stage and create context, and then break into smaller groups for a deeper conversation. Let people know in advance that you’ll be asking everyone to participate from an acoustically private workspace, without distractions, with video on, barring any extenuating circumstances.
  • The more focused the topic and the clearer the questions, the more fruitful and gratifying the conversation. Examples: Mapping out essential elements of a mentorship program to retain new employees. Brainstorming ways we can social media and direct marketing more effectively to increase contributions from existing donors. Agree on the top three changes we can make today to accelerate the successful launch of product X. Avoid overly broad topics without verbs, such as “Change Management” or “Customer Satisfaction.” With a more sharply defined focus up front, the right people are more likely to show up, and the better prepared they will be.
  • Determine if these community conversations will be convened around a particular event or a pressing need, or if conversations will be regularly scheduled for a few hours each quarter or an hour or two each month. For example, one of my clients sets aside a three-hour time slot each quarter where people from all functions are randomly assigned to breakout groups to answer the same question or ponder the same topic, and then move onto a new breakout group with a new topic, and so on. This way, people from organizations they may never otherwise come into contact with can become acquainted, share ideas, and feel better connected to the organization as a whole.
  • Create a framework and establish agreed-upon ground rules that all can use, with modification as needed. This will vary depending on the type of community conversation, whether it’s optional or mandatory, the nature of the conversation and other factors. As a volunteer facilitator with the Communities of Restorative Justice working with youthful offenders, we use a “Community Circles” process. Once all agree to the ground rules, each person passes along a talking piece once they are through answering the question posed by the circle leader, one at a time. This way, everyone quietly listens to each other’s responses without interruption or rebuttal.
  • You can also convene community conversations for people to learn about topics that are only tangentially related to work, like how to pick the best lighting and video for your home office, leveraging LinkedIn, mindfulness techniques to relieve stress, tips for sharing a remote workspace without losing your mind, etc. And some conversations may have absolutely nothing to do with work, like can’t-miss streaming shows and movies, favorite hiking trails, foolproof methods for starting seedlings indoors, etc. Encourage everyone in the organization to share their expertise and interests by bringing together interested folks, whether as a breakfast briefing, lunch and learn, or an after-hours discussion. (My favorite after-hours learning activity was led by my friend’s cousin, who held mixology classes on Zoom every Friday evening, preceded by a shopping list and recipes. What a great way to end some pretty tough weeks, and it was free!)
  • Community conversations can be a great place for skills-building. Maybe someone in your organization is admired for their ability to manage dysfunctional meeting behavior, tell great stories, or diplomatically handle microaggressions. Ask for volunteers willing to share quick tips or provide opportunities to practice new skills. Extend an invitation to people across multiple teams or organizations and determine the maximum capacity and cut-off date for registration in advance to keep conversations manageable.
  • If you’re not part of an organization and want to make connections through small-group conversations, consider hosting a networking session, bringing together people who might benefit professionally or socially from getting acquainted. Or ask people you know who have special skills or knowledge that others would appreciate learning, like how to get the most out of TikTok or Insta, tips for using your smartphone for professional-quality photos, creating a killer unique value proposition, reducing closet clutter or organizing your home office space.
  • Invite people to work alongside you, virtually. If you miss having someone to chat with every so often, consider inviting others to log into Zoom or Teams at the same time so you can work next to each together, even if you’re working independently. This way, you can see each other working, stopping to chat every so often to check in or ask for advice (here’s where ground rules will be key!), and then continue your independent work. One of my colleagues has a client who asks her to log into Zoom at the same time so they can work together on the same project, sometimes speaking just a few times over a couple of hours.

Most people crave connections and a feeling of belonging. In this time when so many of us are dislocated, discombobulated and easily disheartened by a feeling of disconnection, think about how you and your organization can form community conversations to bridge what feels like an infinite and interminable distance.

 

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