Guided Insights

In a world where what was blindly fast is now excruciatingly slow, what was private is now all-too-public, and where meaningful discussions have given way to a stream of 280-character exchanges, a feeling of disconnection has become rampant across the workplace.

Despite the proliferation of devices that tether us to others at any time, from anywhere, more people are feeling disengaged and disconnected from the work they do and the people they work with. This sense of disconnection applies equally to those who work together and those who work apart. (Witness how so many people who sit an arms’ length away opt to communicate electronically vs. using eyes and voice!)

For virtual workers with few opportunities for interpersonal exchanges, the sense of disconnectedness tends to be more acute and its effects more debilitating to one’s energy, sense of purpose and identity as a part of a team. According to psychiatrist Dr. Edward (Ned) Hallowell, disengagement is a chief cause of underachievement and depression, and increasingly, a formidable barrier to achieving peak performance. A heightened sense of engagement, on the other hand, can boost performance exponentially.

In this edition of Communiqué, I build on ideas from both Dr. Hallowell and David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, to help geographically-dispersed workers forge better connections and engage them more fully in the work they do and those they work with.

  • Turn “foes” into “friends.” Our brains automatically classify people into “friend” (someone we know) and “foe” (strangers). We are naturally inclined to move toward our friends and away from foes. Thus, whether at work or at play, we tend to form “safe” tribes with friends and colleagues and avoid working with those we don’t know, often misreading or unfairly judging their ideas. People who work virtually often take the path of least resistance, focusing more energy on pre-existing relationships within the team, rather than investing time in acquiring new “friends.” While it takes more imagination and effort to build the kind of relationships that can transform foes into friends from afar, those who do will be repaid with a deeper sense of connection to their teams and the work they share.
  • Small talk is big. Under pressure to deliver results, many of us like to dive into our task list as soon as we get on a call with not a moment to waste. But in fact, taking the time to ask a colleague about his weekend or find out from a co-worker what book she’d recommend for vacation reading is anything but a waste. Finding a moment here or there to learn more about the human being behind the title or task helps build relationships bit by bit, especially when face-to-face encounters are impractical or impossible.
  • Plan unplanned interruptions. Some of us tend to be surprised, and sometimes a bit ruffled, when a colleague calls to say hello, especially if we haven’t set up a meeting request. (After all, how are we supposed to get our real work done if people just call us whenever they feel like it!?) Instead of surfing the web or sending an idle text next time you have a couple minutes’ down time, try surprising a co-worker with a real call just to check in. Maybe your teammate has been having a rough patch, or perhaps you need to surface a sensitive issue with someone who might understand. If you can’t get through, leave a message and let your colleague know how much you’d like to talk. Although many of us find unplanned interruptions distracting, most people welcome a friendly 1:1 conversation, especially when we are otherwise mired in back-to-back business calls all day long.
  • Act like a detective. If you want to get better acquainted with someone on your team, use your ingenuity (and perhaps some web research) to discover potential commonalities. You might try searching for his or her profile on LinkedIn to find shared contacts. Scour FaceBook, Twitter, or other social networking tools typically used by people in your organization to learn whether you might have once worked for the same company, have related expertise, or enjoy similar pastimes. Knowing that you share a love of Thai food or a passion for a certain type of film or sport can create a formative bond to build on later.
  • Pay attention to everyone. Notice when someone sounds stressed, seems exhilarated, or remains unusually withdrawn. Whether you choose to articulate your observation out loud in front of others or privately will depend on the context of the discussion, your existing level of shared trust, the possible effect of this team member’s emotions on the rest of the team, or other factors. However you choose to discuss your observations, your team member will appreciate that you reached out to make a personal connection, an important step to creating trust and cultivating friendships.
  • Play around. Being fully engaged in doing work we love (or being in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”) activates the prefrontal cortex, which regulates important executive functions like deciding, organizing, anticipating and analyzing. If you ignite your imagination and act on your curiosity instead of simply checking off a list of mindless Sisyphean tasks, the end product will be much better and you’ll be far more engaged in the work you’re doing. Those who work virtually need to set aside time and come up with techniques to kick-start their best creative brains, given that they aren’t easily able to sidle up to co-workers to bounce off ideas when the mood strikes.
  • Sing your praises. Most of us crave recognition to inspire our best performance. Those who work virtually tend to need more validation than those who are close to those in power. Plus, projects move so quickly and are touched by so many virtual hands that managers may have no idea where to give credit, even if they actually took the time to find out. Don’t be shy about letting others know what you’ve accomplished, and invite your teammates to share their achievements in turn. Build in time during team calls for a “highlights” session where everyone has a chance to say a few words about their proudest accomplishments since the last call.

In the absence of frequent interpersonal interactions, virtual team members tend to have a harder time staying motivated, engaged and fulfilled. But with a little thought, planning, and a bit of extra time, making the right kind of connections can help turn a disengaged, disconnected team member into a virtual superstar.


123 Tips for Planning and Leading Exceptional Virtual Meetings – downloadable softcopy guide for purchase

Our customized virtual workshops to help participants plan and design more engaging virtual meetings 

“What Brain Scientists Tells Us about How to Excel,” by Edward M. (“Ned”) Hallowell, Harvard Business Review

Your Brain at Work by David Rock

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