I’ll tell you what we are going to feel we’ve really lost through this challenging time – working virtually makes it hard to maintain a whole lot of treasured social connections. Our colleagues at work are friends, trusted advisors, mentors, and people who see us at our best and worst.  Even the people who bug us, are part of our work community. Setting up shop at home means we’re going to get a lot more time with spouses and children, but honestly, they don’t know our work personas, routines or shared experiences. And frankly, how do you explain them?

Work is our neighborhood – what generations ago had from their front porches.  It’s also where we are recognized, valued and appreciated for our talents.  At work, we exchange books, share ideas, trade recipes, discover new things, learn and grow. 

Starting the day is oh-so-different right now, from losing the morning commute, the stop at Starbucks, or the dry cleaners. It upends normalcy from the moment we get out of bed and decide which sweatpants instead of which jacket. Then there’s the vacuum where we use to grab coffee with our cubicle mate, or lunch with the group, or take a walking meeting with a colleague. There are birthdays, work anniversaries and social hours. All of it disappears. Or does it?     

Is it possible to recreate any of this in a virtual work world?

At Bates we’ve been learning virtual for a long time because many of our teammates work outside our office. Still, this has put us to the test. We’re having to up our game. We’ve experimented with ideas that we thought might help our wider community of leaders and managers to rethink the virtual office, to make it more like the real thing.   

What you won’t find on this list is how to have productive meetings, send agendas, or invite participation on decisions. This list is about bringing the human side of work to the virtual world, to create collegiality, fun and time for being a real person into the virtual world. 

1.  Go around the horn at the virtual staff meeting.

First, make sure you set up that virtual staff meeting, at least once a week. Set aside time to check in with each person. We did this and were amazed at what we learned, though we thought we knew each other well. If you have a big team, limit it to what you can say in two breaths.

2.  Set up virtual lunch.

In our office, a group of people eats lunch together every day. We have a lot of foodies, chefs, health gurus and they look forward to the time together. You can schedule this on Zoom or Skype and invite everybody to show everybody their plates.

3.  Schedule a 5 PM “Mingle.”

We have a monthly office mingle for our team, with themes and a choice of adult beverages. We decided to make it weekly now that we are virtual to stay better connected. Everyone will sign into Zoom, bring a drink, toast each other and raise a glass to our accomplishments of the week.

4.  Hold a virtual birthday celebration.

If you usually have a cake in the office for birthdays, or even if you don’t, put the day on the calendar, get everybody together and sing. You might even try to make it a surprise by making it look like a business meeting.

5.  Share fun things and appropriate humor.

Someone on our team found a hilarious take-off on the brackets for the now canceled March Madness called “March Sadness.” He posted it in our all-team zoom channel and immediately, the lines lit up with a string of hysterical comments.  Humor is one of the best ways to manage the stress, and make things feel more “normal.”

March Sadness

6.  Create “channels” for groups to keep the inbox from overflowing.

Speaking of sharing, we have created chat channels on our internal communications network for the leadership team, other teams, and special groups working on projects. This keeps the right people in the know without filling up the inboxes or wasting time forwarding or repeating what is said in emails.

7.  Communicate more than once, more than one way.

When you can’t be there in person, looking people in the eye, you can’t be sure that anybody got the message. People have different habits, practices and failings when it comes to email, text, phone. If it’s important, get it out through more than one channel.

9.  Do a virtual “walk by.”

Good leaders and managers have a habit of walking by people’s desks and acknowledging when they go the extra mile. There are lots of ways to “walk by” virtually. Email is nice, or be creative by doing a video chat, or, from the “way-back-machine” even sending a handwritten note.

10.  Set up a “state of the team” or “state of the organization.”

As things change, people will have a hard time not being overwhelmed by reports in the media filled with bad news. Introduce some balance and perspective just as you would in the office by giving people the “local news” in a “state of the team,” or “state of the organization report.” Make sure everyone can see it even if they aren’t regularly in front of a computer. 

11.  Tell the stories of your team.

As time goes on you and the team will be rising to the occasion, there will be tales of courage, support and kindness. Things people might just “hear” around the office may need to be shared. If you’re in the know, be sure others hear about the great things your team is doing.

12.  Give people the opportunity to help.

Create a “billboard” of requests that others on the team could fill. Perhaps they can volunteer to read a story to a colleague’s kids on FaceTime, pick up groceries for a relative who lives near them, or help them find a product or service online that they need.

13.  Encourage people to take a break.

One of the hazards of remote work is that we get lost in the work, and time passes without standing up or clearing our heads. At work it’s often interruptions from colleagues, welcome or not, that prompt this. Give people permission and encourage them to take breaks, have coffee with a colleague online or have a virtual chat.

14.  Put on your own oxygen mask first.

At home, you can easily be consumed with all that you have to do. Virtual work is only adding to the workload. Close your “virtual door” periodically, away from the communication devices. Think, or just close your eyes and do nothing. Replenish body, soul and spirit so you can be there for others who are going to be depleted.

As we navigate this crazy new world of social distance, let’s preserve human connection.  Honor what makes your workplace great and preserve your workplace culture. Now more than ever we need to reach out and take the extra step to connect human-to-human in a virtual world.   

For more on virtual meetings, check out this blog:

Four Easy Ways to Master Executive Presence On Video Calls

For more COVID-19 related resources, click here.


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