What if we told you that there is one secret ingredient that would dramatically improve your team’s performance, would eliminate hours of wasted time, and significantly reduce the energy spent on politics and drama? What if that ONE element required no advanced degrees or training, and could be added with simple steps that fit into your existing workflow. Would you do it?
As we read through the expanding body of research about high-performance teams, and participate in the collective conversation about the new world of work, we see that at the heart of keeping a team working well is CONNECTION.
When we work online, there tends to be a focus on efficiency and getting things done. Nobody wants to linger on Zoom longer than necessary, and the medium itself limits our capacities to connect. It’s harder to feel one another, our bodies and minds numb out from being static for so long, and spontaneous social chit-chat is clumsy.
Now, while remote work has its challenges, no doubt, we also risk over-romanticizing life in the office. While there are more opportunities for organic moments of contact and 'creative collisions' when physically inhabiting the same office space, it does not mean people are actually feeling connected.
What we mean by connection is a warmth and sense of shared humanity. It engenders fundamental goodwill and a sense of mutual reliance with the other person. Creating this kind of genuine, human-to-human connection requires attention and a safe space that invites vulnerability, honesty, creativity and laughter. At the end of our retreats, invariably someone says something to the effect of, “I thought we were doing OK, but now I feel so much more connected to you guys!”
We often hear that the concept of connection is relegated to the "soft skills" department, but the truth is that the sense of connection is vitally important for effective communication, learning, and producing results. As Adam Smiley Poswolsky describes in the Harvard Business Review, the challenge of employees feeling disconnected at work has enormous cost: "In the wake of the pandemic and the vast shift to flexible work from anywhere policies, 65% of workers say they feel less connected to their coworkers. Employee disconnection is one of the main drivers of voluntary turnover, with lonely employees costing U.S. companies up to $406 billion a year. Research by Cigna shows that lonely employees have a higher risk of turnover, lower productivity, more missed days at work, and lower quality of work."
Connection Does NOT Happen by Itself
The days of the proverbial water cooler are over. Since we started carrying the gateway to the universe (aka smartphone) in our pocket, spontaneous, meaningful interaction at work has dramatically decreased. Just seeing each other does not necessarily equate to a sense of knowing, familiarity, or trust.
Since the team at Aurum is now mostly remote, and many of our clients are operating a remote or hybrid configuration, we have learned a great deal about how to create and maintain connectedness on teams who are not working in the same place.
These are some useful guidelines to use with your team. They are particularly applicable to remote and hybrid teams, but are relevant to any group of people in any configuration who want to feel more connected and engaged.
Prioritize Human Connection
Check In Regularly
Check in with each other before diving in. At Aurum we start every meeting with a check-in, an invitation for each person to share how they are doing on a human level. It can be brief or a few minutes per person, but the main point is that it's real, and not a work status update. Here are some reliable prompts we use:
Deeper Dive. To invite more depth, use a prompt for the check in that invites honest self-reflection on a specific topic. Gauge your audience and the level of exposure they’re comfortable with. Use these Connection-Building Questions as inspiration. For example:
Quick Temperature Check. If you are super tight on time, use something very brief, such as these:
In the absence of real information, people often unconsciously fill in the blanks about each other with their own stories and assumptions. Getting to know your colleagues is deepened by understanding the context of their lives and who they are as a whole person. Especially for remote teams who only get exposed to a sliver of each other on video calls, filling in the context of each others’ lives is especially helpful.
Find playful ways to share:
Model Being Real
In order for any of this to work, the leader has to create a safe space for people to share openly. And that includes allowing team members to divulge only as much or as little as they feel comfortable. Many of us have spent time in psychologically unsafe environments and we all know what it feels like. Your people will be assessing and testing what is safe to share and what is not.
From everything we know about intersectionality, people who come from marginalized communities or are perceived as ‘different’ in any way are by default less safe. So be especially careful to be intentional and supportive, call out and address any sarcasm, micro-aggressions, and jokes that diminish a person and shut down the authenticity you’re trying to foster.
We don’t need brain scientists to tell us that human beings bond through laughter (although they now have the brain scans to prove it!). The natural way we connect with others is through play, and it is sorely underutilized at work. Getting silly together fosters creativity and innovation, wakes people up and generally just feels good! Find creative ways to make things fun and get a good laugh together.
At Aurum we use a variety of fun games and icebreakers that create instant aliveness. Here are some general guidelines:
Spend a Day Together Kickstarting Connection
We share these ideas with you in hopes you will apply them and use them regularly. However, we know that in many teams it is hard to inject something new into the daily routines and packed calendars.
For this we recommend to take a day to be together as a team with the help of a skilled facilitator. There are things someone from the outside can ask, do and say that wouldn't work if it came from within the team. Having external facilitation opens up new channels of communication and connection, and allows the team leader/s to fully take part in the process, rather than being on the outside.
Aurum’s Team Vitality Day is a daylong workshop that includes all the elements we have named and opens a flow of communication that becomes a benchmark for the team. It is also a lot of fun, and helps people remember who they are and what they are capable of as individuals and as a team.
In closing, remember that it’s not enough to “talk about” connection – it must be prioritized, experienced, and modeled by you as a leader.
Authors: Deepika Sheleff & Devi Cavitt Razo
Devi and Deepika are co-founders of Aurum Leadership. With years of experience coaching leaders and facilitating transformative experiences, they brings deep insight, down-to-earth skills and humor to the task of learning how to be human.
Devi Cavitt Razo and Deepika Sheleff are co-founders of Aurum Leadership. They are also close friends who have dedicated their lives to creating powerful, honest, resilient relationships.