Sara S. Johnson, Ph.D.
Co-President and CEO, Pro-Change
The rapidly evolving COVID-19 crisis has had an unprecedented effect on the workforce, forcing teams to work remotely. Accelerating trends that began long before the pandemic, some experts predict as much as 30 percent of the workforce will be working remotely more than half of the time by 2021.
While remote working can increase performance, engagement, and satisfaction, some of the positive impacts are offset by increased social isolation. Beyond the now well-documented health consequences of lacking meaningful social connections, loneliness can adversely affect team performance, communication, happiness, and loyalty. In fact, a large global study showed social connections are an essential ingredient for maintaining overall well-being.
Promoting meaningful social connection among remote teams can be tricky for team members and managers alike. Given the absence of serendipitous social connections that happen naturally in shared workplaces, organizations must be purposeful about creating them in a remote setting.
Fostering strong social connections can begin with onboarding. Some organizations have formalized onboarding buddies to build relationships from Day 1. Introduce new team members in terms of their personal interests and passions outside of work to enable other team members to get to know them and find common interests. Schedule brief 15-minute, “get-acquainted” meetings with the newcomer’s colleagues, and emphasize early collaborative assignments.Organizations can also promote virtual connections by fostering structured conversation around shared content (e.g., TED talks, articles, online courses). Ask remote team members to meet via video conference and take turns reacting to the shared content, ensuring everyone gets equal air time. Kick off virtual meetings with unique icebreakers (e.g., Have you ever met someone famous?; What are you reading right now?; What was your favorite band 10 years ago?) that help identify shared interests thatbecome fodder for later bonding.
These practices leverage a key principle of forming close relationships among peers: sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure. Vivek Murthy used a similar strategy as Surgeon General. In a tradition he referred to as the “Inside Scoop,” each week one team member shared something about themselves using pictures for 5 minutes during a staff meeting.
Leveraging digital tools
Videoconferencing can do double-duty to foster social connection, facilitating not only project meetings but also virtual coffee hours, lunches, happy hours, book clubs, and more.
The Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) staff — a remote team — connects via regular group texts to share oddities and interests from daily life. HERO has examined other best practices that employers can implement during a pandemic and long-term:
- Raise awareness about the importance of mental health and well-being: Leaders at every level of the organization can highlight and link to organizational core values by sharing personal stories and facilitating conversations.
- Identify psychosocial hazards in the workplace: Solutions include self-managed work teams, flexible work arrangements, assistance with childcare and eldercare, and financial well-being resources.
- Promote access to behavioral healthcare: Employers can ease access by reducing co-pays for mental health counseling and providing telehealth options.
- Integrate a comprehensive wellness program: A strategy that incorporates all dimensions — emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational, and social — is recommended.
- Leverage community partnerships to extend reach: Employers can leverage resources through public health departments, parks and recreational agencies, and community centers.
Don’t hesitate to over-communicate to ensure everyone feels included.