How important is connection in a team? If connected teams drive innovation, increase job satisfaction, reduce burnout, and foster new skills like many thought-leaders propose, then connection is pretty darn important. It’s also vague; what is ‘connection’? Connection is about relating; to people, ideas, objectives, perspectives, backgrounds, and values. One proxy; does your team have inside jokes? There are endless ways to connect with your peers, but I think many teams are struggling to create this in a remote-first work environment.
Owl Labs recently (2022) published survey numbers showing that 65% of workers aged 22 to 65 claim to work remotely at least occasionally and that 16% of companies in the US are fully remote. Even if those numbers are nicely exaggerated, the message still comes across clearly; many teams are working remotely. If reduced physical proximity equates to lower levels of connection, that’s a problem for many organizations.
An immediate solution managers jump to in order to help their teams get more connected: synchronous meetings. We need to be on video more. We think it will automatically foster connection and collaboration. Even if, by some miracle, just being on a video call for more hours works to forge the connection you are hoping for, you end up with video fatigue.
An alternative is to try something asynchronous that allows for flexibility, space, and reflection. For example, creating a Ponder inquiry with questions that inspire reflective thought by one team member upon another automatically triggers feelings of empathy and connectedness.
Are you thinking that seeing individuals is the magic ingredient which creates connection and is missing from this medium? Research shows it’s not. On “How Science Can Fix Remote Work”, an episode on Adam Grant’s podcast, he explains to us:
“If you are like most people, you want to keep seeing your team members' videos. You prefer that to audio only because you value having the rich visual cues of facial expressions and body language. That’s how you read their emotions, right? Wrong. It turns out that if you want to know what someone is feeling you might be better off just hearing their voice.
In one experiment people read another person's emotions more accurately when the lights were turned off. In another experiment they were more accurate when the video feed was turned off. Follow up studies showed that when we don’t have visual cues we pay more attention to the content and tone of voice.”
A paper published by the American Psychological Association offers two reasons why voice-only is better for detecting emotions. “Kraus believes that there are two possible reasons why voice-only is superior to combined communication. One is that we have more practice using facial expressions to mask emotions. The other is that more information isn't always better for accuracy. In the world of cognitive psychology, engaging in two complex tasks simultaneously (i.e., watching and listening) hurts a person's performance on both tasks."
The increasing prevalence of remote-first companies will fuel innovation for working in geographically dispersed ways. This will have ripple effects beyond office workers - effects I can’t predict today. It very well may transform industries and companies we currently know require people to be onsite during working hours. In this episode of The Founder’s Field Guide, Stewart Butterfield recalls the days where people would talk about the “paperless office.” No one talks about that anymore because the amount of paper used has decreased so dramatically during the digital age. In the future, this could be true for thinking about teams as either connected or remote.
Solutions are coming to life that will make physical location significantly less important than the intangible aspects (i.e. trust, empathy, & psychological safety) of connecting with your work peers. Remote or hybrid teams have an immediate need to foster that connection, but all managers should be thinking about a future that isn’t like today - because that always happens.
Without demanding that your team members spend yet another hour on a call (or in the office), any manager can adapt this inquiry to their own style and lead their team toward a working environment that is both remote-first and connected.
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