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Nurturing Connection: Tips for Building Community in Remote and Hybrid Work Environments

Today’s workplaces look very different from those of the pre-pandemic era. Remote and hybrid work arrangements are standard and are increasingly dispersed despite some notable employers’ resistance.

As a result, leaders often ask me questions like: “How do I foster a sense of community in my team when everyone is just sitting there on Zoom? I can’t read them, especially when their cameras are off! I don’t know what they’re thinking, whether they’re annoyed, checked out, or just multi-tasking. How do I get them engaged?”

While physical distance between team members may pose challenges, it also presents unique opportunities for cultivating meaningful connections that increase collaborative problem-solving and innovation. Here are some tips for leaders from my research. These are practical steps you can take today to nurture interpersonal connections that increase well-being and make virtual and hybrid work:

  1. Ensure fair turn-taking: Humans connect by communicating with each other. Flip your strategy if you are taking up more than your fair share of the airtime in your meetings. Open the airwaves. Shift from telling people what you think they need to know; instead, ask what they think you need to know. By doing so, you begin to create a culture of open curiosity, and that makes it safer for your team members to connect not only with you but with each other. (When you need to do a “tell”, send an email. Then, use your meeting for a discussion of questions.)
  2. Help people prepare to make meaningful contributions. Remember that your people need to know the goal of every meeting and the topics for discussion. Without this knowledge, they can’t anticipate how to add value; thus, they arrive at your meetings unprepared. If you’re wondering, “Why are they just sitting there staring?” you haven’t prepared them to do anything else but that. Worse, while you strive to carry the conversation, research shows they can listen to you only for 20 to 40 seconds before their minds wander. If you’re doing most of the talking, they won’t remember what you said.
  3. Encourage small talk. If this tip makes you groan, you’re not alone. But heads up, small talk is the glue that creates relationship stickiness. So, plan for small talk: add it to the front of your agenda and call it a quick check-in. Start the meeting with a question, like “Let’s reconnect on what’s important this week for each of us. Anyone want to start?” Heaven forbid, do not use a contrived icebreaker. Icebreakers can make people uncomfortable or bored, leading to resentment. Don’t derail your intentions to build a strong community with corny questions like “What’s your favorite food?”

For more tips on creating a sense of community that transcends physical boundaries and fosters collaboration, engagement, and belonging among remote and hybrid teams, get the Book! This one-hour read gives you a simple, research-based recipe.

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