My monthly tip for virtual leaders: how can you best care for your people whilst we all distance physically

Utilise the virtual coffee corner or water cooler

Some time ago I started listening to various podcast series. And one of them is The Happiness Lab by Dr. Laurie Santos. I have developed a habit of listening to the most reflective podcasts whilst out in the fields, running. Just a few days ago, I listened to episode 4 of Season 1 titled  Mistakenly Seeking Solitude. It struck me how appropriate the content was considering that many European countries are on their way to another lockdown to regain control over the pandemic. One by one is announcing new measures to limit our social life and push many people back into a working from home pattern, if they ever stopped at all.

Con-TACT: How to stay happy during the pandemic

So, what was so striking in this one episode about the mistake of seeking solitude?

Dr. Santos explains that extensive research has shown a noticeably clear positive correlation between socialising and happiness. At the same time, we all, as seasoned leaders, know that people who are happy at work are much better in their performance and team collaboration. I would be surprised if you as a leader of such a team are not worried that the physical distancing of members of your team could have a negative effect on their well-being and the team’s performance.

This is for seasoned virtual leaders as much as for beginners in the area

Hence, in this monthly tip I thought I (re-)share an approach I have already recommended quite some time ago for virtual team leaders in general.
Of course, you may have had a virtual team before and this entire situation is not completely new, or you may now be pushed from an originally local team leader role into a virtual one.
So, if you are a seasoned virtual leader my tip can be a good reminder and if you are rather new to the ‘game’ of virtual working and collaboration it is something new to try and help in dealing with the current situation.

Socialising is not just a private thing

As we all know, socialising is not only happening in private life but also in our work context. In local teams a lot of socialising happens through having lunch together or having a chat at the coffee machine or water cooler or simply from desk to desk in the office. None of this is possible when people have to work from home.

Con-TACT: being unhappy in social isolation

So, everyone who used to work together in their offices are now cut off from these socialising opportunities and to make matters worse for each individual the impact of working from home gets exacerbated through a massive reduction of socialising in their private life.

Hence, as already publicised in the first round of lockdowns people’s mental health and with that their level of happiness may be suffering from this more or less extensive solitude. And this time round the effect may even be much stronger as people’s capacity to cope with the solitude may have been diminished in the first lockdown.

So, what can you do to best care for your people?

Many years ago, I have learned a very neat approach from a manager at a large global company who had to lead a virtual team over three years with no budget for travelling and meeting in person. His team was spread from Singapore to the east coast of North America. When I asked him how he ensured that the relationships between the members and social cohesion in the team did develop and was maintained, he told me about a very simple yet effective activity he introduced.

He simulated the experience of a chat at the coffee machine by introducing a virtual coffee corner. Every Friday they had a voluntary 45 minute call which he called meeting at the coffee corner. There were only two rules for this informal meeting: no agenda existed and no decisions were taken.

Con-TACT: Virtual coffee corner

The main focus of the conversations in these 45 minute calls were around family events, holidays and gossip in the local subsidiary. Well, family events and holidays might not deliver much food for conversations these days, but it could easily be about sharing experiences with the current situation.

He admitted that it took him a couple of months before more than a hand full of people showed up in the call. Two of the success factors he mentioned were:

  • he role-modelled the behaviour he expected by talking about his holidays and gossiping
  • he was persistent in the first few months and kept going, occasionally mentioning in the formal meetings that they had interesting gossips shared from the various sites

For him, these meetings at the coffee corner were a significant factor that helped the team to bond strongly, have more trust in each other, and deal with conflict much easier by not taking it personally.

Does it really work?

Obviously, I was intrigued when I heard his story and I have tried it myself with various teams I’ve led since then. And I can say with conviction: It really works! You may still need some persistence when you start introducing such a virtual coffee corner or virtual water cooler. Yet, considering what I hear from people working from home who weren’t used to it before, their longing for social connection with colleagues or team members may lead to a boosted kickstart effect of the virtual coffee corner.

And in the current situation it may even be an idea to have shorter but more frequent meetings. Around lunchtime, maybe?
Think about it and try what you consider most suitable for your team and work environment. As with so many other things, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

I wish you good luck and great success with the idea.
And should you need some further advice or like to explore options, feel free to get in touch with me direct.

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