As we begin to discuss going back into the office in some capacity, I think about what I have missed most about in-person work. My first thought was of course the in-office snacks, particularly cheese sticks and fruit snacks. Second, having a separate working space (by the way, how is my desk plant still alive? I should submit that plant to a lab for research purposes and potential scientific publications). But what I am most excited about is being reunited with my colleagues and getting to know my new co-workers who have been hired over this last year and a half.
I think the importance of building internal relationships with colleagues cannot be over emphasized. You spend all day with them! Maybe as people who have found careers in communications, this is something a lot of us think to do naturally or a skill we take for granted. However, in a virtual world, it may be something that we forget to prioritize.
Over the last year, have we been taking time to get to know our co-workers virtually? What happens now that some of my colleagues are 100% remote? What if some of my colleagues I only see physically in the office once or twice a month? It used to be so simple when you could just chat at your desk or in the kitchen.
I’ve always found that when you get to know someone you work with and they are comfortable discussing some of their outside life— what music they like, what they did over the weekend, what their hobbies are, where they like to order lunch, do they have any pets, etc.— they are also more comfortable proposing out-of-the-box ideas and collaborating or coming to you with questions. This can translate to better team morale, increased creativity, and improved partnerships.
As the majority of companies adopt some form of a hybrid approach to in-person work moving forward, it is important to continue to think about ways to get to know colleagues virtually. Here are some simple tips to apply to daily tasks that may help build those connections.
Make time for small talk
Small talk, of course in moderation, is important to building a positive culture and promoting well-being. Research shows that small talk interactions are extremely meaningful. A recent study at Rutgers University surveyed 151 employees. The results revealed that small talk contributed to higher energy levels, less employee burnout, increased gratitude, and greater pride in work. According to this same study, small talk can at times be disruptive, compromising employees’ organizational citizenship behaviors. Use your best judgement and look for appropriate times to engage with others in small talk. What are some examples?
Before an internal meeting starts, take the opportunity while you wait for others to chat with colleagues on the line. As a meeting is coming to an end, if ahead of schedule, this is also a good time to ask if anyone wants to stick around for five minutes to talk about a current event or a movie you just streamed.
You can also take advantage of messaging platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams to make “virtual small talk” between more formal discussions. Remember not to disrupt an important chain of thought, and discuss any non work related topics at the end of the day or when appropriate.
Another idea is to host a virtual “office hour” where colleagues can “stop by your desk” virtually to ask a question or just chat. You can create a zoom line and keep it open for others to pop in throughout a set day and time. This can be especially helpful for new employees as they get started to get to know colleagues.
Eat lunch or drink coffee together
In the office, this was easy- just ask a colleague to get food with you or offer to show them one of your favorite coffee shops down the block. In the virtual world, coffee breaks can still happen! If not in the office, and you see someone has free time around lunch, offer to set up a zoom lunch! This can be done as a group or one-on-one.
Be mindful of zoom fatigue, but often co-workers have gaps in their schedules, where if planned far enough in advance, a zoom lunch may feel like a treat. Even fifteen minutes mid-day could help everyone take a break and refocus their mind.
Connect on shared interests outside of the office
What do you like to do outside of work? Everyone has a life outside that includes hobbies, shows they watch, family events, and, of course, pets!
If you find a shared interest with a colleague or group of colleagues, think about setting up a messaging channel for discussions. This may be a channel devoted to cat pictures or specific news interests. Separate channels can be helpful with categorizing discussions and will keep other messaging channels focused on work.
Another excellent and healthy way to connect with colleagues is through exercise. Running groups can be tracked virtually and may generate friendly competition. Or how about starting a virtual yoga class? Many people already exercise daily, so creating virtual exercise groups is a simple way to connect and motivate one another.
Tell jokes and laugh
There’s always time to be serious, but not-so-serious times are also important. My colleagues reading this might attest to my commitment with this last point. I love when colleagues send me memes or tell me something funny that has happened to them. It’s just another way to connect and feel comfortable with each other. It is okay to laugh at work, either together in the office, or from behind your computer screen.
One strategy is to start or end the day with a joke! Morning meetings or closing meetings are a great time for jokes as a way to kick off or to close out the day. For example, I told my co-workers a joke during our last zoom meeting. It wasn’t even remotely funny.
A lot of these ideas may seem obvious, but as we learn to adapt to this new style of working, remember to prioritize getting to know your coworkers and helping new employees feel comfortable with your team. If you have new ideas on how to connect with co-workers, bring them up with your team and share what has worked for you.
Graphic created by: Autumn Von Plinsky