Dogs and conference rooms

In September 2020, I bought my first home. It’s on a nice little tree-lined street four minutes from downtown. A few doors down is a man who, I came to learn on some dog walks and casual hellos, is a leading North American expert on post-pandemic office design. (Architect by trade.) I am a big person, and so is my dog. He is a smaller person, and so is his dog. We’ve had comically long conversations about post-pandemic office design, and whether offices really need to be in our lives, as we walk our opposite-sized dogs around. I am sure it confuses neighbors. 

Then, in February of 2021, I got this job with Neuroleadership Institute. That’s six months ago, and somehow I’ve managed to not entirely screw the whole thing up yet — but to this day, I have not met a single colleague in person. I see them on calls, and there are Skypes buzzing around throughout the day, but a physical meeting? An interaction in the same space? No. 

I told this to my neighbor buddy recently, and he said: “Dude, the best guy on my team lives in Warsaw, Poland. I’ve never met him, quite possibly never will. But he’s killing it, and we have a bond. It’s totally possible.”

The never-meet, but still-bond is totally possible. 

And there’s some science behind it too. So how do you do it? What’s the best way to help your team bond when they’re never in the same room? 

As managers act concerned over a lack of in-person work as a way to force people back into the building, under the guise of vague references to “culture,” here’s what to know about bonding together a team that never interacts in person.

Let people be themselves

Building a team isn’t an “activity” so much as a repeated series of actions. At NLI, we define culture as “shared everyday habits.” The way leaders listen (or don’t) to their people. The way meetings are run, where people feel like they can speak up, or not. The speed at which good ideas flow through an organization. 

You build any friendship or relationship through “uncommon commonalities,” so you need to foster a way for people’s personalities and interests to shine through. That can mean leaders joining team calls 10-15 minutes early, and anyone can join and just talk through life. It can be a game like “Three Snaps,” where each week, a different team member shares three photos from their life and explains why they’re important to them. There can be Skype/Slack channels for random discussions and link finds. People need to get to know each other on a level beyond just tasks. It takes time, but that’s how you help a team bond. 

You can try book clubs and team trivia contests, too.

There has been a movement in recent years for employees to “bring their authentic self to work,” but that phrasing often ends in managerial resentment and performance improvement plans. This is more about letting people have the space to cultivate relationships.

The logistics

At NLI, we believe deeply in “One Virtual, All Virtual” as a meeting format. That means that if you have a few people in the same place — maybe your HQ is in Los Angeles, and one week a few people are visiting there — you still treat the meeting as if everyone is virtual. Take the people who are together and encourage them to log-in apart, from separate offices in the LA building. This creates a spirit of inclusion around everyone being virtual, as opposed to in-groups and out-groups.

Now, you can also just generally work better virtually, and following some of these steps is crucial for teams that have never met, because it establishes a baseline for professionalism, respect, and context for each other. Focus on some of these elements:

  • Establish warmth and competence in your virtual appearance.
  • Help people hear your voice, and what you’re saying.
  • Read the room better, faster.
  • Take advantage of the platform.

The first two are rather self-explanatory: have a nice area, and speak clearly (six inches from the microphone, give or take). 

As for reading the room: Imagine you are discussing a project with a team of eight people, all on camera in separate locations. The team leader can pose a question, and get a visual cue for a response, saving a lot of time. They can ask everyone to give a thumbs up for “I agree,” a thumbs sideways for “I’m not sure,” and a thumbs down for “I disagree.” Questions like “What do people think of that idea?” or “Have we covered all angles here?” are much more efficient on a video platform where everyone can see the whole team’s reaction in an instant. 

The platform is powerful, too. Imagine a team making a decision on a marketing strategy for a new product. The leader might ask the group to each give a rating on the idea, on a scale of 1-10, with no further comment, all in a chat. Very quickly, the whole group has a sense of how everyone feels about the idea. Then the leader might ask for people to each list three reasons for and three reasons against the idea. 

The fact that everyone can do this at once, and then everyone can read all of this at the same time, turns a 30-minute conversation that seems random, based on who feels like speaking or who speaks loudest, to a 10-minute conversation that is more focused, more data-driven, and—here’s the kicker—less biased and more inclusive, two things that matter a lot to organizations lately. I am not saying we shouldn’t leave time for free-flowing discussion. But getting basic feedback on an idea from eight people in serial is frustratingly ineffective.

Remember what motivates people

You might scream “MONEY!” Indeed, that’s one answer.

The real, better answer is the domains of human social experience:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

All of these are important to building functional teams, be they on-premise or dispersed. Relatedness is especially important. Relatedness is the sense that we belong — that we’re in the in-group. Leaders can use language such as “we” and “us” to promote that feeling, instead of language like “you,” “me,” and “they,” which signals a clear boundary between groups. 

David Rock, the founder of this company who I’ve also never met in person, did a Bloomberg QuickTake video recently on the “radical transparency” idea. The sexy hook of the video is an Argentine software company where employees determine each other’s salary (gasp!), but near the end of the video, David explains why engagement actually went up during the pandemic — because these SCARF factors went up as well. 

Employees had more autonomy (over their time), and leaders were generally transparent about what was happening with COVID reactions (certainty, fairness). There were horrible aspects of 2020 work-wise, absolutely, but a lot of people enjoyed their work more. It’s because of SCARF.

If you consistently “SCARF” your people — increase autonomy, fairness, et al — they will come together as a trusting, productive team — regardless of location.

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