We spend around 8% of our time in the office socialising. A “human moment” such as a simple smile can be a boost for motivation that we do not even consciously notice. During a work day the sum of all human moments has an impact on our mental health and to our performance at work. But now we work mostly remotely. Is it possible to have such moments online and how can we create such moments actively?
During the last years I have attended remotely several different meetings, workshops, trainings, planning sessions, one on ones, presentations, webinars, conferences and more. I observe that the longer we work exclusively remote the less the people are satisfied. I can’t really know that and maybe it is only me, but I believe that some teams start almost falling apart and their members choose to work in silos, rather than investing time with the rest of the team.
Communication and the general feeling of being connected starts to diminish. This could be also a sign of weak structures within a team, or that we still optimise for performance and not for collaboration. Nevertheless there is no doubt that also in stable teams people want/need to socialise in order to keep team spirit high. How can we avoid to get “tired” working from home? How can we charge energy from simple moments with the colleagues remotely?
Human interactions online
I interviewed some people and asked them to tell me their opinion about what the problem with the loss of motivation and increase of apathy could be. I discovered something simple and common with what I feel: I often miss simple informal human interactions such what happens to the way to the cafeteria, chats in between, the syncs that happen unconsciously and naturally, the few words and smiles you exchange; the energy you receive without even noticing.
We spend around 8% of our time in the office socialising, because true connected communication, such as what I call here “a human moment” satisfies several of our needs, such as feeling supported and accepted. This provides small, but significant energy against stress. The sum of the human moments and positive social interactions makes a real difference along the day in our mood.
Feeling supported and accepted is important for mental and physical health and of course for performance at work.
Harvard psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined this term, saying that a human moment requires two ingredients: physical co-presence and focused attention. The first ingredient is not possible when we are socially distancing. The second one gets lost when we get tired or demotivated.
Succesful teamwork online
Lots of thoughts and suggestions have been made on how to build a successful remote team. Aspects such as good preparation of meetings, the usage of the right tools to create visibility, regular virtual meet-ups for lunch or coffee. Nevertheless this important and basic elements seem to have worked well at the beginning of the team working remotely, but after some time the energy (team-spirit) goes down.
How many conflicts did you manage to solve online?
Regardless if you work remotely or co-located conflicts happen and you cannot avoid them. Can you effectively solve a problem with a remote meeting? Well, sometimes yes, but mostly: I do no think so.
When I reflect about how I felt in remote situations when you have to pay attention to conflicts, feelings, human reactions in general I notice that after the session/workshop I felt completely drained. Now you will tell me that this is the case also in face to face communication, but I would argue that.
I think that there is a difference level in the energy that we need to invest to keep our attention high in stressful remote situations such as conflicts. When people know each other for a long time solving a conflict can work well remotely (even without mediation). This is due to the trust people have established during face to face meetings before the remote scenario.
The more time passes and we need to continue to work remotely the more we need to be able to solve conflicts by not seeing each other face to face. What could be a possible approach?
Feeling safe and accepted by belonging to a team in the long-run needs what I called above “human moments”. But human moments also have to be perceived authentic and true and for that you need trust. There is a simple powerful way to increase trust and also create small human moments: By showing empathy.
Empathy is not only understanding another person’s perspective, but truly putting yourself in their shoes and feeling emotions with that person.
An environment that demonstrates empathy contributes to increased happiness, productivity, and retention amongst employees. Maybe what we observe when team dynamics are breaking is a lack of small moments of empathy. Maybe we focus too much on the perfect preparation and efficiency of online meetings and forget to invest a great amount of time for small things with great impact.
- If your calendar was packed before the remote situation and there was/is no space to reflect between meetings,
- if your meetings are equally long remotely as they used to be co-located
- if you do not invest significant time to talk to people then I believe that you will be facing problems with the motivation and the emotional involvement of the people around you soon, if not already.
Loosing contact from colleagues of your team, does not only have to do with the remote situation ( geographical location) but also with different states of mind due to the pandemic situation in different areas, problems with the kids, political situations and more. Not investing time to understand, feel and thus show empathy about the above can and will have a negative effect on your remote team.
How can you practice empathy online?
One simple approach to do this is to take time for check-ins ans small talk with your colleagues. You may have practiced this already intuitively in a lot of meetings, but maybe it needs more conscious attentions as the remote time increases.
Start with yourself and ask when you felt connected the last time. What was it that made you feel this way? Can you do it again with other colleagues?
Before a meeting take a moment and think:
- Where are my colleagues around the world? What time is it there?
- How is the weather?
- What is their life situation?
- Do they have to drive kids to school? Did they just come rushing in the meeting or do they have to leave soon?
Set up checkins with questions such as
- What does gets your attention right now, except this meeting?
- How has your day been so far? Any highlights or lowlights?
- What do you think you’ll be able to contribute to the discussion?
Practice active listening and turn video camera on.
In the context of Scrum:
- Product owners: Make sure your team has a purpose and foster practicing empathy with the customer.
- ScrumMasters: Make sure that team members can work regularly (e.g. every sprint) all together in solving a really tough problem and observe the collaboration culture. Differentiate between a discussion and a dialogue.
- Dev-Team. Try to get into the shoes of your colleague. Support, share knowledge. Help to grow do not criticise too fast. Try to understand first a “can’t do” before you judge and offer a solution.
Can there be a thing as too much empathy?
- People do not want to hear everyday about the same situation of a person. Especially when the situation of a person has very few positive aspects. There are people in teams that are potentially experiencing tough times. We do not have to talk about “ho difficult things are” on a daily basis and empathise with the people that suffer.
We should rather help than only empathise. Situations as such could lead even to the opposite reaction (of not being able to show empathy anymore) and it has to do less that people do not want to get truly connected, but more with the fact that they protect also their mental health from negative energy especially when this happens on a daily basis.
- Very empathetic (caring) managers could suffer during “difficult times”, because they care so much for their employees and they feel there is not enough that they can do. Empathy in this case could lead to exhaustion and could even lead to burnout (Compassion fatigue).
- What also has to be considered is a possible unconscious bias towards showing empathy for some groups of people and not others. We do not seem to match with some people and you do not have to be friends with everybody. Nevertheless if you have difficulties in your team to empathise with some colleagues ask for some advise from your peers, coaches and other colleagues around you.
Powerful questions to facilitate human moments
You will find below a short list of powerful questions that can be used to help you gain insights about people’s feelings. In this way people gain the possibility to better empathise. One option is to use such questions in team retrospectives. These are just example situations which I adapted from work done at UCD . Try to create your own.
Do: You talked about bad meetings. What has been your experience with bad meetings this quarter?
Don’t: What do you think about bad meetings?
Try to learn more in order to empathise with a persons feelings rather to show interest about a concept
Do: You mentioned open communication is important to you. What is an experience that makes you passionate about open communication?
Don’t: How do you define open communication?
Evoke dialogue instead of debate
Do: Where have you sensed a conflict between product owners and scrum masters?
Don’t: Why you think product owners and scrum masters should meet weekly?
Facilitate personal reflection, not answers
Do: Have you ever felt that you belong to this team? When was that? What was important?
Don’t: How about meeting once a week to socialise?
Ask open questions from a curiosity perspective . Do not impose people your perception.
Do: How did you come to this conclusion?
Don’t: Do you think you said that because you are tired?
Simply said, humans moments are important so that we feel human, feel needed and accepted. Most of them are happening without being really consciously noticed when there is face to face communication. On a remote setup that will keep the team members away from each other for some time it is important to show empathy consciously and actively work on it.
We are not used in doing that so much and that is why I suggest to practice every day.
There are a lot of misunderstandings that will easily happen remotely and it is worth it to spend some time to try to understand what others meant by asking for clarification instead of making assumptions. It is worth it to get to know the situation of your colleagues on a daily basis to stay truly connected.