• Dr. Jeff Doolittle

How to Build Connections in a Virtual Workplace



Working from home can make reading the room during a team meeting more difficult. And have you really had a meeting if no one said 'you're on mute?' Leadership is a relationship. Without human connection, leaders rely on positional power to influence others. Using power can appear to work, but it comes with harmful personal and business side effects. Genuine relationships are not easy to achieve online. Studies reveal that contextual clues and emotions are more difficult to discern online. Mastering the intangible art of building virtual connections is an essential skill for leading a hybrid workforce.


One of the five global leadership megatrends identified in the 2021 Global Leadership Forecast by DDI is that leaders crave more time to spend building connections with their teams each day. The hybrid workplace has increased feelings of isolation in the workplace. Leaders need real connections to influence and engage their teams. Also, they need real connections because limited in-person interaction negatively impacts mental health.





What is the meaning of building connections in a hybrid workplace?


Building connections is establishing meaningful, committed relationships between two or more people. A hybrid workplace is a flexible workplace model that supports distributed employees that work remotely and those that work in a shared office. A synonym for connection is relationship.


Virtual workforce challenges


Psychological distance and the use of technology present hidden threats for anyone trying to establish real virtual connections in the workplace.


Increased psychological distance decreases feelings of belonging that are fundamental to trust and communication. Being virtual increases the degree to which people feel removed from each other. Additionally, increased distance limits the ability to read the room and get a feeling for the atmosphere when building a connection.


When employees and leaders are virtual, spontaneous encounters are typically limited compared to being in the same physical workplace. Informal, spontaneous interactions increase communication frequency and opportunities to share personal information that enhance relationships and trust.


The less employees see each other, the more anonymous they become to each other. Technology creates the potential for increased anonymity due to the limited visibility of each other. Anonymity raises the potential for misunderstandings, especially during challenging conversations where visual cues convey emotions.


The following video presents a humorous and accurate depiction of some of the many challenges leaders face on conference calls.




Building virtual communities in the workplace


A community is a group defined by a shared social identification among the members. It can be a vital source of support during times of crisis. Social identity theory suggests that we share identity with individuals with whom we associate. And as a result, we are more likely to trust and influence those individuals than individuals and groups with whom we do not associate.


In conversations, we tend to find communication more comfortable and more productive with those we consider "us" versus "them." According to social identity theory, we are more motivated to be receptive and mentally able to fully process communications with those we identify.


Shared social identity increases both help-giving and social bonding and increases feelings of belonging among community members. These communities produce solidarity and support for community members. Communities generate a wide range of health benefits, including a sense of belonging, reduced depression and anxiety, trust, and increased self-esteem.


Types of virtual communities


Peer advisory groups, communities of practice, and affinity groups are increasingly popular forms of virtual communities.


Peer advisory groups typically serve as an informal board of directors for the leaders. They listen, advise, and debate through shared experiences. They are acting as a personal advisor. Requesting member commitment, confidentiality, and collaboration to get involved will help these groups succeed. These groups also benefit from engaging an experienced moderator to help maximize the value of the meetings.


Similar to peer advisory groups are virtual communities of practice (vCoP). A virtual community of practice is a group with common concerns, knowledge, and experiences on a given topic. As the name implies, these online communities are centered around practice, where online peer advisory groups are focused on the role of the leader. A community of practice focuses on creating best practices for niche domains where the members possess specific expertise.


Online affinity groups are inclusive to individuals from diverse backgrounds but interested in a shared goal. While they share a common goal, many may not have the expertise to achieve the goal itself or be aware of best practices.



Strategies that work for building virtual connections


Like there are numerous challenges to establishing virtual connections, there are many potential strategies for how to build virtual connections. The key is to overcome the virtual workplace challenges of identity construction, social facilitation, and building trust. The following are research-proven strategies that work for building real virtual connections.


How to create a shared social identity online:

  • Sharing Visual Clues: When using video calls, have each person turn on their camera as a sign of respect. This will also increase the opportunity to observe each-others facial expressions.

  • Fostering Informal Communication: Schedule time for virtual coffee breaks for checking in with others. Informal communication builds relationships and creates shared experiences. These types of opportunities are less likely to occur, so it is important to schedule them.

  • Social Recognition: Look for opportunities to say thank you. Use a reinforcement survey to find out what motivates each other and put them on a shared drive. Then use those learnings to recognize each other. Don't wait until the end of the year.


How to leverage the positive influences of social facilitation while working from home:

  • Presence Matters: Although technology has limitations compared to physical proximity, research supports that a digital presence decreases the adverse effects of anonymity. Establish strategies to be present with each other, such as turning on your cameras during a video call and working as if you were sitting across from each other.


How to build trust in the virtual workplace:

  • Create Psychological Safety: Being open and candid demonstrates caring and respect. The best way to create safety is to model vulnerability. You have to be willing to have a courageous conversation.

  • Practice Humility: Humble leadership does not need to be an oxymoron. A high degree of self-orientation creates significant distrust from others. Spend time listening to others. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Ask for feedback and help when needed.

Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It means you think of yourself less. Ken Blanchard
  • Adopt a Coaching Mindset: Use the following five questions model by Michael Bungay Stainer to listen. The goal of the conversation is to get curious, listen, and be helpful.

  1. What is on your mind?

  2. What is the real challenge?

  3. And what else?

  4. What do you want?

  5. What was most helpful?



Key Summary Points:

  • Genuine relationships are not easy to achieve online.

  • The hybrid workplace has increased feelings of isolation in the workplace.

  • Building connections is establishing meaningful, committed relationships between two or more people.

  • Psychological distance and the use of technology present hidden threats for anyone trying to establish real virtual connections in the workplace.

  • Communities generate a wide range of health benefits, including a sense of belonging, reduced depression and anxiety, trust, and increased self-esteem.

  • The key is to overcome the virtual workplace challenges of identity construction, social facilitation, and building trust.

Visit our executive coaching page to learn more about how we help you achieve your personal or professional goals or partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Getting started is as easy as visiting www.organizationaltalent.com or contacting us via email info@organizationaltalent.com. Organizational Talent Consulting utilizes proven, simple, and transformational personal and organizational development solutions to help our clients learn, change, and apply tools in ways that benefit their unique needs and corporate culture.


References


Afflerbach, T. (2019). Hybrid virtual teams in shared services organizations: Practices to overcome the cooperation problem. Springer International Publishing AG.


Blackford, M. (2021). How real connection in a virtual workplace boosts mental health. FHE Health.


Bungay Stanier, M. (2016). The coaching habit: Say less, ask more & change the way you lead forever. Box of Crayons Press.


Center for Workplace Health. (2021). Your mental health and well-being. America Psychological Association.


Greenaway, K. H., Wright, R. G., Willingham, J., Reynolds, K. J., & Haslam, S. A. (2015). Shared Identity Is Key to Effective Communication. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 171–182.


Murphy, S. M. (2020). How the University of Chicago medicine designed virtual rounding to maintain human connections during COVID-19. Patient Experience Journal, 7(2), 80-82.


Neal, S. (2021). 5 Global leadership megatrends for 2021. DDI.


The mental health benefits of community helping during crisis: Coordinated helping, community identification, and sense of unity during the COVID-19 pandemic. (2021). Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1002/casp.2520


van Dick, R., Ciampa, V., & Liang, S. (2018). Shared identity in organizational stress and change. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23, 20-25. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.11.005


Waranyuwat, A. (2020). Seeking human connections when all we've got are virtual ones: Strategies for advising students during disruptive times. Harvard Business Publishing.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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