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5 Ways to Stay Connected in a Virtual World

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

By Dr. Victoria Mattingly

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on March 17, 2020.

Are you one of the lucky ones who have been able to keep your job by moving all your work to the virtual world? You may just now be figuring out the IT that allows you to conduct business as usual in a very unusual setting—your home.

Once the tech is up and running, though, you'll find that these tools are only as good as the users behind them. And effectively communicating and connecting with your coworkers was most likely NOT part of your remote work IT crash course....if you got one at all.

Well, as an organizational psychologist, an experienced remote worker myself, and self-diagnosed extrovert who genuinely enjoys (and misses!) connecting with others at work, I've built this list of five, science-based tips for how you can stay connected to your fellow human while figuring out how to navigate this newly all-virtual workplace.

1. Use video.

That's right, take that sticker off of your laptop camera, hit the little video button, and let your coworker see your that lovely face of yours in all of its glory.

Steven Rogelberg, professor at UNC Charlotte and author of the book The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, has found in his research that using video (rather than audio alone) improves the user experience and increases overall engagement during virtual meetings. As Rogelberg shares,

"The more cues there are, the more likely that someone will actively, you know, kind of be present. So try to default to video."

Anecdotally, I've found that if I enter a virtual meeting with my video on, the other participant/s end up turning on their video 9 out of 10 times, too. Us behavioral scientists call this a nudge, or an environmental cue (in this case, turning on my video) encouraging others to behave a certain way without explicitly telling them to do so.

Monkey see, monkey do.

2. Don't use mute.

At the risk of coming off as "click bait-y," this tip (also from Rosenberg's research) really did surprise me.

Especially because I am absolutely guilty of loading the dishwasher or folding the laundry while listening to conference calls on mute...patting myself on the back for effectively "balancing my work-life," unaware that I was sacrificing full attention paid to my colleagues in exchange for completed chores.

I'm not proud of this (well, maybe a little), but I even rode one of those electric scooters around Washington D.C. during a meeting once. While on mute. The meeting organizer was 10 minutes late yet we all (for some unknown reason...) waited on the line for her arrival. Everyone silently multi-tasking, no doubt.

Whether you're catching up on chores or viewing historical monuments, the mute button allows you to easily do anything else BUT give your full attention to the meeting at hand. As Rogelberg shares,

[T]he mute button is an excuse for people to not be present.

Don't be like me. Keep yourself un-muted and leave the multi-tasking for between meetings. Although for the record, idling waiting on mute for a meeting to begin is far less annoying while scooting around town. And much more fun than most other ways one can multi-task on mute.

3. Make the interaction fun.

Speaking of fun, consider infusing moments of joy and laughter into your virtual interactions. Use the emoji, send the relevant meme, copy/paste the gif into the email. But do be careful not to venture into #NSFW territory.

Research has found that humor and fun at work not only build stronger connections among teammates, but can also result in higher job satisfaction, reduced stress, more innovation, and greater productivity.

The use of emojis in particular can make an email seem less negative, offer insight into the user's personality, provide otherwise unavailable non-verbal cues, and clarify the intent behind otherwise ambiguous messages.

It's time we get over any concerns of emojis coming off as less professional and embrace using moderation, that is. And remember that emojis, memes, gifs, etc. should be used to enhance good communication, not replace it.

4. Make time for non-work conversations. On purpose.

Isn't it crazy how we can work alongside someone for months, even years (!) and not really know them? Those of us who have worked at companies with "fast-paced" [read: under-staffed] cultures can relate to spending 50+ hours communicating with and depending on a group of individuals who we may know jack squat about beyond their role in helping you stay afloat in your demanding role.

If we're lucky (or if you're not an extrovert like me: unlucky), sometimes around the office you get to have some sincere, enjoyable chit chat with coworkers while waiting in line for the printer or as your food heats up in the break room. You learn that Dana the graphic designer plays bass in a band on the weekends, or that Jermaine the marketing director and his partner are expecting twins in June. And experts assert that this office chit chat doesn't just make us [extroverts] feel good, it can also make or break our career:

 Right or wrong, building rapport through interaction with colleagues could be the thing that gets you the promotion or keeps you in the role you’re in.

Unfortunately, there is no proverbial water cooler in the virtual world. You must intentionally schedule these "off-the-cuff" conversations in order to ensure they actually happen when you are working remotely.

When I was working in a 100% remote role, I scheduled monthly, 30-minute "coffee breaks" with each person on my team. Looking back, I wish I would have established better "non-work chit-chat" guidelines, as most of the conversations quickly pivoted to work-related knowledge sharing and brainstorming. Although helpful and productive, these "coffee break" meetings still missed the mark: They were scheduled to connect, not to work.

And sometimes, the act of connecting can make or break our entire workplace experience. If we're being honest, connecting with one another is vital for our entire human experience.

5. Support others by LISTENING.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: Life is hard right now. For those of us fortunate enough to still be employed, work (and the world!) probably looks completely different than it looked even a week ago. Humans hate change, and life is one big mess of disruption and uncertainty right now.

During your next 1:1 (or your next virtual coffee break), take a moment to ask your colleague how they are doing. Then, give them the greatest gift we can offer one another right now by providing a listening ear and being the proverbial "shoulder to cry on."

Keep it don't want to turn this into a hour-long wallow-fest. But for at least 2-3 interrupted minutes, let your colleague really share how things are going. As much as they are comfortable doing so, of course. No prying!

If your colleague does take you up on your offer to be a listening ear, resist the urge to go into problem-solving mode and "silver line" their situation. As empathy researcher Brené Brown so aptly advises,

No empathy statement begins, "At least..."

Sometimes, the people we work and communicate with simply need to feel heard. Especially during times of hardship and uncertainty. The act of listening can non-verbally communicate that we're here for them. That we care. And that small act satisfies our powerful, human need for connection to one another...which is more important now than ever. As Brené Brown puts it,

Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.

Oh, and if you find yourself still trying to end that listening session with a well-intended "At least..." try one of these instead:

"Thanks for sharing that with me..."
"Wow, that's rough..."
"Ugh, I can't imagine..."

And end the conversation with an authentic (i.e., in your own words):

"...But just so you know, I got your back."

How do YOU plan to connect with a colleague in your next virtual interaction?

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