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This crisis kills my empathy

Working in virtual teams has been around for years in project management and consulting. But the extend in which we now work remotely is new. And this is why project leads and management members in consulting need to adapt their leadership style accordingly.

Before the pandemic, a good portion of the day was already spent at the laptop and in calls. But there were breaks to chat with colleagues over a cup of coffee. Often these talks were work-unrelated and even with people who weren’t on the same project. We just bumped into them by accident when leaving our desk.

But in home office or people-reduced corporate offices, we don’t bump into anyone anymore. The space at the coffee machine is for us only – and instead of a project-unrelated chat we return quickly to our desk and log into the next video call and continue working.

So there are two elements missing:

  1. Work-unrelated chat that relaxes the brain, builds relationships to colleagues and reduces stress.
  2. The element of surprise as we only click through pre-scheduled calls knowing whom to talk to and why.

As a result, we feel less connected to our team, the project and our work overall. Every work day feels like any other and we lose the excitement about our job and colleagues.

For young professionals, this effect might be even more intense as they don’t have extensive working experience from the time before the era of ‘home-office-only’. Even more, in university they were used to connect on a private level quite quickly which is almost eliminated in the current work situation except you purposefully plan it into the way of working of your team.

As a leader of a team or project, you should consider to restore the elements of work-unrelated chat and surprise in your way of working. Here are some thoughts that worked successfully in my teams:

I have scheduled 3-5 quick calls per week of about 15 minutes each that are solely dedicated to build the team, reconnect as human beings and enjoy working together. The team consists of up to 8 people who might work on the same topic but don’t have to. If your project is bigger, gather groups of people who might like each other. For this type of call, a hot drink is welcome and the camera is on.

For each quick call, there are certain key success factors that I take care of:

  • As the moderator, welcome everyone and smile. You set the tone for this session and even if you are having a stressful week, don’t take any of that into this call. This call is for relaxation and fun only!
  • Ask a question at the beginning that is surprising to people and that is activating the brain, e.g. Where would you be now if you could choose without limitation? What would you like to have and why didn’t you buy it yet? If you were a colour – what would it be and why?
  • Let everyone answer the question in about 30 – 60 seconds – as a moderator you can answer first if you want to break the ice or at last once the team is used to questions of this kind. Although it might feel a bit awkward or silly in the beginning, you will notice that you will get to know each other better over time.
  • As a second question, I always ask my team, what they are looking forward to on this day or week. I purposefully guide them to focus on the positive aspects of their working day. Everyone shares again for 30 – 60 seconds. Also I as a moderator am sharing my upcoming highlight.
  • The session ends with some jokes and laughter (if the team is already used to these calls) or encouraging words of the moderator.

Over the past years, I have used this type of setting again and again successfully. It builds a stage for people to connect and I have seen great friendships grow from these moments. Even in hard project phases, everyone had the chance to relax for a moment, laugh together within the team and then focus again on the project task.

I am convinced, that project leads and people in management positions have the responsibility to give their team some space to recharge. As we are very often under pressure ourselves, it needs a lot of self-leadership to free the necessary time to invest in our people. This is why, I decided for this easy-to-use setup and dedicate these 15-minute-sessions solely to the well-being of my team and me.

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