Communicating together apart has become a new reality. Earlier this year, millions of people were sent home to work remotely without any warning. Suddenly, workers had to manage their workload in a make-shift home office with a house full of kids and pets, all while dealing with the additional personal stress of a global pandemic.
The current state of the world has formed not only an economic recession but also a social recession. Peoples’ happenstance interactions with coworkers are a large part of their day, and with restrictions on seeing coworkers, friends and family, the amount of social isolation is overwhelming.
Many of us need and are craving social inclusion and impromptu conversations, yet we cannot do so or have them. The changing conditions of working remotely, and limiting your social circle calls for a new form of socializing: communicating together apart.
Communicating Together Apart
Maybe it is finally time to take a page out of the Millennials’ book and use technology to our advantage. As social animals, we need to connect with people, especially during stressful times. Psychological scientists at the University of Washington’s Center for the Science of Social Connection shared with the NYDailyNews.com, “In times of stress and illness, being deprived of social connection can create more stress and illness.” So it is time to get out your laptop and set up a Zoom meeting or pick up your phone and call your coworkers, friends and family to let them know you are there for them.
Workplaces are trying their best to accommodate for this gap in social interaction, by coming up with different forms of communicating together apart: virtual happy hours, mid-work day workouts, involving the family in work calls, non-work-related forums, and the list goes on.
For instance, the CEO of the project management software company, Basecamp, Jason Fried, allows workers to connect, share ideas and provide support over personal matters during the pandemic. That could mean scheduling a daily check-in or replacing an existing meeting to touch base with one another.
Although these tactics are great small ways to up the antes of social interaction, we can also practice some simple emotional intelligence skills to stay engaged with our colleagues and communicate openly and honestly while physically apart.
Below are some emotional intelligence skills and mindset shifts that can help with the transition of communicating together apart.
Empathy is about putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and the best way to do this is to learn more about your colleagues. Learning about each other doesn’t mean you need to start every meeting with a contrived icebreaker. You can discuss what you did this weekend, or share your views from your window or a funny story from the day before. Learning about others activates the parts of your brain that are associated with empathy, and those simple personal stories can bring different people together and improve your team dynamic.
In my last blog, Using EQ to Cope with Stress During COVID-19, I explained how the coronavirus was impacting people’s lives and provided some tactics you could use to personally cope with the stress the aftermath of COVID-19 has left behind. Being aware of how you are feeling is important, but so is learning to understand and appreciate other people’s emotions.
There have been many split opinions about how people feel about the lack of social interaction. Your introverted friends, those who get their energy from their inner world, maybe rejoicing on not having to be around people in the office, and are loving the opportunity to work solo from home. However, your extroverted friends, those who get their energy from the external world, may be struggling with the amount of self-isolation and are yearning for in-person conversations and waiting for you to reach out!
As colleagues and leaders in the workplace, we must read the emotional cues people around us are giving off, and assess their needs accordingly. There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach for this situation, so communication outlets are vital to understanding how your peers and direct reports are feeling, and what is best for each individual, not just the company as a whole.
2. Communication Preferences
Technology can help eliminate physical and temporal gaps, but the interpersonal differences are problems that still need our attention. To decipher body language over platforms like Zoom (especially those who refuse to turn their video on), we must learn and understand their preferred communication style and communicate with impact. 55% of our communication is non-verbal and starts with our body language, 38% is based on our tone of voice, and 7% is our words. Therefore, with the right technology and strong leadership skills, you can feel connected with your teams as if they were working in the same office.
Do you often wonder why you can say something to one person, and it is taken the way you meant it, but then when you say that same thing to another person, it is taken the wrong way? People have a communication style they prefer, and learning to flex your style to meet their communication needs is critical. In other words, it helps if you learn to speak in their preferred language.
Emotive communicators are more social, expressive of their emotional opinions, and can be informal. Directive communicators are generally business-like, serious, determined and can be pretty opinionated. Reflective communicators typically control their emotions, are orderly, careful to express their opinions, and can be aloof. Supportive communicators are very attentive and make decisions thoughtfully and deliberately, but can be passive.
Each of these styles needs to be communicated with differently. It is essential to stay attuned to your employees’ different communication styles and preferences by flexing your style to meet their needs. Flexing your style will boost your ability to direct, compel, and engage each of your people. So ask yourself, do I know what each of my employees’ communication style preferences is? If not, ask them.
3. Engagement Looks Different
A big obstacle to overcome communicating together apart is learning how to keep different types of people engaged, especially when you are not in the same room as them. Engagement is not employee happiness, as happy employees may not mean they are working hard. Engagement is also not employee satisfaction as a satisfied employee may just put in “enough effort” to keep their job, but not enough to go the extra mile.
Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. And how committed someone is, can look different for different personality types. Please do not make the mistake of thinking when someone in your Zoom meeting is silent; it means they are disengaged. For introverts, silence can mean they are reflecting and engaged in the conversation and taking the time to process their thoughts in their head.
So before you jump to conclusions, try this simple exercise:
- Ask one person on your team, “What engages you at work? What do you (their boss) need to do to keep you engaged?”
- Then, listen attentively to their responses
- At least twice over the next week, act on the feedback and try to engage with them the way they suggested.
- Notice what happens.
The circumstances that come with staying connected while apart varies from person to person. Some organizations were currently operating with a remote work environment, so the shift in March 2020, didn’t cause too much change. However, in an Economist Intelligence Unit study, 28 percent of respondents said they had not worked remotely in the past year.
Prepared or not, many working from home have had to make some significant adjustments to the change in work patterns, so we need to show patience as they make the transition. People have their kids barging into their offices, pets barking in the background, and packages showing up to the door! On top of that, people are suffering from loneliness, money stress, and burnout. We need to grasp the notion that change doesn’t happen overnight, and different workplaces, generations, and households are having different challenges, so be patient and let them figure out their path to adjusting to this new normal.
Without patience, we act rashly and without compassion for others who may be going through different struggles. More than ever, your personal life is blending into your work life, as we don’t have a physical barrier separating our work and life. Your kids can be in the same room during an operations meeting, and an urgent client request can come during your child’s bedtime storytime. It’s essential to pause, have tolerance and patience.
We are in This Together
One thing is for sure; we cannot get through this alone. We need each other for our shared emotional wellness. “Social contact and being together in public spaces,…are all elements that contribute to our collective sense of wellbeing,” says Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.” And since we can’t meet in public places right now, we need to stay emotionally connected and continue to communicate together apart.
Staying connected emotionally throughout a big transition has a different impact on everyone. But we are all in it together, so we need to be mindful to have each other’s backs! So, let’s put our differences aside, show empathy, flex our communication styles, engage our staff in the ways that work for them, have patience and compassion for those that may be struggling, so we can learn to communicate together apart.
In April 2020, Damian Barr posted this profound tweet, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” Remember to be kind to everyone. You never know what someone else is going through.