The remote work experience during the pandemic has been a lonely, stressful, and disconnected one for many, especially those who consider themselves to be extroverts and get energy from being around others.
These feelings are more than simply anecdotal. According to LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 31 percent of employees surveyed reported feeling less connection to their leaders—37 percent reported feeling less connected to their teammates.
Working in a remote or hybrid environment has required a lot of adjustment, flexibility, and comfort with ongoing ambiguity around how and where work gets done.
Over the past two years, workers, their managers, HR leaders, and others have sought ways to cultivate community and connections among workers who are on- and off-site. It hasn’t been easy, but over this time, they’ve found some best practice strategies and practical ways of engaging audiences of all sizes no matter where they are.
In a recent webinar, hosted by Chief Learning Officer, two leaders discussed how learning can act as a catalyst for creating connections in the remote and hybrid workplace.
Learning Through Trial and Error
Lowell Doringo is senior manager, learning and talent with CrowdStrike, Inc. His background includes working in the entertainment and hospitality industry with Walt Disney World Resort and Activation Wizard. He’s also a comedian and does improv comedy with a group of comedians—via Zoom during the pandemic. That, he says, has provided some unique and useful experiences in engaging online audiences. “Try riffing off another comedian via Zoom in an environment where you can’t see your audience or hear the laughter,” he says.
“When I joined CrowdStrike there was a lot of trial and error on my part,” says Doringo. “One of the first lessons I had to learn was that while the content can be applicable from one meeting to another, the delivery method has to be thought of completely differently. Participating in meetings via Zoom, Doringo says, is really a lot like being on television. “You need to have a very well thought out plan for what’s going to happen and, once you go live, the ability to think on your feet.” This, he says, isn’t as easy as when in a classroom setting. “You don’t get the same head nods or smiles or laughter that you normally would.”
In the virtual environment, Doringo says, it’s really all about being especially intentional and recognizing that you’re competing for the attention of your audience who have all sorts of distractions going on around them—from email pings, to the lure of social media and Google search on their computers, to interruptions from family members and others in real life (IRL).
Detlef Hold agrees. Hold is head of digital learning experience with Roche and has worked in education, adult learning, and as a consultant working with various types of organizations on talent development, leadership development, and training. His work with Roche, a biotech company has been virtual since 2007—and in his living room since 2019. Working in a flexible office environment, he says, has allowed more productivity and provided everyone with a heightened awareness of their ability to connect and share ideas with each other in a virtual space.
But Hold says: “You don’t have a physical reflection of what people are doing or thinking in the virtual space.” One of the good things about the COVID experience, though, he says, is that “it was a shared anxiety and shared experience in a global community—that has driven a common understanding of how we could think about things differently and bring people together differently.”
It was an environment where people quickly learned that things would happen—they learned that it was okay to try things—if it doesn’t work, that’s okay. “Two years ago, a cat walking into the video during a meeting would have been uncommon—today it’s no big deal,” Hold says.
People Power Technology
Technology has certainly been an aid in bringing people together and allowing them to remain connected during the pandemic. But, while technology helps, it’s the people who are the starting point for making connections.
Peer-to-peer learning can be particularly powerful, Hold points out. “It’s fundamentally something human—people like to connect, to interact, to have a dialogue about things and to feel supported.” Something as simple as tech-enabled chat rooms can facilitate these connections, he says. There are a lot of opportunities to use chat groups and, Hold says, he’s been observing that their use has become less formal over time. “They’ve become a more self-authored, self-governed way of co-creating and sharing.”
But these connections need to be intentional.
Making Intentional Connections
In any group, in-person or online, if you bring together a group of 50 people there will likely be 5 that do most of the talking. If you want more people to talk freely, you must be intentional, Doringo says.
“You can’t just ‘do breakouts’,” Doringo says. It’s important to give direction about what the group should talk about, what they will do when they come back together, who the spokesperson will be, and so on.
In addition, Doringo says, effective connections aren’t just about what happens during the meeting, but what happens after. CrowdStrike uses Slack, but any tool could work. What’s important, though, is that specific direction is given letting people know how they can continue the conversations that started during the meeting. “You have to prime them—you need to be there to poke and prod them to keep going,” he says. “Without intention, it just becomes like awkward virtual dating.”
Flipping Classrooms and Encouraging Conversations
The now-familiar flipped classroom model works well in the virtual environment. Pre-work can be assigned to help learners prepare for the online or group conversations around that material.
This can be an effective way to hold online conferences or gatherings that span several days. Instead of having these interactions occur synchronously online, they can be broken up into a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities, individual and group work.
It’s also good to have a balance between organic and structured interactions—allowing the group to direct next steps or topics of conversation with the philosophy of “letting them roam where you want them to roam.”
One of the challenges of the flipped classroom model in both in-person and online settings, is getting participants to do the pre-work. Both Hold and Doringo advise—don’t sweat it, especially when dealing with adult learners, and especially during the pandemic. There are many demands on peoples’ time and attention these days. They simply may not have had the time, or the energy, to do the pre-work.
Rather than call them out or sanction them in some way, determine what the competing issues might be and how participation could be prompted in some other way. The e-learning has to be good, says Doringo, it has to offer variety. Pre-work should be talked about in the class itself and participants should be offered an opportunity to complete the task later. “As long as they get it done, that’s all that matters,” he says.
It can also be helpful to play upon the natural tendency toward a fear of missing out (FOMO) by planning group discussion around the assignment, meaning that those who didn’t do the assignment can’t participate as readily. And, if the discussion is fun and engaging, they will likely feel left out and be more likely to do their homework in the future.
Doringo has often found that providing some type of reward for 100% of completion can help boost participation— “We provide a virtual coaching subscription to our employees who complete 100% of the assignments. You need to let them know what’s in it for them if they complete the work.”
Hold has also used “teach back” exercises to encourage participation. “They own the content and they’re automatically exposed so they’ll do a better job in preparation.” Ultimately, though, he says, trainers should demonstrate “a bit of grace and trust in peoples’ motivations.”
Doringo agrees. Lack of pre-work, he says, “is not from a lack of desire to do it, it’s because of competing priorities.”
There is another potential driver of low, or no participation, though—a lack of psychological safety.
Psychology Safety and Its Impact on Cultivating Connections
Psychological safety, says Hold, could be thought of as the “social glue” that is created among team members. It’s a topic that has risen in interest and attention over the past couple of years, he says. Importantly, it’s not something that happens “in one moment.” Instead, Hold says, “it happens all the time and has to be built up.”
Culture is fluid and moves and changes all the time as new people enter the organization and as others leave. Culture is also impacted by the external environment. This has certainly been experienced during the pandemic which has had a massive impact on organizations.
Psychological safety is all about establishing a culture and an environment where people feel free to share their true thoughts and input—where they feel safe bringing their whole selves to the workplace. Without psychological safety they will be far less likely to participate or provide input; this can be particularly true in remote or virtual settings.
One key consideration here in terms of cultivating community is to recognize that not everybody will feel equally comfortable participating in online settings—or in the same ways. Providing multiple ways for them to contribute can help boost the odds that something will be within their comfort zone. Maybe that’s through chat, through a poll, or through input provided after the session. The key is offering ample ways and multiple opportunities for that input and demonstrating over time that the process of giving input or feedback can be a positive one.
Continually cultivating connections in a hybrid world poses challenges, but also offers many opportunities which team leaders, facilitators, and others have discovered during the pandemic. Creativity, flexibility, and the willingness to try new things—and learn from them—can help companies engage their team members wherever they are.
To hear the full conversation, watch the recording of Better Together: Cultivating Community and Connections in Workplace Learning.