I have long advocated that remote or partially remote teams build virtual water cooler time into their meetings: five to ten minutes of unstructured check-in time in which each team member gets a chance to talk about what’s happening in their personal and professional lives. This is important because the great killer of remote teams is social distance. I’m not referring to the way we use the term “social distance” in the era of Covid-19, but rather, the emotional and relational distance that is caused by the lack of in-person contact between members of work teams. Social distance can negatively affect the team dynamics of any work group, whether co-located or not, but it’s especially challenging for remote teams who have less opportunity for face-to-face and unstructured interaction.
The point of reducing social distance is for team members to get to know each other better, which is not some fuzzy ropes course or trust fall concept but rather a matter of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of teamwork. Team members who don’t know each other well waste time second-guessing each other’s motives and engaging in unproductive power struggles. Teams that do know each other well focus more intently on shared objectives and give each other the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go as planned or interactions don’t feel completely positive. When the teammate you know well sends an abrupt-sounding email, you attribute it to the sick spouse you know she has at home or the Covid-related stress you know he is dealing with, rather than making up a story about how your colleague is rude or doesn’t like you.
Social distance also leads to a feeling of isolation and even loneliness, which has negative impacts on performance. Adam Grant, professor of organizational development at Wharton, says that even introverts can become lonely working from home. Sure, introverts enjoy alone time, but they need interaction too; they just need it differently and in smaller quantities than extroverts.
Now that nearly everyone is working from home, including people who aren’t accustomed to it, this virtual water cooler time is even more important. Teams should double the amount of time given in any meeting to check in with each other. Meeting leaders and facilitators should ask questions and give air time to each meeting participant:
- How are you doing with social isolation right now?
- What outlets do you have to connect with others and let off steam?
- What are you doing for fun?
- What are you doing for your health/fitness?
- What challenges are you having and how can the team help?
- What’s driving you crazy?
- What are you enjoying?
These kinds of questions can be answered in very personal ways, or in more work-related ways, depending on the team members’ various tolerances for sharing. The important thing is to leave plenty of time to have these water cooler check-ins and still accomplish your meeting objectives. The time you invest in reducing social distance will pay off quickly in team effectiveness during these challenging times.