Remote working arrangements can make engaging teams even more challenging for leaders. Many of us are feeling increased anxiety, and that can be a big distraction when it comes to focusing on work.
“Right now, we’re in a crisis of belonging,” says Edward Sullivan, CEO of Velocity Group, an executive coaching firm focused on early-stage startups. “Not only are people staying home and dealing with challenges of the pandemic, such as the health of their loved ones and teaching and rearing children; they’re also dealing with loss of connection with coworkers. Leaders are challenged with continuing to create feelings of connectedness.”
While several companies addressed the issue at the start of the pandemic with Zoom happy hours and games, the solutions weren’t always effective. “Often these events turned into 40 people staring at each other, which felt awkward,” says Sullivan. “What is working is having smaller numbers of people getting together and leaders proactively reaching out to connect one-on-one with their employees.”
Uniting people from afar with small-group initiatives often fits with the strengths of an introverted leader, says Sullivan.
“Introverted leaders have a natural tendency to feel more comfortable in small groups,” he says. “They’re usually more successful at communicating one-on-one than holding space in a big group. Since there are no big groups or town halls in auditoriums right now, this moment was created for the introverted leader.”
Finding Ways to Create Connection
Introverted leaders are more likely to listen before speaking and be deeply and thoughtfully interested. They’re also often good at sending thoughtful notes or proactively reaching out and connecting one on one with an employee who is struggling. While an introverted leader may have a natural proclivity for taking the right steps in the current workplace environment, all leaders can learn to use these moments to their advantage.
“During the pandemic, we’ve learned how important social connections at work are,” says Sullivan. “We used to spend 8 to 12 hours a day in an environment that is suddenly gone. It’s the responsibility of leaders to proactively create moments of connection.”
For example, all-team meetings don’t need to go away. Instead, Sullivan recommends breaking out into groups of two or three and providing a prompt that can encourage conversation, such as asking employees to share one thing their coworkers may not know about them.
“Simple prompts encourage deeper, connective conversations,” he says. “Right now, though, you need to be more proactive. There are no collisions at the water fountain or coffee machine. You need to be purposeful about what happens when you’re together in virtual spaces.”
Be careful about team activities. Competing against each other with video games may be fun to some employees, but it will not be helpful for collaborating together to solve a problem, says Sullivan.
Also, pay attention to your team’s preferences, especially when—or if—it’s time to come back to the office, says Sullivan.
“The pandemic has created a need for more flexibility in the workplace,” he says. “Some employees may be dying to go back, and some may think the solitude is the greatest ever. It’s given companies a chance to reinterpret what it means to have an office and what it means to work on an exciting collaborative team. While some of your employees may want to be in the room, others may prefer to stay on Zoom.”
Changing Your Leadership Style
This moment is an invitation for extroverted leaders to learn new skills, says Sullivan, such as listening, vulnerability, and connection.
“This isn’t an invitation for concern but for trying new things,” says Sullivan. “What’s interesting is that for years introverted leaders in Silicon Valley and New York came to us asking, ‘Help me be a better speaker.’ Now extroverted leaders want help creating more connection with their team, more intimate settings. They’re saying, ‘Help me learn how to thrive when I can’t walk into a room and give a great speech.'”
If leaders don’t find new ways to connect, they could risk employees simply checking out and entering into periods of low performance, says Sullivan.
“It’s hard for anyone to keep tabs on what everyone is doing,” he says. “We need to trust each other now more than ever. If you have a large percentage of your employee population feeling disconnected, the only way you know what they’re experiencing is lower productivity and lower performance, which ultimately lead to poorer business outcomes. Leaders shouldn’t take that risk.”