June 5, 2020 – Working Apart Together

Today, June 5th, is National Doughnut Day. However, it’s not really about the doughnut. It is a day that honors the women from the Salvation Army who served on the front lines of World War I. The Salvation Army “lassies” made home cooked meals, including doughnuts, for the soldiers fighting in Europe. The doughnuts were made in hot oil inside the metal helmets of the soldiers. The “lassies” were the only women who served on the front lines except for military personnel. So, as you run to Dunkin’ for that celebratory doughnut today, remember it’s not really about the doughnut.


Working together apart

Recently I helped out a friend who is a columnist on workplace management issues in a business journal. She had received a question from a reader about how to maintain esprit de corps on a team that pre-COVID-19 worked together face-to-face in the same space. Now, of course, post-COVID-19, they are trying to figure out how to work together apart. The question asked how to restore the sense of esprit de corps that now seemed missing. It was a really good question. I decided to share my response to it here because it applies to a wide variety of businesses and organizations facing similar issues at this time. I hope it is useful to you as well.

The “esprit de corps” of a team is an intangible part of team culture. It is, like so many other effective work processes and elements of culture, dependent on the relationships between team members. In the good ol’ “normal times” (pre-COVID-19) those relationships were established and tended to on a daily basis through real-time, in-person, same shared space interaction. Therefore, when you got into team meetings, there was not a need to do as much relationship building because it was being handled outside the meetings. The strengths of Zoom, WebEx, Google Meet, Skype, and the other virtual meeting utilities is that we can still have real-time, in person interactions. However, what is missing is the same sense of shared space and physical presence, as well as the opportunity and time to build and tend to relationships outside the meeting space. 

So, what can you do about that since the virtual work environment is likely here to stay for quite some time?

  1. Slow down – allow extra time in your meetings for people to simply hang and chat if they wish. For example, start meetings 15 minutes early for people to gather and chat and/or keep the virtual room open for 15 minutes after the meeting. My spouse, who teaches online Spanish courses to groups of adults, has found it amazingly effective to allow her students this time to connect with one another. She has seen friendships continue to grow and a clear sense of group cohesion emerge. Alternatively, build into your meeting schedule some semi-structured interaction (see items #3 and #4 below). 
  2. At the same time, be sensitive to the length of the actual work portion of the meeting and remain open to the possibility of disruptions. Remember that you may have employees working at home but now they are also childcare providers and substitute teachers. If children do intrude in the meeting, keep a sense of humor and be gentle. Avoid shaming anyone with comments, eyerolls, or body language. Make your actual business meetings as long as they need to be. Generally, I do not have meetings longer than 2 hours in length. I prefer to keep them much shorter if possible. If you can make the meetings easier and friendlier to attend for those employees who are managing caregiving or teaching at home, it will benefit the whole team. 
  3. Introduce a “conversation starter” for use in the hang out times, until people begin to feel comfortable connecting on their own in the virtual space. For example, I facilitate a weekly group comprised of people from Hawai`i to New York, Ontario to Southern California, who did not know one another until I brought them together. In the first meeting of the group I introduced this conversation starter, taken from the conversation game Vertellis: What was the best compliment you ever received? During the first two or three weeks I introduced the question, but then participants began to offer conversation starters. Now, we don’t really need them, but people still like to do them, so we have one each week. It is a simple way of getting to know one another better. 
  4. Release your inner silly person. These are extraordinary times. Everyone knows that everyone else on the video conference is sitting there in their pajama bottoms, golf shorts, and, god forbid, underwear anyway, right? In this small way, everyone has already released their inner silly person in secret. Let’s take it up a notch by doing something silly together: for example, have everyone wear the same colors on a call; have everyone show up wearing their favorite hat and briefly explain why it is; set aside time for people to share “knock knock” jokes in the chat area; have everyone bring their favorite coffee or tea mug and explain why it is their favorite; and, have everyone use an alias on the video conference – the name of a famous person they admire, an actor, a well-known person in your field, etc. Here’s one I have used in at least two different groups. I ask members go to the website Public Radio Name Generator and generate their own favorite public radio name. Once in the Zoom conference (which is my preferred platform) they change their names to their public radio names. We go by them for the duration of that meeting.

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented disruption to how we do business and work together. I do not believe it will be easy to move into the emerging new normal. We have to dare to be different. Several of my clients are reporting to me that they are actually beginning to feel energized as a result of the lockdowns. They are creating, innovating, and learning new ways of doing their pre-COVID-19 work that they never would have or could have considered before. Frankly, we will be sleepwalking into disaster if we simply try to apply the “best practices” and “the way we do things around here” from the past in the new normal to come. I hope these suggestions will help you not only create a greater sense of “esprit de corps” among your team but also create an upgraded culture of innovation.


devin stone commentary

I stumbled across this guy, Devin Stone, earlier today. I found myself fascinated by his YouTube commentary on the events that took place earlier this week at Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. After listening to it, I did some research. He is a trial attorney in DC and also has a company, Legal Eagle, that helps people survive law school. The commentary that caught my attention is below. It is about 18 minutes long but I found it really interesting and I hope you will as well.


for your reflection

With appreciation to Hope Crenshaw of Teen Health Mississippi for drawing my attention to this bit of poetry of hope. Learn more here about the poem and its the author, Leslie Dwight.


spanish classes filling up…but there is still space!

Clemencia Vargas, my spouse, is still receiving registrations for ¡Charlemos con Clemencia!, Spanish classes taught in the communicative style. Classes begin for the Summer session on June 15. About half the available seats filled up in less than a week but there is still room now. If you’ve been following this blog even sporadically over the past three months you’ve probably met Clemencia here already. Her website now includes some testimonials so you can get a sense of how her students feel about her classes. The Summer session will include students from Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and, of course, Maryland. If you have a couple of extra minutes today, we invite you to watch this video about the benefits of learning Spanish.


Follow up…

Yesterday I encouraged you to consider a contribution to Teen Health Mississippi to help with the organization’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for youth. However, I did not include information on how to donate. Doh! Here now is a link to Teen Health Mississippi’s donation page. You can use the comment box to designate your gift to the Emergency Relief Fund for youth. Thanks!


Chickenman – Episode 49

The Wonderful Weekend White Winged Warrior is still suffering from amnesia and the delusion that he is, in fact, a real chicken. His efforts to lay an egg in the Policie Commissioner’s office have, so far, been unproductive…thankfully!


Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and keep working for justice, peace, and health for all.

Tom

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