How to bond with colleagues without going into the office

Can you have team spirit when you’ve never met?

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 27 Jul 2020

What would you usually do to make a new colleague feel and function like part of the team?

A welcome lunch, communal coffee breaks, or just the casual chit chat that happens when you’re all sitting around the same desk? The coronavirus pandemic and widespread lockdown have thrown the usual methods of getting to know your new colleagues out of the window.

It may be that it’s impossible to fully replicate the intimacy and informality of face-to-face contact, but when it comes to remote relationship building “there’s a lot that’s the same,” says Penny Pullan, author of Virtual Leadership.

A virtual relationship, whether it be teamwide or between individuals, still requires the same three things: time, communication and trust. 

Pullan highlights the Drexler-Sibbet Model of Team Performance as a good framework to follow when trying to understand how team relationships develop. It consists of seven steps, going from orientation to trust-building, goal clarification, commitment, implementation, high performance and renewal. 

Each step is vital to ensure that everyone in the team understands each other, the dynamic of the team and their role within it. If one stage is skipped a lack of trust can appear, or fail to be established completely. 

Managers should go to extra lengths to “create the shared moments that ultimately draw colleagues together,” Pullan says. This can range from the essential scheduling of one-on-one time in between team meetings, to more informal ad hoc chats.

But beware, you’re mistaken if you think this means simply replicating what you’d do in person over Zoom, says Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of change and inclusion consultancy Utopia. 

“It isn’t about simply connecting with people, it’s about how you create that feeling of belonging,” says Fiandaca, who has recruited and virtually onboarded new staff during the pandemic. 

This will vary from person to person, depending on their circumstances and experience. A staffer who’s used to regular freelancing may be more comfortable getting to know new people remotely compared to someone who has spent the last ten years working for the same company. 

Don’t assume the same approaches will work for everyone - Fiandaca points out for example that hosting virtual drinks - a common solution - is not always inclusive to those who don’t drink. 

Utopia’s approach has been to organise what Fiandaca calls “That’s Me Days” where team members take it in turns to tell ‘the room’ one unexpected piece of information about themselves. “Ensure that the new person goes last because it will make them feel more comfortable,” Fiandaca adds. Utopia has also hosted a virtual movie club, but does not mandate attendance. 

Ultimately it’s about understanding what each individual is comfortable with. The only way a manager can find the best approach is to speak regularly to each new starter about what they need, and adapt the frequency and style of their communication accordingly (video calls do not need to be a default).

This may mean taking radically different approaches when bonding with colleagues who have started at the same time, but it’s always worth the effort, says Pullan. “If you as a leader can flex to the individual needs of each team member then that speaks volumes.”

Image credit: Luis Alvarez via Getty Images


Stephen Jones

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