“How long should you wait before you show your colleagues your collection of antique dolls?”.
Feeling truly understood and accepted by others is one of life’s most beautiful gifts. And yet, it is a consolation made all the more luxurious by its rarity. Friendships and familial relationships where we feel others really ‘get us’ can be like gold dust. And it may be even harder to achieve depth of connection in the professional context – especially when we and our teams are physically distributed.
Or is it?
It is common these days to talk about the difficulty of connecting with each other through video calls, but in truth we have never had so clear a window into the lives of our colleagues. For better or worse, it is not much more possible to experience our colleagues ‘with their hair down’ (and through their interior design choices). And here is the rub: In this time of rapidly (re)developing professional norms, how much should we reveal about ourselves so that we are coming to understand each other in a valuable way while also being professional?
In the spring of 2020, we published our Virtues of Virtual report, which unpacked the philosophy of distributed teams. When we spoke with workplace culture experts for that report, one of the key themes that emerged was the importance of understanding each other. More specifically, three questions took shape. I offer them here as a resource to help you and your colleagues work out in practical terms how best to cultivate depth of understanding that is both fit for purpose in our changing virtual landscape and professional.
Question 1: How can I help colleagues open up without placing undue pressure on them?
Some of our coworkers may love opening up about their personal lives, while others would sooner join the next Zoom meeting naked. By that same token, some colleagues are fine with unannounced phone calls, while seeing a boss’s name on Caller ID might send others into a panic. On this point, best practice involves asking your colleagues what they prefer, and remembering their preferences.
Question 2: Where should my various conversations take place?
While sending feedback on Slack may be efficient, it prevents the giver and the receiver alike from reading tone and facial expressions. Here, it’s a good idea to think about how much interpersonal understanding a conversation warrants and adjust your methods accordingly. For example, if you are reviewing a major effort, consider a video chat to show that you are fully opening your ears and your heart.
Question 3: What are our video conference behaviours, and how might they limit the degree to which we can pay attention to each other?
It can be helpful to develop a small but mighty list of video conference norms to set the rules of virtual engagement. For example, when we spoke to the author and expert on self-managing teams, Jon Barnes, he told us: “I start meetings by creating small protocols and being clear about them. I ask everyone to close other tabs and to move back from the screen slightly to show that they’re not typing away.”
By discussing the above questions with your team and moving forward together, not only do the chances of clarifying norms of the new professionalism increase – we also create space to be known and know each other.
Dr. Brennan Jacoby, Philosopher and Founder – Philosophy at Work