With almost a year of social distancing behind us, our sense of connection has changed drastically. While many of us are enjoying the new flexibility of working from home, we’re also starting to realize that without the office or traditional place of work, what we miss most are the social connections they provide.

This goes hand in hand with research on one of the biggest struggles with remote work: loneliness and lack of community.

Recent research we conducted shows that people miss the human connections and informal social interactions of an office setting, such as time spent sharing a meal or a coffee and talking about life at work, or their personal lives—but not necessarily something specific to work tasks or processes.

Human connection and trust are the foundations of any workplace.

The workplace platform for the future must not only provide for the productivity needs of distributed workplaces, but it must also help people create and grow relationships. Forming and maintaining positive connections in the workplace is important for work performance as well as for people’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. People who feel connected:

  • Are more willing to contribute new and bold ideas.
  • Are less impacted by stress.
  • Are more productive.

Where does it come from?

Humans are social creatures. This fact contains both the problem and the solution to the current challenge of loneliness. As Dr. Vivek Murthy writes in his book TOGETHER: “At the centre of our loneliness is our innate desire to connect. We have evolved to participate in community, to forge lasting bonds with others, to help one another and to share life experiences. We are, simply, better together.”

So how can we solve collective loneliness and foster belonging?Belonging is fostered through connection and a shared sense of purpose. It means being accepted fully within a community of people where members identify with one another and share common values, and genuine care. In order to overcome collective loneliness, we therefore need to build a culture of connection and invest in community.

Over the past months, many of us have found out that happy hours are not actually the most helpful way to connect and feel known or understood. They usually end up with chats around the topic most people have in common: work. Even though it’s a shared topic that’s easy to talk about, it doesn’t allow for more meaningful bonding as conversations about work often stay shallow.

To create nurturing relationships and connections we need to intentionally design our interactions and learn how we can redesign the feeling of connection in a virtual world. We’ve put together a bundle of ideas and tools to get you started on creating meaningful connections while working remotely.

Define shared values 🧡

The key to a successful organization is to have a culture based on a strongly held and widely shared set of beliefs that are supported by strategy and structure. Defining a mission, vision, shared values, and principles is key to building a community, at work and beyond. Teams bond best when individual action responds to a common purpose; so, common values, and team goals are key.

Buddies, not policies—create one-on-one connections 🧸

Gallup’s most predictive measure for engagement is having a close friend at work. We can defeat loneliness through deeper connections, which are more likely to come from building high-quality, one-on-one connections and having meaningful conversations, or by actually doing something together. As human beings, we don’t need a huge offer of social events, or a lot of people to connect with; we really only need a few people with whom we can connect by sharing our struggles and thoughts. The important thing is that the interaction needs to make us feel seen and understood.

Some of our recent research showed that, when colleagues are struggling, the most common method of support is to have more frequent check-ins, or send more frequent messages of support; it can be as simple as this.

Holistic Human—create space for vulnerability 🔮

As we enter a Virtual First work environment, where many of us have never met our new colleagues in real life, it’s more important than ever to put effort into connecting on a personal level. Personal knowledge about someone's life outside of work humanizes relationships; it helps us see how we are similar, or that we are struggling with similar things, and reminds us that we are not just digital representations of ourselves, but are holistic human beings who can connect on a deeper level.

The more we’re able to be vulnerable, transparent, and bring our whole selves to our conversations and digital interactions, the more likely we are to open up, be empathetic towards others, and build trust and connection. As stated on HBR, “making time for small talk is important… It’s the chit chat, the side conversations that lift emotions and promote well-being. It’s one way we strengthen and deepen relationships and is critical to building high-performing teams.”

Embrace new rituals to cultivate a culture of kindness, fun, and collaboration 🌸

Doing activities together bonds us. Having gatherings occur on a regular basis allows people to plan, which creates an important anchor for a sense of connection. Space to play creates intersections with other people, helps us feel connected, and lets true creativity and moments of serendipity happen.

Start small and redesign existing meetings! Instead of putting more meetings into your calendar, try slipping it into the team’s day to day organically. Try it out, wait for people’s reaction, adapt as needed, and repeat. Think about activities you are already doing as a team—are there little things you can add to make them more meaningful?

A ritual can take the form of a handwritten note, an e-mail, or a way to start a meeting/conversation. As with all rituals, setting aside a particular time to do it significantly increases the chances of success.

Offer a helping hand 🤝

There’s evidence that helping others can make us feel less lonely. It allows us to feel that we matter, that we’re valued and appreciated. On days when we’ve had a positive impact on others at work, we feel energized as well as more competent. Have you ever tried mentoring someone, or offered your help to a friend or colleague who’s stuck at something? Even small acts of kindness can be antidotes to isolation.

Tools and Resources for Community Building 🛠

Define shared values

  • Team Values Toolkit: Start with a workshop for your team to build a common purpose and values.
  • Team Summit Toolkit: In this kit, you'll find tools and resources for planning, programming, content, design, communications and fun activities for team building in a Virtual First environment.

Create 1-on-1 connections

  • Design Friend Forever: Assign new hires a DFF - their personal onboarding buddy to provide context, understand social and cultural norms, which is essential to create a sense of belonging.
  • Team pairing: You can use tools such as Donut—a Slack extension that randomly pairs team members up over 1—4 weeks to bond 1:1 with non-work conversations. To continue getting to know other Dropboxers, we created a tool called Coffeebox to introduce us to new potential friends and/or collaborators.

Create space for deeper connection

  • Conversation Starters:

    • Make it a norm to start new team meetings with an individual check-in or icebreaker for everyone to introduce themselves. When entering a physical space, we would usually start chatting before officially kicking off our meeting. By thoughtfully designing our virtual meetings, we can translate that same feeling into our virtual world, create space for small talk, and avoid awkward Zoom silence.

    • For recurring meetings, welcome new participants and let them introduce themselves.

    • Introduce meaningful conversation:

Build Group Rituals

  • Welcome Rituals:

    • Start your meetings with a recurring question or task: Have everyone share one thing they enjoyed doing this week.
    • “How do you feel?” Start your meetings by asking everyone to describe how they’re feeling in two words.
    • Doodling: 'Draw how you're currently feeling in an abstract way’ - it might be a cloud floating in the sky, or a snail hiding in her shell. Hold it up to to your camera and discuss.
  • Gratitude Rituals:

    • Send a card every time someone does something for you or helps you with a project.
    • Always include something you’re particularly grateful for in your Monday Morning Meetings/weekly catch-ups, or give a shout-out to one person for doing something that’s gone unrecognized.
  • Play Rituals:
    • Show and Tell. We all have some secret super skills, which no one else knows about. Ask your team what they would like to present to the rest of the team. Playing a song on the guitar or piano, sharing a drawing, reading poetry? There are no limits!
    • Team Community Sessions. Add a weekly or bi-weekly 30-minute hangout for your team to get together or do activities together (e.g., someone reads a poem, tells a story, shares a recipe, etc.). You can try hosting them in virtual spaces, such as Gather.Town or TeamFlow.

Offer a helping hand

  • Offer help at Weekly Check-ins: At weekly check-ins, ask if anyone is blocked or needs support, and who could help.

  • Co-work as a team: Set up a co-working session as a team. Start by talking through what everyone is working on, put on some music and co-work for one hour. If anyone feels blocked, invite them to speak up and chat with their co-workers about it.

Building connections in a Virtual First world is all about the energy we are able to create when employing these methods, about continuous experimentation, and being consistent and transparent with your peers.

All these ideas can take time to implement, but by starting with even one or two of them, you’re bound to feel a boosted sense of community—essential when it comes to improving our psychological well-being.

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