Many of us are now working at home due to the pandemic. To our surprise, we’re seeing our coworkers more than ever before — but as tiny heads on our laptops in video meetings. Instead of bringing us closer together, all this online togetherness can sometimes make us feel miles apart, literally and emotionally.
On a recent episode of his TED podcast WorkLife, organizational psychologist Adam Grant explores the general phenomenon of loneliness in the workplace (listen here to learn strategies that can help you create more meaningful relationships with your colleagues). Of course, that episode was produced before remote work became a feature of our lives.
So TED asked Adam to take another look at loneliness at work — but specifically at virtual meetings and how those could be reimagined as ways to connect rather than feel disconnected. In a phone call with longtime mentor Jane Dutton, a professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Michigan, he discussed how to bond virtually with coworkers, the opening question you should ask instead of “How are you doing?”, and why it’s OK — even good — to let them see the dirty dishes in your kitchen sink.
Adam Grant: What is a high-quality connection?
Jane Dutton: A high-quality connection is a shorter-term interaction you have with someone virtually or face to face, in which both people feel lit up and energized by the connection.
Adam: One of the most powerful things I’ve learned from you is that these connections can be created in short periods of time. Right now I think we’re all grappling with this question of “OK, I’m now looking at a person on the screen, and I’m distracted by the video camera on my own face.” What can we do to create connection in these virtual settings?
Jane: People are pretty tired of the same old ”How are you doing?” question — you know, that kind of earnest first question, especially if you’re in a Zoom meeting like a team meeting. Let me give you an example of something I did instead. When people tuned into my teaching session, this was the first time I had seen them. There were 70 people on the Zoom call, and I asked them to write in the chat one word about what they were feeling right now.
Then I had one minute of silence, in which I invited people to read through what others said. It was a way that we could be present to each other right from the beginning. First moments matter anytime we come together.
Adam: What are some of your favorite questions — either ones you saw the students ask or you’ve been asking to open people up?
Jane: I’d suggest asking something like: “What did you do this week that you loved?” Ask a question that taps quickly into something that’s meaningful to people and conveys “I am genuinely interested, and I genuinely care.” You could ask “Tell me a highlight of your day” or “What’s gone well for you today?” Positive emotion opens up more possibilities for exploring some of the negative or the vulnerable pieces later on.
I saw an example of this in a Zoom meeting with the university development office last week. It started with having people go around the table and tell one story of a silver lining that happened this week. It was a wonderful invitation to share in a group where the people didn’t know each other. Talking about silver linings acknowledges that something negative has happened, but it also touches on the positive that you’ve made of it or that you’ve understood something positive coming out of it. I thought it was a beautiful opening invitation that seeded the ground for people to know each other better.
Adam: I’ve been intrigued by people doing virtual home office tours, where they’ll pick up their computers, walk around, and describe their mementos or photos. Is that a good idea? What kind of connection does it build?
Jane: One way to understand this is to look at the work of Ashley Hardin. She looked at personal knowledge and what is the mechanism through which it changes how we behave towards each other. To her surprise, she found all personal knowledge was helpful and it was helpful because it called forth more favorable interpersonal actions between people. It happened through a humanizing mechanism.
When you see people in their kitchen on the news, it humanizes them for us to have more knowledge about them, but it also makes us think, “Oh, they have dirty dishes in the sink, too! They’re just like me.”
Adam: I wonder: Is this something valuable to do with your closest coworkers or people you’ve been collaborating with for a long time, precisely because it shows things that we didn’t realize we share in common?
Jane: I want to give Ashley credit again, because she did a beautiful set of studies on this. You might expect there would be a weaker effect if you knew each other better, but it turns out the more you know, the better off you are in terms of connecting potential with another person. There’s this idea that we need to put on our professional masks and we don’t want to blur the boundary between the professional and the personal, but her research suggests there’s not a lot of downside to letting people know more about you. Which is surprising to me.
Adam: That’s particularly surprising for those of us who are segmenters, right? I’m very comfortable bringing work home, but I’m not as enthusiastic about bringing home to work. Is there a boundary we still need to set to respect our segmenting colleagues?
Jane: It’s gotten more complicated, because the norms are not clear. But I feel like even if you give people a tour of your home, you have choices about what you’re going to show and what you’re going to conceal. It doesn’t mean you have to be an open book.
Overall, I think this world has opened up new possibilities for us to experiment with different pathways for building connection. I was just looking at a video conference bingo game that the head of facilities distributed to staff to make video calls more interesting. Everybody’s on Zoom burnout, so they’re looking for ways to be more playful in our video worlds. Play is a major mechanism for connection. Unleashing people’s imaginations and incorporating play — it doesn’t have to be long — could be used to keep people more engaged but also make them more creative and potentially innovative.
Adam: What advice do you have for managers, meeting leaders or anyone trying to think through building connections more carefully? Where should they start?
Jane: With these connecting practices, I find that people buy into them more if you explain the logic for why it’s being done — explain that this is about trying to build better connective tissue so that our group will be better and more capable. When people understand that it’s in service of those kinds of things, they let their guard down and participate more fully.
Adam: Yes, I think giving context is useful. You could let people know that we’re doing this because the quality of our connection really matters in terms of the quality of work that we do.
Jane: Yes, and it also gives people a theory of their own to practice. So when they go into a group they’re trying to lead or a relationship they’re trying to manage, they can imagine: “How could I improvise on that basic premise in this meeting or gathering?” It’s an invitation for people to use their own intuition and imagination to tap into the same principle.
Adam: That’s exactly what we need more of during this time. Thank you, Jane.
Editor’s note: The following conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Listen to WorkLife with Adam Grant to learn more about everything from working remotely to building trust on a team. You can find WorkLife on Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts.