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How my team manages to stay connected in times of isolation

The jokes must go on

It sounds like a paradox. Contradictio in terminis, as the linguistic in me likes to put it. Staying connected in times of isolation. Now that most of us are working remotely, teams need to find ways to stay connected. I’d like to think that times like these also bring opportunities for us to get creative, learn from each other and rise above ourselves, so let’s share ideas and experiences as much as possible.

I only joined this team in October 2019, so I still can be considered a newbie. And yet, since the very first week I’ve been in that team, I have felt like I was a part of it. That my contribution was important, communication went naturally and effectively, and that even though we are seeing each other about 1 or 2 days a week, we are very connected and up to date. How is that possible?

I have been grappling with this question since I started working at Xebia last year. More than enough reason for me to dig a little bit into my own team’s habits and ways of working to understand how we do that.

Social Presence Theory

LAn important theory related to staying connected to others using different media is Social Presence Theory (SPT). Put very simply, SPT is about your perception that you’re communicating with another person. The degree to which you perceive the presence of others in communication. SPT states that media differ in their ability to convey this psychological perception of others.

So called ‘rich’ media are able to transmit a lot of visual and verbal cues (voice, intonation, facial expressions, gestures, etc.), whereas other media lack that ability. Think about video conferencing versus email. Rich media are higher in social presence and therefore more efficient for relational communication. It’s up to us to match the selected medium to the type of communication that is required. Pretty obvious, right? (Although some people are still ending relationships via text messages…)

Social Identity Theory

There’s another related theory that’s interesting here. Social Identity Theory (SIT) states that an individual’s social identity is developed based on group membership. SIT is all about social context as the key determinant of self-definition and behaviour. Our behaviour can be understood in terms of subjective beliefs about our own group and its relation to other groups. We are social beings; we need to belong to groups. That’s how we survive. That means this social identity is quite important.

The same goes for teams. If we feel like we’re part of a team, and we can identify ourselves with it, we will conform to the group norms and let that influence our behaviour. If we really believe in a group or team, we will work harder to reach the team’s goals. The stronger this social identity within the group, the more close team members will feel.

From theory to remote working

Now, if we combine these 2 theories, we will find that social presence positively affects the social identity of community members. High social presence makes it easier to build social relationships and attachment to the virtual community.

Meaning that if we want to make this remote working thing work, we need to maximise social presence by using rich media. If there was already a strong social identity in the group or team, that will enhance the effect. Group norms that were already established will remain in a virtual environment. So if the group norm is to actively participate remotely, and team members really identify with this team, they will participate actively and stay connected.

From theory to my own team

That all makes perfect sense, but there is another reason why remote working works perfectly for some teams, and doesn’t fly for others. I believe that has to do with your team culture. How was the team formed? Are we working on that team culture? Is there anything holding us back? In the real world, I mean. Before going remotely, I believe it’s crucial for a team to feel like they’re a team. That there is trust, understanding, enough informal communication and all other aspects that create a culture.

Our shared sense of reality

There it is again, a shared sense of reality. The most crucial thing for every team and organisation. Group norms that we agreed upon that define our culture and way of working. Our working agreements, basically.

Here’s what we agreed upon in terms of communication channels:

We use Slack for work related content

Everything that is work related is shared in one of the existing Slack channels. There might be stuff that could also be interesting for other colleagues, and we might get valuable input from others. Plus, Slack is way better for retrieving and documenting things than Signal for example. When you’re mentioned on Slack, the team expects you to react within 24 hours, or within 4 hours during business hours.

Signal is for informal communication

All the non-work related stuff goes via Signal. Weekend plans, world wide news, jokes, memes, complain paragraphs, … it’s all in Signal. It’s a continuous conversation that is not restricted to working hours. We talk to each other during nights and weekends, but no one is expected to react here.

Co-create Fridays are not optional, and we will meet physically

Co-create Friday is our weekly meeting where we physically sit together every Friday afternoon to work on non-client related things together. Pushing content out, discuss conference talks, brainstorm on new workshop ideas. See where we can help each other. The structure of these afternoons is pre-defined: check-in, agenda, time-boxing, doing stuff, check out. Everyone is expected to be here.

Team meetings in times of isolation

And then the isolation happened. No more co-create Fridays for the team. Now what? One of our team members suggested to use Discord; an environment where we can virtually hang out focused on voice and text. You can join a channel and see who’s there. It’s nothing like pre-scheduled calls. Just enter a channel and start talking if you have something to share. So last Friday, we hung out on Discord, working together in a Google doc while we could talk to each other as if we were in the same room. Other team members joined and left, and we even had our Vrijdagmiddagborrel virtually.

The reason this works, I believe, is that our social identity is very present. We actively worked on creating social relationships, trust and our own shared sense of reality. The group started doing that in the real world, creating a strong culture that is easy to enter for newbies like myself. Because it’s that strong, it’s also easier to remain that online, when we are working in isolation. It’s different of course, when you start off as an online team. In that case, you will have to make sure that there is enough social presence to build relationships and trust. Meaning you’ll have to use mainly rich media.

Habits and initiatives that define our Team culture

The last important reason why remote working is going well for us, are the habits and initiatives that occur and refine our Team culture.

Just to list a few:

Feedback initiative

One of our colleagues started doing this at the end of the week when we couldn’t spend our Friday afternoons together. Using Signal to share feedback and appreciation per team member. A very powerful way to enhance relationships. Other team members started following his example and now it’s a weekly thing that is more important than ever now that we don’t see each other.

The informal communication

I cannot stress this enough. You cannot build and maintain good personal relationships if you don’t know each other on a personal level. Jokes and sarcasm are very important tools in our group. It’s pretty much the love language of our group. Making fun of people living near the Belgium border (guess who that is…), personal characteristics, sport clubs and language. I honestly love this part of our communication, and it’s crucial for our social identity. Besides that, we talk about weekend plans, the news and we share quite a lot of pictures of our cats…

Start with a check-in, end with a check-out

A very important aspect of our communication flow is the check-in and check-out. An exercise we always start and end all of our trainings, workshops and sessions with. It’s a monologue in which we share what we’ve done in the past week, how we feel, what’s making us happy and what’s bothering or worrying us. One of us talks, the rest listens. No one is allowed to interrupt. As simple as it sounds, it’s one of the most powerful things you can add to any meeting.

So, I’m part of a pretty close team. Of which I am very proud, and really happy to be in. Everyone contributes in his/her own way. And it’s this diversity, in combination with sticking to agreements and truly value them, that keeps this team connected and strong. Our strong social identity, creativity in finding ways to stay up to date and connected, is what will get us through these times of isolation.

Curious about some of our rituals, habits or agreements? Don’t hesitate to reach out – I’m happy discuss! Let’s find ways to learn from each other and stay connected!

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