Let’s try to be good virtual coworkers

I thought about putting something clickbaity for the title. Along the lines of: “6 tips you MUST use for virtual working,” or “5 keys for running virtual meetings like a boss,” or even (retch) “4 things all successful managers do in virtual teams,” but I decided to go for something that sounds less like a Forbes article. So, here‘s the pitch for all of us office-worker types: let‘s all just try to be decent at this virtual coworking thing. Ok?

Those of us lucky enough to still have jobs and income should make the most of our (limited) opportunity to support society. Stressing about project challenges, IT hiccups, or altered meeting routines is the opposite of that. Right now, important concerns rise to the surface. Things like our health, our family, our friends, getting basic supplies, staying connected with other humans, and learning to deal with our emotions like adults. I assure you (holding eye contact with you, yes, you) that your project deadline does not matter like those things do.

This is a call for those of us off the frontlines of Covid-19 to avoid nihilism or thinking that what we do doesn’t matter. While the importance is currently with the REAL heroes (doctors, nurses, hospital staff, grocery store clerks, delivery folks, researchers, etc.), we can still do our part to…as my mother used to say…contribute to the good of the cause. The most important thing is to do what is in our control; namely, to do our part to spread positivity and support each other. One great place for us corporate types to start is with how we interact with our colleagues.

Let’s start by being virtually good coworkers. I mean, like literally, let’s be good virtually. Not like “virtually good,” but “good, virtually.” Here then is my contrived, clickbaity list of five things all of us office-workers should do to be good virtual coworkers (but honestly, they‘re primarily reminders for me to coax myself into practicing regularly):

1) Remember your phone (and don’t forget to communicate)…

It might be hard to imagine that you‘d EVER forget your phone as you sit on 6–7 hours of virtual meetings during the course of a day. But we forget, I promise. I know I forget. We forget the value of calling to ask how a colleague is doing before we jump to conclusions about their confusing comments. We forget to reach out personally when we have questions. Instead we agonize over long emails that would have been resolved in mere minutes with a quick call (I promise, I’ve NEVER done that before).

Remember how important it is to communicate clearly with our colleagues — particularly since we’re all separated in new ways. Virtual teams face many of the same challenges as in-person teams, but communication becomes even more important due to the absence of body language and non-verbal cues. Now that many of us are on edge with new anxieties from Covid-19, it’s all the more important to minimize our stress by being clear with each other.

How can we become better virtual communicators? Sure texting or chatting over Slack is a great, easy way to converse. But hearing someone else’s voice and tone on the line is an even better way to connect. So much of the message gets missed if it’s just an email or a text. When you need to clarify something, call. When you want to introduce yourself to a new colleague, call. When you have ideas that you want feedback on, sure, put it in the group thread, but also, just call. I’m not asking us to overwhelm ourselves with phone-hours-per-day, I’m asking us to be even more focused on communicating clearly with each other.

2) Be interactive

I already mentioned long hours of virtual calls and workshops. We know how dull and draining those can be at their worst. So why not make them better? This is 2020…we can stop using presentation & interaction methods from Corporate 1985. There are plenty of scary things in the business world, and one-direction online presentations are near the top of the list (though I’d be delighted if One Direction would give presentations right now). If you also shudder when you think of “one person reading notes off a crowded PPT slide for 1 hour,” then you’ll agree that we can make our virtual interactions more engaging.

Too often we find our groups falling into the rut of virtual meetings that are like two knights jousting while everyone else sits by and watches. Be a good virtual coworker by setting up virtual interactions that require input and engagement from all colleagues. For example:

  • You could use virtual whiteboarding apps like Miro or Conceptboard.
  • Perhaps you allocate specific sections in working sessions for round-robin input.
  • Or maybe you use time-bounded ideation sessions to collect ideas rather than just floating the question out there for dominant personalities to respond to.
  • What if we conduct virtual World Cafes to get many people involved with virtual brainstorming?
  • Or…scariest of all…what if you actually call out colleagues by name to ask for their thoughts on a topic???? (Gasp!)

Keep things visual! Share your screen! Most importantly, ask your colleagues to do the same once you’ve modeled the behavior. Get creative with ways of getting people involved. On my team’s daily check-in, we always screenshare and work in a common whiteboard where we can post questions, sketch concepts, and look at the same thing. Don’t make your coworkers suffer through monologues (unless you are Sir Patrick Stewart, in that case I don’t think they’ll mind). And this might mean you need to consider my next suggestion.

3) Try new things (and try to have fun)!

Necessity is supposedly the mother of all invention. For example, social media would have never been invented without the human need to constantly compare ourselves to one another. I jest (or do I…), but the truth is that we can get remarkably creative when we face constraints. Covid-19 has driven more digital transformation in the last month than most companies have managed in the last several years. We have a chance to try new things with our disrupted routines and altered status quo.

Be open to new ways of work, new technology, and new mindsets. We’re all going to be a bit ineffective as we change team habits and try new virtual ways of working. If we resist the change, we’ll be both ineffective AND miserable. Whether you pioneer a tactic to improve collaboration in team meetings, try that software tool you noticed, or practice new data analysis methods, it’s all great! On my team, we’re trying to better utilize some existing low-code software that lets us build internal apps to complete projects in novel ways.

As we try new things, we are likely to make fools of ourselves. Innovation never happens without mistakes. Why not also try to make some fun of it? Be a good virtual coworker by embracing all this change with a bit of levity. There is a lot outside of our control, but our attitudes are up to us. Healthcare workers don’t need us adding to their stress. Take responsibility for your own attitude and be a source of positive energy and action…not a black-hole for it. Whoever set the tone that business needs to be a Serious Thing for Serious People needs a pie to the face.

4) Trust your coworkers

While trying out new things, why not also try trusting our coworkers? High performing teams are built on trusting relationships. Trust is typically earned, but it can also be given. Yes, you heard that right. You CAN choose to trust someone without some long drawn out proving process. You can choose to give them the benefit of the doubt and put your faith in their good intentions. Perhaps you don’t want to graciously give trust to any stranger you see on the street, but you can do this with your colleagues.

Trusting means assuming good intentions and having faith that someone can think and take of things on their own. At work, this often involves giving others the space to try out their ideas without our micromanagement or interference. It doesn’t mean that we need to agree with everything our coworkers do — but it does mean we have faith in their desire to do good. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and you open the door for them to do the same with you. It’s difficult to actually see what people are doing or to hear their tone in this time of virtual working. Misunderstandings and miscommunications have fertile ground for growth with all the disrupted routine. Trust that your coworkers mean well. Trust that they have good intentions. And trust that they are going to get things done.

And if your trust falls through and you’re stuck cleaning up someone’s mistakes? Be an adult and deal with your emotions without hitting other people with them. The world doesn’t need that. We can create stronger teams over time by trusting our colleagues right now and giving others more space to breath in this challenging short-term.

5) Be a human being

I know, I know this last one is a doozy. Corporate Earth struggles with this even when we‘re all onsite together, basking in the stress-fields generated by people conditioned to focus on arbitrary targets and peacock about which group deserves credit. The stench of the industrial revolution, with its ideals of siloing and treating workers as cogs in larger systems, still looms over modern business culture. Now we’ve got a real chance to remember what business should really be about: problem solving with other people to generate value for…wait for it…other people. The healthcare workers don’t forget that, neither should we.

It is easy to get caught up acting like human doings rather than human beings; just focused on deliverables and targets while the world around us goes crazy. In the spirit of spreading positive vibes, we have the chance to use our corporate interactions as opportunities to uplift. Now that our work and home lives have smashed together, the artificial divide between our “personal” life and “work” life is gone. We’re all just people dealing with craziness and distraction. The truth is we were already this before Covid-19, but now it is made obvious. Now is our opportunity to remember that our colleagues have huge parts of their lives that we never see. We’re all managing the best they can. Don’t try to ignore the weirdness of this moment for the sake of “project focus” or “productivity.” Be a good virtual coworker by embracing the flaws and vulnerability that is made apparent in these times of uncertainty. Be a human, and treat your coworkers like humans too.

Acknowledge and celebrate those dogs barking, kids crying, and all the wackiness from working virtually. Recognize that the reason we automate, prioritize, and enhance metrics is to ultimately help real human beings. Find the joy that comes with seeing your coworkers over video call, and the haggard look many of us share right now. Understand that we are all complicated humans who share the goal of surviving in weird circumstances. Treat your coworkers well.

I think we’re doing a pretty good job of this so far. I’ve shared some amazing, human moments with coworkers over the last several weeks that I would never have witnessed in routine times. I’ve seen inspiring levels of compassion, trust, support, and levity since things got weird. We can carry this mindset forward, even after the heroes in healthcare defeat Covid-19. If we can succeed at being good virtual coworkers, we will eventually become better coworkers, no matter the circumstance.

A wanderer, a water-drinker, a wastrel, and [something pithy]