On a biological level, our five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste) allow us to form connections with others via things like physical closeness, micro gestures, and pheromones. Unfortunately, today’s remote work, which relies heavily on video conferencing, has all but erased our ability to form authentic connections the way we used to. We decided to address this challenge, and here’s what we found.

Connecting on a human level

As people, we connect with one another and the world around us based on triggers in our brain that are initiated by our senses. Our sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste allow us to sense physical closeness, micro gestures, pheromones, and more. Most of these triggers can't be replicated over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other video conferencing platforms, which has made remote work (and any kind of connection-forming experiences via video) a real challenge. 

Enter modern science. Numerous studies have found that just as a person can lose one of their five senses—or two in the case of Hellen Keller (who, despite the TikTok trend, really was a person!)—the loss can often lead to other senses ramping up and filling in, finding new ways to replace whatever connection is deficient.

“Transcending Zoom” through experience design

In designing Lead Belay, we strive to “transcend Zoom” and create an experience where people could deeply connect in very human ways, but without the time and cost that traveling for in-person meetings requires. One of our highest priorities was to create a top-tier leadership development experience as you’d find at a custom leadership retreat or week-long intensive course, but in a way that’s much more accessible in terms of location and cost. 

Being seen, heard, & valued

And we knew it was possible. We knew that when you bring the right mix of people together, virtually or otherwise, magic happens. When any two or more people spend time and effort to be together purposefully, share genuinely, and mutually support each other through real challenges, they grow quickly, connect deeply, and feel pride in their accomplishments. They experience “humanness” at its core: a feeling of being seen, heard, and valued. 

Intentional group matching & connection-building exercises

These are the cornerstones of the Lead Belay experience. By intentionally matching small groups of leaders and bringing them together for a nine-week virtual journey, we create powerful bonds of friendship, support, and loyalty. Many Lead Belay participants report that during weekly meetings with their group, the room around their computer seems to disappear and their entire reality exists on the other side of the screen—exactly the kind of experience we set out to create.

We accomplished it through research and experimenting with several techniques, eventually developing our Rapid Relationship Building exercise and other tools to help participants create powerful connections quickly. 

You can, too!

We know we aren’t the only company facing the challenge of helping their teams build authentic connections virtually. If you’re part of one of these organizations, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t necessarily have to spend months of time and energy developing your own original exercises and tools to achieve this outcome.

Ideas to try out

It can be as simple as setting aside five minutes at the beginning of your next virtual meeting for “water cooler talk” (e.g., brief conversations about things happening outside of work). Sure, it will “take away” a few minutes from the meeting’s agenda, but we’ve found the benefits of making space for this kind of “water cooler talk” vastly outweighs this temporal “loss.” (After all, how many in-person meetings start exactly on time?)

If you’re looking for a more structured approach, try asking everyone to use a word to describe how they are feeling at the start of a virtual meeting. Outlaw basic words like “good” or “fine,” and allow people to get creative about what’s going on and what they are willing to share. Not only does it allow them a moment of self-reflection, but offers an opportunity for them to be present and vulnerable with others. 

Will it feel contrived or silly? If you let it. But if, as a leader, you set the tone that it’s authentic, intentional, and a moment to be honest, you’ll shape how the conversation goes. In all truth, it’s less about the specific techniques and approaches you use, and more about how it’s presented.

Adapting to the new normal 

This kind of intentional team-building is, of course, more important now than ever. Before COVID, most people had no idea how to work virtually with one another. Zoom was a glitchy backup option, only used for the bare essentials. Few of us were used to being on video. It felt awkward (ok, maybe it still does). Today, it’s just necessary. 

But what’s also necessary is making sure there is space for genuine connection, and remembering what used to happen naturally. We can’t treat virtual meetings the same way as we did before the pandemic. If they are the new normal, and they likely are, we have to do more to make them, well, normal. 

That means not just allowing, but encouraging simple chit-chat. It means holding a few minutes for the kind of casual conversation that used to happen in shared hallways before diving into a meeting. It means asking people how they’re doing, and remaining engaged for their answers. Just these few, simple things can allow you and your teams to transcend Zoom and have a human experience, no matter where you are. 

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