In early 2020 after businesses sent workers home, many leaders observed a surge of determination, not uncommon in crisis. The pandemic has proven to be unlike other emergencies because it is ongoing, not an event. It also involves real and very personal danger, and reducing risk means thousands of people are working from home.
Initially, many hoped that rapid adoption of technical methods such as video conferencing would be the answer. But the limitations of technology were soon apparent as the now-ubiquitous phrase, “You are on mute,” has become humorous as it is painfully real. The sheer number of video calls has exploded, leading to a new type of exhaustion.
As the pandemic wears on, some leaders wonder if they know how people are doing and how they can be better connected.
How Are People Doing?
An online survey conducted by RingCentral, Inc. (RNG), a provider of cloud-based communications and collaboration solutions for businesses, asked knowledge workers how they are doing. Four thousand people in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia responded. The results are both predictable and also illuminating. More than 40 percent of respondents said they find group work more challenging than interacting with customers (28%) or doing tasks (14%). That group work presents more challenges isn’t surprising, but the number who endorse this is.
Michael Peachey, Vice President of User Experience at RingCentral, believes that a contributing factor to the challenge of group work is the small, imperceptible annoyances that he calls “micro-stressors.” These may not be significant, but they have a cumulative effect, including the secretion of stress hormones, which further reduce effectiveness.
Examples of micro-stressors, according to Peachey, are “hunting around for a mute button,” noisy notification events, or having to “scan a list for the desired choice (noisy search results.)” Even minor stressors take our attention and degrade human connection capacity, making collaboration more difficult. Thus, micro-stressors undermine leaders’ efforts to create an environment that nurtures connection, which serves not only cooperation but also human connection so necessary for a healthy environment.
Connecting always requires more than issuing formal communications, giving speeches, or even relying on hallway conversations, but now it is even more challenging. A recent article in Forbes points out the vast difference between sending a message or delivering a speech and making a genuine connection with others. But there are pragmatic actions anyone can take.
What Leaders Can Do
Three things that can help, and anyone can do them, starting immediately.
First, pay attention to what you are paying attention to and to whom.
The CEO of a $5 Billion company often criticized Dave, an executive vice-president, for being too tactical. Dave had been to a highly lauded executive education program on strategy to cure him of this problem. But he remained stuck until he did a simple exercise.
He wrote down his goals for the company and himself as well as his philosophy of leadership. Next, he reviewed his calendar to see who and what topics were on it. Dave realized the mismatch between what he said were priorities and how he spent his time. His efforts were so successful that when his boss retired, Dave succeeded him.
In this case, Dave was defaulting to spending time with his team but almost ignoring his peers. Not only was it noticed, but his peers also interpreted it to mean he wasn’t able to engage with them as an equal.
Second, check in with people.
It seems so simple, but it’s common to over-value focus and getting through an agenda. Leaders who pay attention to who is in the meeting infuse others with a sense of connection that inspires them to be full participants. Conversely, when a leader only turns to people in mechanical ways or always the same people, motivation can flag.
When most or all meetings utilize video conferencing, it is even easier to unwittingly ignore people. Ask yourself who might not be speaking up and invite them to do so. Learn to politely interrupt those who dominate to make room for others and shake the impression that they are favored. People need to know that the leader wants to connect with them.
Third, ask what people need.
A question that works for individuals or a group is – What do you need to succeed? The answers will vary according to the context, but almost always, there are insights to be gained. When people aren’t connected, the responses tend to be predictable, stilted, and generic, revealing little. Reticence is an indication to the leader that something is amiss. Unfortunately, it is easy to default to an assumption about people who don’t participate, but the cause may be context or a combination. When people provide responses that reveal needs or frustrations, the leader and others have the opportunity to make improvements and do so together.
These three strategies can help leaders create and sustain connections. While the venue for conversations may have changed and introduced the micro-stressors Peachey describes, merely talking about the effects and how humans can mitigate them can help. Meanwhile, many look forward to the improvements that will come as more companies develop technologies that will more often take into account human perception, cognition, and emotion, smoothing the way for people to connect.
This post originally appeared in Forbes.