3 Ways To Help Your Virtual Teams Thrive During A Difficult Time: An Improvisational Approach

I was on four client calls last week and every person said the same thing: while grateful to be able to keep working from home, a day of virtual conference calls takes a cognitive toll on individuals and teams. An executive at a global soft drink company recently said to me that her people needed to laugh and connect on a human level, the kind of level that’s just harder to reach through a screen. 

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Suzanne Degges-White notes, “Not only does Zoom zap our energy and our brains, but it also beats down our bodies. From a numb butt to an aching back to a dull, throbbing headache and eye strain, hours spent in one position at furniture never designed for long-term sitting can leave us feeling cranky, achy, and a lot worse about life.” 

So what are we missing in our new virtual environments? I think it’s these things:

  • Connectedness and belongingness
  • Shared Learning and laughter
  • Variety and surprise

We take these things for granted because they just happen when you’re in the office. Hallway conversations, pre- and post-meeting chatter and shared meals in the lunch room are all important parts of our day that we rarely consider - that is, until they aren’t there. 

I’ve been co-hosting a series of webinars recently with Kim Scott, author of the book Radical Candor, about our latest collaboration, Improvising Radical Candor addressing just how important it is for organizations to care personally for their employees and this has only become truer since our work teams are all working at a distance. 

In her book, Kim writes: “Some companies put a lot of effort into bringing employees together outside of the office. It might be a happy hour or a holiday party or an off-site event. While retreats and parties can be productive if people on your teams really want them, it is best to remember that mostly you get to know the people you work with on the job, every day, as an integrated part of the work rhythm, not at the annual holiday party.”

In improvisation we are taught to play the scene we’re in, not the scene we want to be in. We make mistakes work for us. And we learn to bring a brick, not a cathedral, because we understand that all of us are better than one of us. Clearly, the pedagogy of improvisation speaks to a skill set for navigating uncertainty, unease and disconnectedness. Here are three quick improv tips that will help your virtual teams thrive during the difficult times:

Operate with an ensemble mindset

Do quick check- ins with each team member and make sure they know you have their back. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase ‘your team is only as good as its weakest member.’ In improvisation, we don’t see things that way. We say, ‘your team is only as good as its ability to compensate for its weakest member.’ Because, at some point, each of us will be the weakest member and it's at those moments that we want our ensembles to pick us up, not put us down. 

Be specific

In turbulent times we need clear, specific feedback - avoid being vague or opaque. No one likes to receive bad news, but you know what’s worse? Silence. Organizational silence is a morale killer, because when people aren’t hearing anything, they are filling that void with their fears and worry. As we find ourselves becoming increasingly decentralized the need for specific, real-time information only becomes more vital.

Bring a “yes, and” attitude to your meetings

The word ‘no’ shuts down communication; a ‘yes’ doesn’t move the ball. When you say ‘yes, and’ to your team members, it allows for an abundance of ideas and opportunities which is exactly what every business needs right now. Operating from a ‘yes, and’ attitude gives everyone a chance to contribute while also creating a space to entertain some of the most out of the box ideas. In my experience, the most innovative and creative work never emanates from run of the mill thinking. Yes, and is a principal that operates at the front end of creativity: it’s five minutes at the beginning of a brainstorm. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to say no - you don’t need to start there. 

In the middle of March when our theaters closed their doors, we truly didn’t know if we could convert the exercises of improvisation to virtual settings in a meaningful way. But everyday, we find new, powerful ways to lead distanced teams into becoming wholly connected ensembles, even while everyone is working from home. And it’s because all the same rules apply: the need to be present, to listen, to give and receive, to embrace the inevitable failures along the way in order to become a resilient team member. 

As Eric McNulty and his co-authors from Harvard write in You’re It: Crisis, Change and How to Lead When It Matters Most, “Silos themselves aren’t the problem: it’s poor communication and anemic connections between them.” 

Because our workforces are working at a distance, it is critical that we focus on all the different ways we can bring them together, make them feel seen and make them feel heard. We are all working without a script and we have to build up the muscles to not just survive this new environment, but to thrive within it. It’s time to improvise. 

Contact us to learn more about how an improvisational mindset can help you, your team, and your organization unlock business-critical skills to thrive while working virtually.

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