Missing Your Co-Workers? It’s Still Possible to Connect Virtually

Recently, two of my colleagues and I were tasked with selecting two or three staff members to recognize for outstanding contributions in either their professional or personal lives. The three of us were the first to receive this distinction, and it was our turn to pass the praise along to our co-workers. This acknowledgment is our organization’s way of showing appreciation for the efforts of those who are going above and beyond their normal work duties.

As we waited for the nominations to roll in, one of my colleagues on the selection committee noted, “I think what this process is highlighting for me is the lack of casual interstaff communication during this pandemic. Because we don’t see each other in the office anymore, it’s become harder to know what’s going on in people’s lives and what their accomplishments might have been.”

This situation may resonate in many offices. Staff are struggling to connect with their co-workers while working from home. While we have figured out how to successfully collaborate on work-related tasks and projects via video conferencing, nothing compares to face-to-face informal interactions, such as being across the table from each other in the break room. Or the casual ‘watercooler’ talk. Or, in my office’s case, rolling our chairs into the middle of the aisle to discuss the latest hot topic inside and outside the office.

When the pandemic began, we had to cancel our annual retreat, which quashed some opportunities to connect with colleagues  within our own office and with other offices. It was disappointing, of course, but we thought it wouldn’t be much longer before we would all be under the same roof again.

How wrong we were. Since the pandemic began, my co-workers have celebrated promotions, engagements, a new house purchase and the birth of a grandchild. Others have dealt with the loss of a loved one. Furthermore, new employees have come onboard, including on the very first day of stay-at-home orders. But we aren’t in the same physical space to celebrate the victories or express sympathy for the losses.

Rather than simply complain about the circumstances we found ourselves in, my colleagues and I decided to do what we do best – be problem-solvers. This is what our organization is known for – building relationships and finding creative solutions that bring communities together.

The first step in tackling this situation was to approach our executive management team with the challenges we were facing.

Our next step was to be solution-oriented. We knew we needed a fun, non-work related activity to engage everyone and open up dialogue with the goal of simply checking in with each other.

Here are a few ideas we kicked around:

Whose Desk is Whose?

This question really asks: How well do you know your co-workers just by looking at their workspaces? The idea is for everyone to take a picture of their workspace, send it to a designated, non-game-playing employee to share in your virtual workspace, and then everyone has to guess who the workspace belongs to. What clues do you see? Who would most likely have a cluttered desk or a nice and neat one? Who is most likely to have a kitten calendar? Who drinks from the “World’s Best Dad” mug?

Aliens Have Landed

I used a variation of this exercise with a community group and it worked so well. I thought my co-workers might enjoy it too. The premise is that aliens have landed but they don’t understand English. We can only communicate with them using symbols. Staff are divided up into teams (using breakout rooms in Zoom, for instance) and have to come up with a statement or question that can only be communicated via symbols. Questions can be easy, such as “Do you want coffee or tea?” or “What time is the next meeting?” to more challenging, such as guessing the name of a song, book or movie.

Online Bingo

There are plenty of game board templates online, or you can create your own. Here’s an example of one from teambuilding.com.

Whichever teambuilding activity you choose, the main purpose is to get co-workers to open up and talk about things going on in their lives. A virtual environment will never replace the closeness of office interactions, but it is still possible to connect with our co-workers during this pandemic.

Meredith Gibson is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She uses the power of media advocacy and geographic information systems to promote systems and policy changes that contribute to healthy, safe and vibrant communities in San Diego County. Meredith is a media director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a non-profit organization that addresses equity in public health, particularly around substance abuse prevention. She writes news releases, collaborates on opinion editorials and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels. She also authors story maps and analyzes spatial data to inform policy decisions.

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