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Strengthen Distributed Teams with Social Conversations

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Key Takeaways

  • Checking in socially with each other during online team meetings is time well spent.
  • Dedicated online meetings are perfect to develop a social connection with remote team members.
  • At work, trust is built by getting to know colleagues as people, and online meetings are an efficient way to make this happen. 

This article is part of a series in which we are looking at how teams worldwide are successfully facilitating complex conversations, remotely. We’ll share practical steps that you can take, right now, to upgrade the remote conversations that fill your working days.


Yes, online meetings should result in outcomes; they should follow agendas or meeting plans and should be run efficiently. But, there is an aspect of remote team meetings that often gets overlooked—the opportunity to strengthen relationships with our team members.

Strengthening Relationships

In the colocated workplace, socialising takes place spontaneously in corridors, during coffee breaks, at lunchtime, walking past someone’s desk on the way to the toilet, or on the way to the bus stop from the office. This means that when we abandon our daily tasks to attend a meeting, we want to get down to business straightaway.

However, in the online world, things are different. Although there are ways of nurturing social interactions among team members, meetings can increase the feeling of connection and decrease isolation, especially if team members work from home.

That’s why, even though meetings have gained a terrible reputation in the workplace, they are essential to the online space. Instead of thinking of them as moments to update each other on our work (remote teams are better off doing this through "visible teamwork," using their online ecosystem), meetings are opportunities to reconnect with each other as professionals and people.

Getting used to meeting online with our team members can help us become comfortable with having meaningful conversations using technology. When things go wrong, or there are signs of miscommunication, or we start to fall behind with our work, we can easily hop on a video call—to make sure we are not misinterpreting those messages posted in the middle of the night, and that miscommunication around tasks doesn’t result in relationship breakdown. Connecting through technology should not be a barrier to real-time conversations when we need them.

Furthermore, nowadays, you could end up having your first meeting with a new candidate, potential client, or current customer over video. What better way to always be prepared for these high-stake meetings than to be at ease talking online with your team members?

Building Trust

In her book "The Culture Map," Erin Meyer suggests we trust people in different ways:

"Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in another person’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability while affective trust, arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship."

In your team, trust might be developed and sustained between individuals in different ways. Some of you will be looking out for how much others fulfill their offer of help, whether they deliver their work on time, and if their work is of high quality. Meanwhile, others will be looking for a more personal or social connection, looking for things they have in common with others—which is easier to find out during real-time conversations.

Getting to know each other well requires having a mental image of the person, hearing their voice, seeing their facial expressions, and online meetings can help us achieve this. In this article, I suggest two ways to use meetings to strengthen your team relationships—incorporate social conversations into your scheduled meetings and hold online meetings for the specific purpose of reconnecting as colleagues.

Social Chat in Meetings

Starting a meeting with a quick round of social chat can help everyone become "present" and feel like they are in the same space. Furthermore, making that initial effort to contribute to the conversation can help generate more dialogue later.

There is another practical side to starting an online meeting with informal conversations—the opportunity to test everyone’s sound and connectivity. It’s better to realise during a bit of small talk that your computer settings need to be adjusted because you bought a new headset, than in the middle of an important discussion when everyone starts shouting, "We can’t hear you!"

You can also double-check whether background noise is too loud to keep your microphone open throughout the meeting. Plus, if your internet connection is dodgy, you can figure that out during your social catch-ups and adjust your speaking rhythm accordingly.

Kicking Off the Social Conversation

Starting a conversation with the aim of getting to know each other better is not easy for everyone, so here are some suggested questions to kick off your meetings. I’ve listed them in order of "informality degree," starting with the best options for teams whose members don’t know each other well, those who have a strong identity as serious professionals, and some for people who don’t like to get too personal. The last set of suggestions is more likely to be embraced by teams that see themselves as "whacky" or "alternative."

  • Have you tried out a new tool recently? (Great for those who are always experimenting and love trying out shiny, new things.)
  • Anything you’ve read that was of particular interest? (You can get to know someone better by hearing about what they enjoy reading.)
  • Any productivity strategies you’ve recently discovered? (Hey, you can kill two birds with one stone with this one.)
  • Anyone have a particularly interesting podcast you’re listening to? A recommended episode that might help us with our work? (This is also a good opportunity to remind people that there are ways of taking breaks or seeking out information away from a screen.)
  • Describe what’s on the other side of your meeting camera in front of you—those things we can’t see.
  • Tell us what people have been up to in your part of the world lately.
  • Show us a picture of your favourite food or take a picture during the week of what you had for lunch. How often do you have that kind of food/dish?
  • What time is it now where you are and what wouldn’t/shouldn’t you do at that time?
  • Give us a tour! Yeap, take your teammates around your home or your workspace/office if you have a laptop, or pan your office with the webcam if you’re on a workstation. (If you’re going to suggest this, give people working at home a bit of notice should they want to tidy up…)
  • Sing us a song. What tune has been buzzing in your mind lately?

Your team members will enjoy small talk in different ways and at different levels, so make sure you vary how you encourage it in your meetings.

Before You Get Started

Before you start experimenting with any of the above suggestions (and others that will come to mind), think about how sociable your team is as a whole.

  • Do you enjoy each other’s company?

If you do, how about setting time aside at the end of each meeting for a round of personal catch-ups, or other random questions to celebrate how well you get along? On the other hand, if you are a team that doesn’t enjoy socialising, a quick check-in at the beginning of the meeting will be sufficient.

  • Do you stay in touch through asynchronous communication every day?

If you do, maybe you’re already caught up with your small talk, and so you don’t need to make room for it in every meeting. A "virtual coffee" might be better suited for your team (see below).

  • Do you work together on tasks and regularly hop on a call when you need help?

If team members are often in touch with each other due to the nature of your work, your meetings probably don’t need much small talk, as you’ll already know what’s going on in people’s lives. If on the other hand, you meet once every two weeks, or once a month and don’t have much contact otherwise, then a few minutes to reconnect as individuals in every meeting might help you remember you are a team and not just people working in parallel toward a common goal.  

  • Do some team members prefer to separate work and personal life?

Some people prefer to keep their work life separate from their personal life. They might enjoy their colleague’s company, but don’t want to share too much about their life outside work. In that case, use questions like the first four I suggested above — questions that allow people to reveal their personality, while still talking about their work or the context of their work.

Making time for social connection is not about banning all talk about work — it’s about having conversations we tend to put off for the more pressing elements of our work. Sometimes, these conversations are about our personal life and preferences, others might  be about aspects of our work we value, but never get to discuss in our team. It’s all about finding the space for team members to connect in ways that help them feel more engaged. 

Make Social Engagement Acceptable

Highlighting the value of non-work related conversations at meetings can also give rise to spontaneous behaviour that can help with team spirit. Last February, I found myself in a very difficult meeting — "difficult" because there had been many disagreements and expressions of frustration with the way the project was going, and how we were working together. We were about to log off, when one team member said, "Wait a second; I have something to show you."

She then swivelled her webcam by 90 degrees and pointed it out her window, to show us a beautiful, white landscape. The rest of us, who were in a warmer location, let out all kinds of "Oooohhhs," "Ahhhhs" and other signs of admiration. We logged off the meeting with a smile.

Virtual Coffee: The Social Meeting

As the number of remote companies has grown, so has the adoption of social online meetings. Stable video streaming and the acknowledgement that social interactions can promote better teamwork have encouraged team members to meet online with the sole purpose of "having coffee" together.

These regular sessions, which often have names like "virtual coffee," "happy hour," or "kitten talk," (the name given to the weekly sessions at Management 3.0) have a permanent slot in a team’s calendar, although attendance is always optional. The aim of these meetings is to have a chat with colleagues—no agenda, no set topics, just bring yourself, and a beverage of choice.

An alternative to having a set slot when you gather socially, is an online meeting room where people can pop in when they want to take a break and fancy a bit of chitchat. This approach will work better in larger teams or organisations, where the chances of finding someone else online are greater. It’s a great way to design an online ecosystem that allows for serendipitous interactions.

GitLab Inc., the software development platform company, employs 200 people spread over 39 countries, and employees are encouraged to have virtual coffee breaks a few hours each week. In addition to scheduled meetings, the company also provides the space for spontaneous conversation and ad-hoc coffee time. A virtual room (their "random room") is permanently open for people to pop in and out, and is accessible through a URL permanently posted in the random channel of their collaboration platform.

Kartenmacherei, a German card-making company, has gone a step further to provide a coffee space for both remote and colocated employees. Hanging next to the office’s coffee maker is a screen with a webcam, through which remote employees can "bump" into team members who are in the kitchen to make themselves a cup of coffee.

Make Time for "Coffee Time"

Think of the many times you’ve had a little anecdote to share in a meeting, but you held back because it wasn’t work related and you didn’t want to derail the conversation. Our anecdotes, our stories, our broad range of interests all communicate who we are; they make us three-dimensional people, rather than two-dimensional colleagues. That’s where "virtual coffees" come in.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe recently published a collection of strategies remote workers use to bond with their co-workers. One of the contributors, a freelancer, explained the value of meeting others without an agenda.

"I have a few colleagues, other solo practitioners, who I meet with regularly through video chat — sometimes we eat lunch, sometimes we just have coffee. We typically meet once a month for an hour. Since I work for myself, and mostly work alone, I find it’s really nice to have people to talk to about business stuff and personal stuff. And even though we live within driving distance, the virtual setup reduces the time and overhead required to get together in person."

If your team is relatively small—under five or six people, you might not need to regularly schedule these sessions. You might find the time to catch up with personal matters, or to share stories as they come up in your regular meetings. Maybe you can manage to arrange these social gatherings spontaneously when the mood hits you. However, for larger teams, or virtual organisations, if these meetings aren’t scheduled in advance, they might never happen.

Conversations and other kinds of communication that take place by chance in the colocated space, have to be planned in the online space. When you work next to your colleagues, it’s easy to ask someone to join you for a coffee. But in the online space, while planning when to have coffee might feel artificial, if you don’t schedule it, then it might never happen.  

The Value of Unstructured Discussion

In addition to providing team cohesion and an opportunity to connect with team members on different levels, virtual coffees can also help online workers build communication skills.

There is a lot of value in planning meetings, having an agenda, and sticking to the matters at hand. But, there is also value in getting used to the silences that take place online when a group of us, who don’t know each other that well, turn up to a virtual coffee and at some point, there is silence. Even though it might be uncomfortable to spend ten seconds staring at the screen, we stick with it and eventually, someone breaks the silence and we continue talking.

This is a useful skill to develop — the ability to work through silence in online meetings. Those silences provide people who haven’t articulated their thoughts for a while to do so, and they will allow some of us to consolidate our thinking. They might allow us to form an opinion after synthesising what others have said.

In addition to silences, during these informal chats, team members might learn new ways of "passing the baton" between them. While in your formal meetings you might have a set of rules to follow, or your team might regularly rely on one person at the meeting to facilitate the conversation, during virtual coffees, you can discover unstructured ways of conversing.

At non-work related meetings, as we hear things that don’t often come up during regular meetings, we become more curious, we listen more closely, and the relaxed informal tone helps the conversation flow without deliberate facilitation. What we learn subconsciously about each other’s communication styles as we navigate the conversation could make its way into our work-focused meetings, and remove the need for someone to orchestrate the conversation.

Finally, people tend to suppress their emotions less during informal exchanges than in work settings. Think about it. When team members gather to share some time together, to reconnect socially, they tend to laugh louder. They relive their anecdotes as they tell them. They show how much a recent event upset them. Talking to each other without worrying about the outcomes of a conversation or getting through the agenda, helps us to express ourselves more freely and allow more of our personality to surface. Opening up to our colleagues informally, can also help us feel more psychologically safe when we are discussing work.


There is always a caveat.

The main disadvantage of these coffee breaks? They might give us a break from our work, but they don’t give us a break from our screens. If your work involves spending all day at a computer, the last thing you want to do is take your break in front of it too.

But if these interactions are important, find a way to make them work.

If you have been sitting down at your desk all day, stand up and either switch to a wireless headset, or use your laptop’s built-in speakers and microphone. Have a stretch, walk around, or if you stay at your desk, change the position of your screen and adjust your posture. Stretch your fingers and your arms during your virtual coffee time. If you need to take a break from your computer, cut the break short. Then, having been re-energised by your interaction with your colleagues, take a ten minute tech-free break, before going back to work.

About the Author

Pilar Orti is the Director of Virtual not Distant, a consultancy and training company based in London, helping organisations transition to an "office optional" approach, by adopting remote team practices. She hosts the "21st Century Work Life" podcast (and others!) and is co-author of "Thinking Remote: inspiration for leaders of distributed teams". Her book "Online Meetings that Matter" will be released at the end of 2019—or at least, that’s the plan!


This article is part of a series in which we are looking at how teams worldwide are successfully facilitating complex conversations, remotely. We’ll share practical steps that you can take, right now, to upgrade the remote conversations that fill your working days.

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