A business leader shares her experience building connection with her virtual team during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a partner and head of English translation at a medium-sized translation firm in Montreal, I have hired and onboarded a team of four translators since the start of the pandemic—all virtually. I never would have thought this was possible before. But I was wrong, and I have learned a great deal about the importance of creating connection and strong teams at work.
The pandemic has been a time of great isolation for many. In building my team, my goal was to make everyone feel like they mattered and like they were contributing to our company in a meaningful way. Here’s some of the things that I am doing and what it means for me in the future.
The first thing I do is be vulnerable. I know that if I open up, others will do the same. I deliberately try to share the ups and downs of my life. I talk about the challenges of parenting, about feeling overwhelmed by too much work, or even about how I made a mistake and could do better. But I also talk about the joyful sides: epic outdoor adventures with my family, books I’m reading, what I’m making for dinner and my love of weightlifting.
Being vulnerable doesn’t mean revealing your deepest secrets. It means going the extra mile to share something about yourself that shows others you are human too. Doing this is hard enough in person, and it is even more challenging virtually. But when leaders are vulnerable, it shows that they are willing to talk about the hard stuff, and that opens up the floor for people to come to them for help. This is critical in a pandemic situation. Leaders have shifted into more of a coaching and support role. Now we need to help people, in whatever way we can, and it starts by showing our human side.
The second thing I do is intentionally develop my personal and professional relationships with my colleagues. I create space for us to come together as we no longer eat lunch at the same table or gather around the water cooler. I hold regular meetings with my employees, both one-on-one and as a team. My individual meetings focus on both professional and personal aspects, as the two have become completely intertwined. Someone’s challenging family situation can impact their time management and, therefore, their feeling that they are making a significant contribution at work. So we talk about it. Someone else might be struggling with sleep, so we talk about good sleep habits and how to make changes. When there is space to talk about these issues, and connection and trust are present, people feel safe and start opening up.
I also hold two team meetings per week. On Mondays, we catch up on the weekend and spend time learning about specific job-related subjects, such as punctuation or grammar points. On Fridays, we do our highs and lows to share what went well that week and what didn’t. I keep these meetings short, usually 15 minutes. The idea is to get to know each other better and to figure out how we can help each other. The deeper purpose is to create a sense of belonging and a strong team.
The third thing I do is recognize, recognize, recognize. As much as possible, I tell people “Thank you for your great work today,” or “You really helped me with this job,” or “I love working with you because I know you’ll always deliver.” If I don’t say it, no one will. And when I say it, it creates space for others to do the same. Leaders don’t need a fancy recognition program to do this. But we do need to figure out when and how people like to be recognized. There’s nothing wrong with asking someone this. In fact, it avoids potentially awkward situations.
More than ever, people are seeking meaning in their work. When we feel recognized, when we know our work is contributing to something bigger than ourselves, when we have opportunities to use our strengths, we find meaning and we are happier at work. Recognition takes vulnerability and it takes intention. When done right, it reassures people that they are doing a good job—that they matter—and that gives them meaning.
I have found that building connection virtually takes great courage. It takes courage to be vulnerable, to communicate with intention and to recognize. These things pose enough challenges as it is. Add in the potential awkwardness of virtual calls and it can feel impossible. But leaders of all kinds must take the leap and demonstrate courage in these trying times because they are the ones setting the example. If they surge forward with courage, others will follow.
I never want to go back! The takeaways from my experience building my virtual team are invaluable. I think that I am closer to my team now than I would have been if the pandemic had never happened and I had onboarded them all in person. So I cannot imagine stopping anything that I am doing, whether it be virtually or back at the office. The pandemic has shown me how important connection is at work. How possible it is even virtually. Connection equals meaning, and that is what matters now.
Judy Murphy is a partner at Cartier et Lelarge where she is head of English translation.