Building extraordinary relationships: Fostering deeper human connection in a hybrid workplace

6 minute read

Creating a connected and thriving workplace culture is harder than it’s ever been. Our new choreography for connection in a hybrid reality requires us to build relationships from a distance. Couple that with the unique challenge for organizations to manage five active generations in the workplace, and let’s just say it’s complicated.

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From the traditionalists to Gen Z, every generation has a diverse set of needs to feel a sense of belonging. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, prioritizing the power of human connection to understand your people and build deeper relationships can set your company culture up for success, regardless of the context we’re living in.

After collaborating with organizations around the globe over the past few years through delivering keynotes and workshops, I have consistently observed a common set of challenges in building connected hybrid cultures:

  • How can we get employees to see the bigger picture and not just their role?
  • How do we improve staff morale and job satisfaction during difficult times?
  • How can we lead a remote team when everyone handles work differently?
  • Bottom line: How can you engage your team when they’re not in the same room?

Remote meetings are here to stay. The cost savings and convenience of meeting in a virtual space instead of getting on a plane or even a subway car to meet face-to-face are just too compelling – even though we all feel the limitations of these virtual meetings on a gut level. If you want to build more connected cultures remotely, here are some practical ways to make your virtual meetings feel intimate and interactive.

A woman sits at a table in her home. She smiles as she looks at the screen of her laptop. A dog sits in the chair next to her.

Engage them early

Your meeting or presentation actually starts hours, if not days, before the scheduled time. Well before a presentation, you should figure out what your team’s top priorities are, so you can structure your content to be meaningful to them. If you’re presenting at a conference, talk to the organizers and eavesdrop on some social media conversations among your likely audience. If you’re presenting in a meeting, you should know what’s top of mind for the team – use that information to stay laser-focused on what matters most.

When the meeting is set to begin, sign in to the video call about five minutes early so you can start connecting with people informally. Then start your actual talk with a quick check-in. People logging in to virtual events are often distracted or overwhelmed by life outside the frame of the camera. Provoke positive emotion by asking simple questions like, “What made you smile today?” Whenever possible, address people by name. Remember, a person’s name is the most important word in any conversation.

Hook them with a story

There are a number of effective ways to start a presentation or meeting. You can ask a question, share a shocking statistic or dive right in with a provocative statement. But in the virtual environment, I believe stories are the most effective way to engage an audience. When you start with a story, you make your audience feel something real right away. You hook them with an emotional roller coaster. The more authentic you can be, the more you’ll connect with your audience. Think about the questions the people in your audience are asking themselves and choose a story that speaks to those concerns. Build your narrative around their priorities, not yours.

Become a broadcaster

We all became broadcasters when video conferencing became the norm in our hybrid world of work. The key difference between our remote presence versus our in-person presence is how we describe what’s happening.

For example, you may have heard of the traditional speaking formula, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” In the virtual space, giving the audience that play-by-play, drawing out the thought map, makes it easy for people to follow along. When audience members ask questions, keep that play-by-play going. Recognize the questioner first. Make sure the entire audience knows who asked the question and where they’re coming from. Then pause, reflect on the question and answer it with enthusiasm and appreciation. Throughout the presentation, describe what you’re doing: Are you reading the chat box? Are you taking notes? Are you looking up a specific piece of research on your screen? Bring the audience into your experience. It’s easy to look distracted in the virtual medium. Describing your actions helps establish purpose and intent.

Switch up your speaking modes

Capturing your audience’s attention is the first challenge. But keeping it is an even bigger challenge – especially when they’re dialing in from home, where it’s so easy to become distracted. Your goal, whether you’re running a meeting or giving a talk, is to achieve consistent engagement. Start by setting expectations: Why are you meeting today? Is the goal to share a status update, make a decision, solve a problem, strengthen relationships? Set an intention for the meeting that gives your team something to do, so they have a reason to stay engaged.

Keep in mind that attention spans are much shorter in the virtual setting because of all the potential distractions. You’re competing for your audience’s attention with the emails coming in on their computers, the texts coming in on their phones, the siren call of their social media apps and family members who may be making noise in the background or outright interrupting them. At the same time, as an image on a screen, you are much less engaging than you would be as a live human in the room.

2 men and 2 women sit in a small board room, having a meeting. They share a single video screen. A woman appears virtually on the screen.

Over video call, it’s particularly easy for people to fall into the bystander effect. This is a psychological phenomenon, more formally known as “diffusion of responsibility,” in which people are less likely to take action when in the presence of a large group of strangers.

So, you’re in your Zoom chat, you throw out a question and… crickets. People are waiting for someone else to jump in. If you have good relationships with some of your attendees, call on them by name to help avoid the dead air. You can also have a few backup questions to ask to spark thoughts and ideas from your group to help bypass the bystander effect. Some events lend themselves well to breakout rooms. This is a great way to get the audience engaged. Send them off with a task and a question for five or 10 minutes, then have them report back.

One popular technique for adaptive learning is the “think-pair-share” method: Throw out a question, give them some time to think about it, then get your group to pair up in breakout rooms to discuss their thoughts. Then have them share afterward in your main room. Reporting back gives the audience a chance to feel heard. Engagement points like these are vital with virtual presentations. The more actively involved the audience is, the more they will listen and take action long after the meeting is over.

Consistency cultivates trust

If you’re speaking, have your host introduce you not just with your formal bio, but with a story or experience that humanizes who you are and what makes your accomplishments unique. This can help move your audience emotionally and encourage them to connect with you before you’ve even said a word. As a host and MC, this has always worked well on stage, and I’ve found it is equally effective in the virtual setting. Remember, it’s harder to read people’s nonverbal cues and understand their personalities through a screen. Consistency is key if you want to build trust with an audience, a client or a group of colleagues you don’t already know well. If you’re the joker cracking one-liners in email, and then you present with a serious tone and deadpan delivery in a meeting, people will wonder who the real you actually is. Whatever your vibe is – humor, edge, warmth – keep it consistent to help cultivate trust.

When in doubt, laugh

Virtual communication can do a lot to keep us connected. We can text, email, FaceTime, Zoom. We can communicate across distances in a way that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. But virtual communication has some real limitations. Video calls, as technologically amazing as they are, simply aren’t the same as face-to-face conversations.

One crucial thing we lose when we’re isolated from other people is laughter. We are 30 times more likely to laugh with another person than we are to laugh by ourselves. Laughter is a key part of the social glue that holds us together. Neurologically, laughter releases dopamine, which not only makes us healthier and happier, but it can even help us pay better attention, learn more and be more productive.

So, the next time you’re scheduled to join a virtual meeting, take a minute before the call starts to get yourself in a joyful frame of mind. Get to a place where the smile on your face is going to be genuine. And don’t rush too quickly into the business of the meeting – check in first. Share a funny story about your life. In a medium where communication can be difficult, taking a few minutes to connect with real emotion and even laughter before you get down to work could make all the difference.

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Riaz Meghji
Riaz Meghji is a human connection expert and author of the book Every Conversation Counts: The 5 Habits of Human Connection That Build Extraordinary Relationships. His insights have been featured in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review and Financial Post. He is also an accomplished broadcaster with 17 years of television hosting experience, including for Citytv’s Breakfast Television, MTV Canada, TEDxVancouver, CTV News and the Toronto International Film Festival.Read more by Riaz Meghji