Last week during a bike ride with my cycling team, one teammate said something that rocked my world: “I don’t even know what my colleagues at work look like.”
I almost fell off my bike.
This young woman, who was a college grad and had only just entered the workforce, had landed her first job in a culture where Zoom cameras stay off and mics stay muted unless you’re presenting.
“Well, they don’t know me either," she added, shrugging. "I feel weird putting my camera on when no one else does, and I don’t really dare switching on my mic and saying something, because it feels like it would need to be a genius contribution, and I’m not quite sure I have something big to say.”
This situation, which we would call a 'lack of compression', is what should be the number one fear of any ambitious executive right now. It is killing all your integration efforts, your culture, your performance, and with ongoing regular turnover, it will isolate, separate, and fragmentize every department in your company.
The goal of team integration is to ultimately get to a stage of what we call ‘convergence’ – a fully integrated team that experiences unity in flow while enabling all the important benefits of diversity and individual contributions. In order to achieve this, a certain level of ‘compression’ is needed to bring individuals together, enable them to create some healthy warmth and friction, bring out differences of perspectives and ideas, and ultimately learn to grow and think beyond themselves, as an integral part of the organization, in a manner we call ‘Start With Synthesis’.
The easiest ways to achieve compression is to be physically together wherever possible and feasible, to foster continuous discussion of differences, to strengthen individual relationships beyond the immediate work subject, and to build communication structures that are rich, frequent, and allow for sparks of creativity and thinking outside of the box.
What do we do about that in an environment that doesn’t allow people to physically be together? Finding the answer to that is in my view the big challenge of this decade.
Here are a few quick tips that might help you get started:
Cameras on wherever possible. I hear the bandwidth problem a lot as a reason for switching off cameras, but I believe that’s often more of an excuse than an explanation. I understand that many companies have implemented a no-camera-needed policy to give their people some space. That move comes with a lot of well-meaning intention. But it will hurt you and your people in the long run. If you as a team can agree to leave cameras on wherever possible, and you embrace our new work reality where it is okay to not have your hair done, wear a blazer, and smile into the camera non-stop, you will discover that it is possible to just be real with each other in a Zoom room. Seeing your colleagues while they speak enables a whole different level of knowledge of the person. Let’s not cut out more of our senses for each other than we already have to.
Involve everyone in the room. Many meetings consist of a presentation of one or a few people while everyone is listening. While in some situations and with big audiences, this might be necessary, I believe that there should be space for everyone’s involvement with any group up to 30 people. Dedicate some time to that in as many meetings as you can. If you have 30 people and 10 minutes, ask everyone to share one single word about how their day was so far. If you have 10 people and 15 minutes, ask people to briefly share their biggest win and challenge of the day or week. Get creative! But make sure everyone has the feeling to have participated, not only consumed.
Bring out new and differing voices. With not a lot of strong relationships established, especially those colleagues who are new or who differ in their ideas or approach tend to be silent and not rock the boat. Missing out on their input can mean getting stuck in unhelpful strategies, creating massive problems for others, or setting out on a route that won’t be supported by everyone. Draw out all voices so they can be heard, discussed, and acknowledged. Otherwise, they will come out when it is too late and creates conflict, or they simply leave the room.
Encourage and help build cross-functional connections. What used to be the chat by the watercooler or stopping by someone’s office on the way to lunch has mostly been eradicated in the last two years. These random and unstructured conversations across departments is where a lot of creativity and innovation happens – and during tough times, where a lot of built-up pressure can be released. Partner up with other leaders and facilitate introductions, virtual lunch- or coffee dates, and mixers that can be done online.
Create in-person experiences as much as you can. It might not always be possible or even smart to do everything in person anymore. But that puts so much more weight, importance, and potential on the times when you actually do meet as a team. Make these experiences as frequent as possible and focus them on those activities that make being together especially valuable – creative or strategic workshops, team building events, co-working on clients, and simply a place for laughing and being human together.
Creating compression used to be an automatic mechanism. We now have the chance to engineer and create it in ways that bring out all the potential we have in the room – virtual or physical.
Don’t miss out on your chance to get this right now. You will regret it.