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Setting the Virtual Table: How to Build a Culture of Belonging One Cyber-Meal at a Time

This week’s article is an article by Jeffrey Hull, CEO of Leadershift, Inc.  It is a companion to his interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World that aired on Tuesday, September 21st, 2021.

 

After a year of forced remote work, Zoom overload, and a substantial loss of work-life balance for many of us, the news is stark: virtual work is here to stay. That is according to workplace expert, Dave Burkus, who I had the privilege of interviewing recently for the Institute of Coaching at Harvard. But the news is not all bad. As Dave points out, research shows that many benefits outweigh the drawbacks once we learn how to optimize our work lives in virtual spaces: we have more work-time flexibility, no commute, can spend less on work “costumes” and can potentially work anywhere there is a good internet connection. Virtual work can also increase a worker’s sense of autonomy, which according to research on self-efficacy by Richard Ryan, PhD at the Center for Self Determination Theory is one of three evidence-based factors, along with competence and relatedness, that underpin performance and motivation.

The trouble is that the third factor, relatedness, is particularly difficult to maintain, let alone enhance, in cyber-space. So how do we build a sense of connection, community, and belonging when we’re sitting alone watching tiny boxes on a two-dimensional screen? The answer may surprise you. As Dave points out in his excellent book, Working from Anywhere, the key to connecting in virtual spaces is being intentional about re-creating those experiences that foster cohesion and collegiality.  First among them? Food.

For centuries, human tribes have communed by breaking bread together. Either sitting around the fire or the dining table, the simple act of sharing a meal ensemble has been part of all human cultures. As Burkus describes, a perfect example can be found in Sweden, with the “cake and coffee” culture known as “Fika:” where employees share a drink and a bite to eat with co-workers (not alone at their desks like many Americans) on a daily basis.  It is a deeply important ritual that underpins their well-known collegial, yet high-performing, work culture.

Yet, as regenerative design expert Ben Preston points out, it is challenging to “feel” that same emotional arousal provided by the lived experience of taste, smell, tone, and touch through a two-dimensional screen. The human parasympathetic system needs a certain amount of stimulation to mediate the “fight or flight” response, to bring us into a state of calm rapport.  Eye contact, gestures, smiles, and yes, the arousal of our taste buds and sense of smell, are keen aspects of how humans build trust. So how do we do it virtually?

Well, if you have ever watched a cooking show on TV, or recently saw Stanley Tucci devouring homemade pasta on his gastronomic tour of Italy for CNN, you know that just watching someone eating delicious food can make your taste buds tingle. Breaking bread in cyberspace can work. But you have to pay attention to the details. So here is my five-step recipe for virtual dining that is sure to delight, and inspire, a high-performing team.

  1. Get serious: Food and drink are the lifeblood of vitality for all of us. When we dispense with mealtime gatherings due to remote work we are missing out on something important.  Leaders take note:  creating an opportunity for your team to come together over a shared meal – even if very much BYOB – is serious stuff.  You may not be able to take your team out for lunch or dinner, but you can bring them together, turn off the “to-do” list and share the intimacy of a meal. In fact, by having your team bring their favorite foods, or perhaps a special drink concoction into the mix, the experience can not only be fun but can become a cross-cultural learning experience.
  1. Get personal: Food and drink, are actually just the appetizer, for it is in the stories we share about the highs and lows of living life—taking care of friends and family, overcoming obstacles, watching our kids grow and achieve—where bonds are forged. The virtual meal is an opportunity for leaders to invite everyone into a shared experience. Norms, myths, symbols, and intangible “moments” are what coalesce into a culture of teaming (and psychological safety).

It is important, however, for the circle to be complete by encouraging — not demanding — everyone, even introverts, participates. The key for leaders in this regard is to be the role model: share with humility and vulnerability some triumph or failure, which gives others permission to let down their hair, be human, and imperfect. Cultures of safety and trust are not born of competition, one-upmanship, or “sucking up” to the boss.  It is imperative that the interaction be facilitated well — that employees feel relaxed, supported, welcomed in their diversity and uniqueness.

  1. Get physical: Another key element of meal gatherings that is often taken for granted in the “real world” in the sense of tactile connection afforded by varying our somatic movements, postures, seating arrangements, and so on. To include this physical and energetic component in cyberspace requires intention and attention – to detail.  A leader might suggest people “dress up” (remember office attire?) or wear a costume.

It might be appropriate to suggest participants invite significant others to join in, or bring a child or pet to the “dinner table”.  One way to bring sensory experience into the meal is to have everyone bring a symbolic object that is meaningful for them — to “show and tell” — and share the meaning with which an object or symbol is imbued.  Another possibility is a poetry reading or musical interlude. Often at pre-covid gatherings, we would invite a co-worker to play an instrument or sing. This same activity can be accomplished online: a musical interlude adds color and flair to a virtual meal. Finally, consider adding variation in the use of physical space:  have everyone join in on some dance moves, stretch, or breathe together.  The key: get up and move!

  1. Get game: Last, but not least, in contrast to all of the above; don’t take the whole thing too seriously.  What makes gatherings special, memorable, and relaxing in the “real world” is also true virtually: stuff happens. Make space for slip-ups, jokesters, break-downs. Take time for fun and games. Dining together, virtually, should be what I would call “serious fun.”

One of my clients plays virtual charades with her team, another had a cocktail invention contest (e.g. They sent around a list of ingredients, all non-alcoholic, and then proceeded to find creative ways to mix and match for the best flavor combos). Another leader held an impromptu karaoke event on Zoom, which brought out the best and worst – in everyone.  The key here is to be playful, light, inclusive (invite the introverts, gently, to participate), and serious, all in the name of bonding.

 

There is a reason why the most important scene, the finale, in one of the longest-running Broadway musicals, recently celebrating 25 years of success across the world, is set in a restaurant around a big dining table. The cast of RENT sings the famous anthem La Vie Boheme while, eating, drinking, and dancing on the table. This ritual celebration symbolizes the ultimate experience we all crave as humans: to belong.

So as the RENT cast might say, there is no time like today. If you are leading a remote team, get serious, and get playful. Bring everyone together on Zoom, Teams, or whatever platform you like, set aside work for a bit, and instead, set a virtual table, eat, drink and make merry. Your team will be glad you did.

 

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

 

About the Author
Jeffrey Hull, Ph.D. BCC is CEO of Leadershift, Inc. a leadership development consultancy based in New York City and author of the best-selling book, FLEX: The Art and Science of Leadership in A Changing World, from Penguin-Random House in 2019. A highly sought-after speaker, consultant, and executive coach with over twenty-five years working with C-suite leaders worldwide, Dr. Hull is also a Clinical Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School and adjunct Professor of Leadership at New York University. He is the Director of Global Development at the Institute of Coaching, a Harvard Medical School Affiliate. Dr. Hull has been featured in Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, Investors Business Daily, and a wide range of media. He can be reached at www.jeffreyhull.com

Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

The New Wave of Networking Online

This blog is a guest post from Gabrielle Gardiner, it coordinates with Jacob Morgan’s interview titled The Future Leader: Skills and Mindsets to Succeed in the Next Decade that aired on January 12, 2021.

 

Since networking digitally is the only way to connect with potential mentors, business partners, and peers these days, it needs to be a priority. To succeed in your online networking efforts, you need to be both tenacious and conscientious. Take a look at our seven tips to help you level up your networking game in the wake of the pandemic.

1) Update Your Online Presence

Especially in today’s tough job market, your networking skills are essential to finding the position that’s right for you. Make sure your LinkedIn and your professional references are updated. After all, your professional contacts are strategic partners in your job search. However, you don’t want to be caught asking for a reference without having talked to someone for a year or two. Your network will help you immensely, but only if you keep up your relationships.

2) Look Beyond Linked-In

Maybe LinkedIn is your go-to social network right now, but why not diversify the platforms you use? There are plenty of alternatives for professional networking that are merely a Google search away. Whether you’re a web developer or a fashion designer, you’ll find niche social networking platforms that you might not have realized existed. It’s worth your while to dedicate extra effort to find networking opportunities beyond the basics like LinkedIn.

3) Reconnect to Your Advantage

Now is the time to reconnect with your professional contacts and polish your personal brand so you can forge new connections. Digital networking’s lack of geographic barriers opens up a plethora of exciting opportunities. Take advantage of it! There has never been a more important time to participate in online conferences, webinars, digital workshops, and more. Check out the graphic below for actionable tips on how to thrive while networking online in the wake of the pandemic.

4) Attend Virtual Conferences + Other Events

Although you won’t be able to enjoy in-person connections at conferences any time soon, it’s just as effective to engage with speakers and fellow attendees through a virtual conference. These digital conferences usually have easy-to-use platforms or apps. There’s a level playing field for post-conference networking. There’s no pressure for in-person lunches or follow-up coffee dates because everyone is networking online. With clever communication strategies, you have just as much of a chance of getting noticed by an industry leader as anyone else.

5) Participate in Free Webinars

Regardless of your industry or stage of your career, participating in webinars is always worth it. You get the opportunity to network with fellow participants and industry leaders like you would at a conference, but usually in a smaller group. Be sure to introduce yourself in the chat channel. Participate in the corresponding webinar chat conversation. Also, there is almost always a Q&A portion of the webinar, which presents a great opportunity to stand out. Be sure to share what you learned from or appreciated about the webinar on LinkedIn or Twitter after the webinar, too.

6) Sign up for an Online Course

Most online courses involve a cost, but they’re a great way to both build skills and connect with like-minded peers in your field. Also, the accompanying Slack communities where fellow students or graduates of a program can connect and share ideas is a goldmine for networking. When you sign up for a workshop, coding bootcamp, or other course you’ll automatically join a cohort of people who are serious about learning and self-improvement. Who knows, you might even find yourself interested in a new career path.

7) Join Online Professional Associations 

Although there is usually a membership fee, the immediate networking opportunities with like-minded people and leaders in your field make the cost worth it. In a digital format, professional associations can offer access to exclusive online resources and notify you first about virtual conferences. Industry-specific organizations are a great way to meet leaders in your niche and possibly find a mentor.

Virtually conveying your expertise, personality, and soft-skills in an authentic way is easier said than done. Maintaining your current professional connections is not always a simple task while everyone is working remotely. Stay consistent with your networking efforts despite the challenge, and your work will definitely pay off in the end.

 

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify and iHeartRADIO. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

 

About the Author

Gabrielle Gardiner is an NYC-based content creator who enjoys writing helpful articles about professional development for companies like LiveCareer. She’s passionate about sharing her insights to empower people to succeed in their careers.

 

Photo by Akson on Unsplash