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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