“The three grand essentials of happiness are: Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.”
~ George Washington Burnap
This quote was taped on a wall near the elevators at Seton. I read it there in 2006 and the simple truth of it as a formula for building a strong team culture with remote teams has stuck with me for years.
I’m currently sitting – okay hiding – in my seven-year-old daughter’s room on a Sunday morning writing this article. The best seat in here is a pink, fluffy bean bag, and I’m in my pajamas. Why? Because my husband and I are trading off work hours seven days a week. Saturday and Sunday are supposed to be my “several hours in a row to write content and training uninterrupted,” but I’ve already been shown three fresh TikTok videos and asked how to cut raw Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage without it smooshing flat.
Houston, we’ve lost control.
Even though this stay-at-home order is necessary, it has definitely put a dent into the three grand essentials for happiness that are necessary for building remote team culture!
The good news is that we, as leaders, can intentionally work to find new ways to add these essentials back in for ourselves and our teams.
1. Something to do – (control)
We’ve lost control over when we work, how we work, and, definitely, where. Some more than others. For instance, my neighbor works in accounting for a hospital here in Austin and she is on conference calls revising budgets, applying for grants, and catching up to new regulations all day. She’s burnt out. She just wants time to use a hairdryer and see sunlight.
My other neighbor owns a Bird’s Barber Shop and has been home twiddling his thumbs for five weeks, worrying about how to pay the shop’s rent and workers. I tried to convince him to put a chair in his lawn, don a mask, and cut all of our shaggy hair, but he understandably declined. He’s in his seventies and his wife has a lung condition. I see him walking his dog often now, trying to fill his time (but his lawn looks amazing!)
Where does your team fall on this spectrum?
As a leader, you could help provide your team a better sense of control. Is someone balancing ever-present family and work? Cut out some meetings. Move work around. Is someone feeling useless? Move a project to her and ask her to lead part of your next team meeting. Let your team members vent to you every once in awhile about how they are feeling disoriented or angry. You can help by catching the deluge from their storm cloud and offer the water back to them as fuel to grow.
Restoring control builds a stronger remote team culture.
2. Someone to love – (connection)
Wait, Cynthia, what does love have to do with the workplace? This isn’t Tinder.
I hear ya. This is about human connection. Sure, we are still having task meetings, but culture and connection are created in conversation. The conversations that happen over lunch, in your cube, or as you ride together to an offsite meeting… those are the conversations where deep connections and important cultures are built. We’ve lost so many of those opportunities.
And masks. They are super important to keeping each other safe. But, dang, even my iPhone doesn’t recognize me in a mask.
Have you noticed that people wearing masks have sorted themselves out in generally two directions? At HEB, people will either try harder to smile with their eyes and greet each other in a friendly way or they act like they can’t see you. Why try when it’s so hard to hear/understand each other when 3/4 of your face is covered?
Connection. That’s why.
Healthcare workers who are dressed in head-to-toe personal protection equipment (PPE) in New York have have started wearing a large photo of their unmasked, smiling faces on the front of their gowns just to create a more comforting connection with their patients. In other words, we long for friendly faces who truly SEE us and keep tabs on us. We need the inside jokes, the gossip, and the time to vent about that client.
As a leader, you must now intentionally create opportunities for your remote team to connect casually to reinforce a caring culture.
Encourage side conversations where two people meet up virtually for coffee, hold a virtual lunch once a week where anyone can join to sit and eat and chat, or start seeding that office “off-topic” chat thread with a personal story or a funny meme. Have an optional game hour where you play Pictionary, Charades, or trivia. Initiate an idea and a space to connect.
3. Something to hope for (meaning)
One of the hardest aspects of this brave, new world is not being able to reliably predict our futures. That summer trip to the beach? Gone. That Maroon 5 concert you were going to see in June? Vanished. Those training classes you were going to take/run? Nope. Seeing your mom for her 80th birthday? Sorry. That product launch you were going to wow the market with in July? Postponed. Watching your kid walk across the stage after 18 years of loving, nurturing, pushing, and worrying? Smoke.
There are real things to grieve here in the present. And then there are weird, vague, imagined things to grieve. That feeling of dread for the future as we imagine the worst “what if’s” is called anticipated grief. We are anticipating more future loss, but we aren’t quite sure from which direction it will come. It steals our hope for the future.
As leaders, we need to help our teams focus back in on the present and reconnect to the reasons we continue to work and strive. Do you serve nonprofits in your business? Remind the team of the people you are helping with stories and testimonials. Do you work in traffic analysis for toll roads? Research other countries that are ahead of the US on reopening and show how traffic patterns are returning. Bring in a guest speaker who has faced diversity and overcome, or who has benefited from your work. Get clear on why we press on and pass it on to others. We all need something to hope for.
I have a feeling that even as social distancing is eased that many of us will continue to work from a distance. We will grow together and figure this new world out, and we can be better for it. It just takes some deliberate planning and conversation to translate our current in-person best practices into distance ones. Want some help?