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From Social Distancing to Distant Socialising

Organising a digital global HR Summit for the Südwolle Group, an international yarn production company

The setting:

Like almost any other organisation these days, our client was forced to dramatically change their yearly global HR team meeting. Ordinarily, approximately 15 participants would have met for a lush two-day programme full of activities, dinners, and plant tours. Now they had to stick their (virtual) heads together in cyber space. Sure enough, the general agenda has always been about evaluating the team’s work of the past year and formulating goals for the coming one. But an equally important purpose of the meeting was to facilitate bonding between the team and the celebration of the achieved goals. This was all the more necessary since this team, working in different countries would only ever meet in person once a year. Strasser & Strasser was tasked to translate this event into a digital firework. Thus, the challenge was to create an environment where people could connect with each other and “feel the energy” while sitting miles away in their home offices.

What we know about effective distant socialising: a bit of theory

Human interaction in the digital space is inherently different from interaction in physical co-presence.

Human beings are experts in direct interaction. We can bond with each other and form effective communities to tackle problems together rather than alone. These communities are especially successful if all members feel connected to each other, that is, they know, can situate, and trust each other. This connectivity is frequently built and maintained by small signals such as keeping eye contact when communicating and closely observing your interlocutor’s body language, choice of clothing, and tone of voice. This works all very well when communicating directly.

However, digital communication is a form of indirect interaction which is mediated - or rather: interrupted - by technology. This interconnection leads to a loss of information: Eye contact is hardly possible, non-verbal information is limited through smaller camera frames and lower video quality, and physical interaction becomes completely impossible.

Over the last few months, we spent much time researching and experimenting so as to understand how we can “spread the energy” and create bonds between people in this new, digital work environment. The Global HR Summit was a fantastic opportunity for us to put our findings to a test.

Three important guidelines for successful digital team events:

Active appreciation of the achieved: Around 300,000 years ago, there were nine different species of humans walking the earth. Today, there is just one: the homo sapiens. The reasons why our ancestors were so successful was a sophisticated capacity for abstract thought and communication. The ability to strategize, plan, and cooperate as a team with a common goal was our ultimate weapon (Longrich, 2019). Therefore, one important and often underestimated way to create community spirit is to actively stress what was achieved as a team and prompt people to talk about their individual contribution. During our HR Summit, we asked two members of the board, including Klaus Steger, the CEO of the company, to deliver a keynote that stressed achievements and acknowledged the hard work that had made them possible. Furthermore, each member was given the floor to talk about their personal achievements over the last year, what they learned, and what they would like to improve. The appreciation from top management and the permission to talk about your own contribution - “something that makes you proud” - while others listened, created a feeling of community, belonging, and successful team work despite the distanced nature of the interaction.

Being “present” in the digital world: Being truly present is often understood as being “in the moment, in the room”. But how can this be signalled when there is no physical room and no common time zone? Let us share some developed techniques of showing “presence” during a digital meeting:

  • Simple rule #1 - Not to be distracted: During our summit we implemented a strict no-email, no call, no admin work rule. Closing your email programme, browser, or chat is a simple way to ensure that you actively stay with the group during the entire time.

  • Underestimated rule #2 - Verbal presence: Non-verbal signals are less visible in the digital space, leading to communication being more focussed on the verbal information. As nodding and keeping eye contact is not easily doable or effective any longer, verbal references become more crucial. In practice, this meant that we encouraged the team to pass the word to each other and to actively refer to each other’s comments. A “Thank you for your comment, Catherine, let me take your idea even further …”, can make an immense difference. Additionally, we moderated the meeting actively and strictly to ensure that questions were answered precisely, intervene when the discussion digressed, and give each team member the opportunity to speak. This created a fruitful ground for creative dialogues.

  • Surprising rule #3 - Non-verbal reactions: One way to create connectivity between people in the digital space, is to bring their physical reality into the digital space. This can be done, for example, by holding “real” objects into the camera and, hence, actively acknowledging the reality of the other. During our summit, we used so-called “communication cards”. Before the meeting, we sent cards that showed a heart, a thumbs-up, or impressions such as “awesome”, to name a few. During the meeting we encouraged team members to hold cards reflecting their emotional reaction into the camera while others were speaking. We received the feedback that this had a much more intense effect than writing a comment in the chat or using emoji functions.

Being present in the digital space is very demanding and requires active management. Nevertheless, it is vital to ensure the feeling of “belonging” in a team.

The usage of digital tools:

With all fancy tools that have come up recently - such as breakout rooms, whiteboards, or digital polls - it is very tempting to indulge and use them without considering what they should achieve in each setting. However, each new tool carries the risk of distracting the group from the discussion. A simple screen share means that individual video screens become too small for cooperative interactions. In our meeting we considered carefully which agenda points were designed to create results, and which were important for human interaction and creative exchange. For result driven agenda points, we used polls, white boards and breakout groups. For creative dialogues we stayed in the plenum or even went completely “old school” and asked participants to call each other on their mobiles and go for a walk. To know exactly when to make use of digital tools depends on the setting of the meeting. Careful consideration of these questions is time spent valuably!

By applying, among others, these three guidelines, we have been able to make “distant socialising” a true team experience and bring the team members closer to each other. At the same time, the team achieved a great deal in terms of “measurable outcomes”: Ideas were creative, discussions fruitful, and next steps were clear. Our investment in long check-in and feedback rounds payed off and the CEO, Klaus Steger, congratulated us for a highly successful digital meeting.

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