There’s a chance that I might never have known that an Education Pioneers (EP) colleague is so good at heckling baseball players for baseballs that she once got nine baseballs in one game.
Those kinds of anecdotes should come up at work—so that we can get to know our colleagues well and work better together as a result (and know who to go to baseball games with).
“After pouring millions of dollars into researching how to make teams more productive, Google found that it matters more how a team interacts than who makes up that team,” says Jamie Smith, an associate in Fellowship recruitment at EP. “If team members know each other personally, can depend on each other, and trust each other, they will be more productive and feel safe at work.”
And building stronger ties can also help keep employees on board.
“I’ve been particularly struck by rapid turnover in organizations, especially among ‘millennials,’ which can be partially due to a feeling of greater anonymity at work,” says Alex Jasiulek, an associate for Learning Programs at EP. “When people feel community in a space, they are more connected to the work. If they are more connected to the work, there is more at stake for them to not only stay but to actively contribute to make it stronger.”
EP is a national and largely virtual organization. Our set-up makes it crucial to ensure our team members connect with each other across cities and time zones on a regular basis.
“It’s easy in a virtual organization to lose momentum and motivation when you feel cut off or siloed from other people,” says Jamie Smith. “Creating a fun way for people to connect that doesn’t take a lot of time out of their day can give them the boost they need.”
In the spirit of connecting our team, EP recently piloted a “Virtual Café Live,” a 45 minute, speed-chat activity for our team to get to know more colleagues.
It was a lot of fun and a surprisingly powerful experience that’s worth sharing and replicating. Nearly all EP participants (98%) said they wanted to do it again.
Alex Jasiulek came up with the idea to help EP colleagues build stronger relationships with each other.
“When I first started at EP, I was encouraged to have virtual chats with people on my team and key leaders in the organization,” he explains. “As a people-person, I thought it was important to continue building relationships with folks across the organization both to strengthen my network and community and to facilitate the exchange of ideas and resources.”
Alex spent a year doing virtual chats via Skype with EP team members across the country, and then worked with the Human Assets team to create a formal, “Virtual Café” for the entire organization to speed-chat with each other.
The goal was to “create a fabric of connectedness across the organization where people don’t feel restrained by workstream or title to connect with a colleague,” he says. “We also wanted to create a space where people could meet more colleagues in less time and make it fun.”
Interested in trying your own Virtual Café? Here’s how to get started:
Virtual Café Instructions
Total time (for participants): 45 minutes
Technology: Skype for Business, which has a “breakout” function (or other video calling service with similar functionality). If your team is in the same office, a large conference room will work.
Format: All participants join a video conference call for a 5-minute welcome and introduction. After the introduction, participants:
Pair up for a one-on-one breakout session with another colleague for a short chat (~7-10 minutes each). (Note: for breakouts in Skype for Business, you simply initiate a second video call, which puts the first call on hold. When you disconnect the second call, you return to the first.)
After the first breakout session is complete, all participants return to the full group before pairing up for the second one-on-one breakout session.
Repeat for the third breakout session. Each participant should have a 7-10 minute conversation with three different colleagues.
Email announcement/invitation: Send an email with a calendar invitation one month in advance to explain the activity, with a link to the sign-up document (download here), and a sign-up deadline (e.g. one week before the event).
Matching: One week before the event, close the sign-ups, and match participants. To ensure that your team members connect with new people, match people across departments and levels. Send out the matches in advance of the event as a reminder and to encourage accountability to attend.
Prompts: Here are some prompts for your participants (more are available in the downloadable template):
If you could live anywhere for one year where would you move to?
Where is your happy place?
What’s your hobby or passion? How’d you discover it?
Virtual Café Tips:
Keep it fun.
“When coming up with conversation topics I believe fun or fantastical is better than serious or work-related. The purpose is to connect on a personal level, so find topics that may spark laughter,” says Leah Webster, executive assistant for EP.
Be structured, especially in virtual environments.
Jamie Smith recommends that you:
Ensure someone on your tech team can troubleshoot, because you never know when technology will fail and something could go wrong.
Set strict deadlines for when people can RSVP and cancel so that you can plan for matches (and if you have the knowhow, create an Excel formula to make the matches for you-- it’ll save you a lot of time).
Be clear with your directions. When doing a virtual activity, sometimes it’s hard to read nonverbal cues (or impossible if you can’t have video), so it’s important to clearly articulate goals and explicitly tell people how and when to do something so there’s no confusion or time wasted.
Don’t undervalue connection. Taking 45 minutes out of your day to connect with each other could help you and your colleagues also connect more deeply to your work and mission.
“There is purpose in our work. Whether we are on the front lines or behind the scenes, all of us are advancing a worthy cause. But that purpose can get lost if there isn’t a personal connection with colleagues. If I didn’t connect with colleagues and learn about our work, wins, and challenges, I wouldn’t have any real connection to the mission. Without that connection I might as well be working anywhere,” explains Leah Webster.