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Mark de RondHuman beings are surprisingly good at drawing inferences from the behaviour of others, even based on cursory observations. MIT’s Sandy Pentland credits the power of “thin-slicing” to “honest signals” – the idea that, over millennia of social evolution, we have developed ways to effectively co-ordinate with other human beings through facial expressions, verbal cues, gestures and scent. They “work” because typically we are able to connect with others face to face.

The global “lockdown” owing to COVID-19 (coronavirus) has forced many of us to work in teams while working from home. One of the many challenges this poses is obvious: without the ability to communicate face to face (which, according to Pentland, accounts for 35 percent of variation in team performance), how are we help teams perform at their best?

The good news is that video conferencing, whilst not perfect, isn’t a bad substitute. However, it has caveats. Following are some suggestions to help make the most from today’s conferencing technologies:

1. Limit the number of people on your call.

As more people join the call, the greater will be the temptation for some of them to “tune out”. This observation ties in nicely with research on team size generally, where studies suggest a maximum number of five or seven, beyond which members begin to worry about others freeriding on their efforts.

2. Give others the benefit of doubt when working virtually.

Most people try to do the right thing most of the time. But many of us are clumsy, at least occasionally, and while people are often able to repair mishaps or misunderstanding by means of an apology or explanation “in the moment”, working virtually means we often don’t discover where we’ve inadvertently caused offence until much later on.

3. Provide context.

Because others do not have access to the multitude of cues we give off when in the same room, it often helps to provide a bit of extra context on “where your head is” at the moment. One technique that can work well is to ask everyone to pick a number between one and 10 based on how they are feeling (where one is “cold” and 10 is “hot”) at the beginning of a conference call, and briefly tell each other why they picked the number they did. Helpful tip: make sure your colleagues know it’s okay to be “cold” at times.

4. Avoid silences.

When communicating by text or email, make sure to reply as soon as is feasible, even if only with a “placeholder” response, such as “got your message, will reply by the end of the day”. Few things are more unsettling than to get no reply to an email on an issue of high priority. It may well be that the recipient didn’t notice the email, or read but didn’t think a response was required, or perhaps saved it to read later in the day; there could be several reasons for a non-response. However, if all that’s received in response is silence, it’s hard to know, and can make us feel uncertain or insecure. After all, in this forced era of working from home, you can’t simply walk by someone’s desk to politely ask: “By the way, did you see my email? What’d you think?”

5. Don’t hide emotions.

Make sure that you, as a team, create space for the “feeling” conversation. Rarely will colleagues be prepared to see reason if they’ve not felt that their emotions have been validated. Ask: “Okay, before moving on, why not tell me (or us) about the impact this issue has had on you? How has it made you (and those around you) feel?” As Willy Brown, the late Master of Darwin College, once told me: “When people are angry with you, there’s no point trying to reason with them. All you need to do is to let them talk themselves empty”.

6. Set up a chatroom as a virtual “water cooler”.

Give others (and yourself) an opportunity to let their hair down by hosting a chatroom on social media where people can engage in banter, share funny articles, memes or cartoons, or respond to a “question of the day”, which can easily be lifted from any online list of icebreaker questions.

Dr. Mark de Rond is Professor of Organizational Ethnography at Cambridge University.

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