Imagine being challenged to meet one new person every day.
That’s what Larry Fisher, CEO of Chicago marketing agency Rise Interactive, asked one of his more introverted employees to do when the company started transitioning back to the office.
“That’s an opportunity to break down that weirdness and just check in with people,” Fisher said. “It allows people to see if you put yourself out there, it’s not that bad.”
After spending much of the last two years talking to colleagues through computer screens, getting together safely again may come with some trepidation. Many of us lost some of our well-developed socialization and networking skills. Being continually separated from people can cause humans to experience social anxiety and forget how to interact. This is why it may take some people time to reacclimate to regularly being around others.
But the need for that transition is clear. Humans are meant to connect in person. Experts say 70% of communication is nonverbal, and there is only so much of it that comes through on a screen.
“As animals we communicate so much through nonverbal cues and that’s very important to have,” said Ian Walker, senior director, talent experience at Salesforce. “It’s the development of human connection that’s really key to maintaining healthy, human-based relationships within teams.”
Experts agree companies can invite employees back into offices or conferences safely and, at the same time, even make it educational and fun to help break down walls that may have been built during the pandemic.
To that end, here are a few ideas.
Simple tactics can help ease social discomfort
As more companies reopen offices and plan team gatherings like conferences and offsite events, managers can use simple tactics to help employees ease discomfort.
The first interaction was a little awkward — am I saying the right thing? Being too friendly or too quiet?Gerardo Rios, Workday
Gerardo Rios, who works in senior corporate sales development at Workday, felt the awkwardness of gathering with coworkers again at a company offsite in Las Vegas in early March. A self-described people person, Rios wasn’t as concerned about having lost people skills. He was more focused on how his body language might be perceived. Would he be able to find the right words in those first conversations with colleagues or meet someone not yet comfortable with shaking hands or hugging?
“The first interaction was a little awkward — more in how I was acting, looking like, what I was saying,” Rios said. “Am I saying the right thing? Being too friendly or too quiet? So that was a little weird, but nothing I wouldn’t do again.”
Knowing some might feel discomfort coming together with about 2,000 people in Las Vegas, the organizers of that Workday event created an easy solution. They gave attendees the option to wear a colored pin to indicate their level of comfort in shaking hands and generally being in close proximity to others. Red strongly said “stay away;” yellow showed you had some level of comfort; and green signaled you were all in to interact.
Even then, in being with so many people, many who had never met before, starting conversations could feel awkward. Being aware of this, especially for someone like Rios who is normally outgoing, could help others come out of their shell.
“If you see someone standing on his own, he may not feel comfortable or just not used to [being around a lot of people],” Rios said. “Maybe go up to them and make conversation.”
Don’t force awkward activities at team gatherings
Whether someone is an introvert or extrovert, people still need a soft entry when coming together again with people for the first time in a while. Even though some may thrive in social settings, not everyone likes being put in situations with uncomfortable mandatory interactions.
Hang out together unstructured, no expectations, no pressureAriel Hunsberger, Salesforce
“Ideally [don’t have] forced activities,” said Ariel Hunsberger, senior manager of people leadership development at Salesforce. “Hang out together unstructured, no expectations, no pressure.”
It’s through that loose structure people can let down their guard, start to feel more comfortable, and open up to others.
“Team building should be very intentional and help people go several layers deeper beyond the small talk,” Hunsberger said. “I don’t mean you have to share all the hardships and pain you’ve been through over the past few years. Just that a good team building exercise can help you feel safe being vulnerable and share the things that shape your day-to-day experience of being part of your organization and team.”
Use games to help teams bond
Part of coming together can also include team-building exercises. Groups can have smaller breakout sessions to sidestep the discomfort of forced icebreakers, while giving people space to bond in person. Exercises — highlighting three key life moments that got them to where they are today; doing a group brain teaser to solve a puzzle; talking about hobbies or what they enjoy doing outside of work; or recounting a favorite vacation, childhood memory, even a favorite guilty-pleasure food — can help build more trust and help humanize interactions with colleagues.
“It’s that acceleration of knowledge and that deepening of human connection that can also come through these activities,” Walker said. “It can help with providing those deeper conversations and create a greater sense of vulnerability in the foundations of trust within the team.”
I’m trying to normalize awkwardnessLarry fisher, CEO of rise Interactive
Rise, now part of publicly traded marketing experience company Quad, implemented a program called “Bridge to the Future,” where the company is encouraging its mostly remote workforce to return to the office every day for a month. During this bridge month, Rise will offer educational opportunities, happy hours, lunches, speaker sessions, and more.
“I’m trying to normalize awkwardness,” Fisher said. “I’m out front making an example of myself. Out of 400 people, many I haven’t seen in person, it’s hard to put a name to a face. If I talk openly about [the fact] that it’s awkward and I’m awkward and set an example of not being embarrassed, that’s a good thing.”