Romy Alexandra used to be the ultimate naysayer when it came to online learning and virtual facilitation.
As a certified learning experience designer and trainer who supports remote teams to connect in meaningful ways, Romy thought it was impossible to achieve the same level of connection over online sessions as she could in person.
But she’s since learned that by infusing psychological safety and human elements into online team programs, virtual sessions can be engaging, impactful, and fun.
Romy joined us for a ButterMixer to share (and show!) some of her top tips for building group rapport in remote settings.
Here are the most insightful takeaways from her session:
- Set the space: Holding the metaphorical and physical space in your sessions will create psychological safety.
- Connection before content: Take the time to create relevant personal connections that connect people to each other and the purpose of the meeting.
- Embrace emotion: Acknowledge that everyone in the session is a real human being with real emotions.
What does it mean to be connected?
Romy’s favorite definition of connection comes from the revered Dr. Brene Brown, who defines connection as, “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they can derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Creating connections isn’t just about feeling warm and fuzzy. Authentic connections have a major impact on how we collaborate.
A University of Oxford study even shows that happy, healthy and connected employees are significantly more loyal and productive.
And a study from the University of Michigan found that opportunities to connect and engage with others in learning events led to cognitive boosts.
Clearly, creating connections should be a major priority for remote teams.
Why do we struggle to create connections in remote workshops?
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to create these feelings during a remote workshop.
Here are some of the most common barriers our facilitators experience when it comes to creating remote connections:
- A lack of engagement from attendees
- Personal connections are not seen as a priority
- Egos get in the way of relationships
- There isn’t enough meeting time to form connections
- People are less transparent or willing to share remotely
- An overwhelming feeling of distance or loneliness
- Battling burnout and communication overload
So what can be done to overcome these challenges?
Romy recommends three methods for creating authentic connections during workshops.
1. Set the space 🏠
We’re often in a rush to get straight to the point in our meetings. But if we only ever focus on the immediate task at hand, we’ll skip out on building connections and getting the results we're looking for.
When we jump straight to problem-solving, the outcomes aren’t as rich. People aren’t as comfortable or honest when sharing. They aren’t as willing to brainstorm or share out-of-the-box ideas if they haven’t first felt a sense of connection with the group.
To set the space for connection, you have to keep in mind both the metaphorical and the physical space.
Set the metaphorical space
Holding the metaphorical space means cultivating connection and psychological safety. To create a metaphorical space:
- Go slow: Give participants time to mentally arrive with a few deep breaths.
- Explain the workshop tools: Take the time to help everyone know how to use the technology to connect with each other.
- Set rules of engagement: Tell people how best to interact with one other, otherwise, they won’t know how you want them to connect. Being explicit upfront can make a difference in the overall feeling of connection later on.
RELATED READING: Designing engaging workshops: 10 tips for remote facilitators
Set the physical space
Holding the physical space during virtual sessions can mean many things in terms of how you facilitate the virtual session, but also how you bring in elements from each person’s physical surroundings to help them learn more about each other.
If the group was meeting in-person, the space would be neutral. You wouldn’t learn anything about each other from the space itself.
But online, because each attendee is in their own personal space, they’re surrounded by things they connect with emotionally. Use it to your advantage!
Rather than having attendees turn off cameras or add virtual backgrounds to hide their physical surroundings, use the space intentionally to cultivate connections.
Give a Backstage Pass
To do this, Romy recommends an activity called Backstage Pass (or Behind the Scenes):
In the activity, you’re encouraged to share something from your physical space that’s meaningful to you. This can be an object that you ask everyone to hold up to the screen, but you will create a deeper connection by taking your team on a virtual field trip within your space.
Here are some of Romy’s tips for running a great Backstage Pass exercise:
- Remind everyone who’s sharing and that they’re the VIP. They decide how much access to give to their space.
- If you’re worried about people seeing your messy room, turn off your video until you’ve arrived in the space you want to share.
- If you’re stuck on your desktop, bring an object to your camera.
📕 Related reading: For more tips on creating connections at the start of a workshop, check out our guide to hosting virtual networking events.
2. Connection before content 💕
We often skip over running icebreakers and energizers because we feel pressure to get to the meat of the meeting. However, you have to create opportunities for vulnerable sharing and psychological safety before people feel they can show up authentically in the space and truly engage with the content.
Prioritize creating connections before jumping into your session.
That said, forced connection for the sake of “connection” is not real connection. Nobody cares what your favorite ice cream flavor is. It doesn’t create a deeper connection between the team.
The key is to create an icebreaker that really connects people to each other and to the meeting topic. It has to create an invitation to be vulnerable and share authentically.
For example, in one of her sessions on psychological safety, Romy’s co-facilitator began the workshop by asking the group, “What’s something crazy you believed to be true as a child?” When people shared the things they previously and naively believed, it invited them to open up, feel more vulnerable, and admit to past mistakes later on in the session. This set the grounds for psychological safety from the moment the event kicked off.
Romy also recommends connecting through the content, not just before the content. Assume that everyone in the room has life experience and knowledge that you can all learn from, and sprinkle in opportunities for connection throughout the more dense content being delivered.
Here are some ways to create connections throughout a session:
- Ask for audience input first, before you tell your response.
- Invite people to share their own thoughts in the chat and out loud regularly
- Invite people to use emoji reactions and GIFs to provide feedback on the content being delivered.
- Create psychological safety before sending people into breakouts by creating opportunities for choice, a possible talking order, and clear guidelines on how much time each person has to share.
🧊 Related reading: For inspiration on choosing an icebreaker that's relevant to your session, check out our list of icebreaker activities and templates.
3. Embrace emotion 😅
Before the pandemic, we were taught that emotions had no place in the workplace. We were encouraged to compartmentalize our emotions, and that professionalism meant not bringing feelings to work.
However, the neuroscience of learning teaches us that learning is only cemented if it’s accompanied by emotion—you can’t take emotions out of people!
Therefore, Romy’s third tip is to embrace the power of emotions for meaningful connection.
As facilitators, we have to be conscious of the emotions of our participants as well as our own emotions.
For your participants:
- Remember that each person is coming in with their own emotional context. Life is unexpected. Maybe someone had a terrible day before the session, which will impact how they receive your workshop.
- Rather than going through a quick, “Hi, how are you?”, dedicate time to take the emotional temperature of the room and truly check in with participants.
For example, if you’re having a big meeting to discuss strategy, but everyone’s stressed or burned out, the meeting won’t be very productive. If you take the time to check in on everyone’s emotions, you may discover that the team is not in the emotional state to discuss strategy. The time may be better served to discuss how to best support each other’s mental health and find a more suitable time to discuss the original meeting agenda.
For yourself as the facilitator:
- Remember: emotions are contagious. If you want your participants to feel motivated, energized, and excited about connecting online, you have to show up with your own energy. If you're monotone, it will completely kill the mood.
- Role model the emotions you hope to infuse into your session, and then meet the participants where they are at.
Here’s a final activity Romy recommends for cultivating more empathy and embracing each other’s emotions online from the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute:
When you see someone on the other side of the screen as a real human and not a collection of pixels, it will instantly create a deeper connection.
📕 Related reading: Want to grow your facilitation business? Build trust and credibility.
Start creating more connections with Butter
Butter gives you all the tools you need to create buttery-smooth remote connections.
In a Butter virtual session, you can invite participants to share their feelings with emoji reactions. You can invite people to share using the queue. You can create more intimate connections with breakout rooms.
There’s no limit to what you can achieve as a remote team!