9 Tactics to Help Leaders Connect With Mobile Employees

By: Christina Zurek
manager handwriting a personal note to employee

We’re entering flu shot season and warnings from health officials are particularly dire this year—get your shot or risk further stressing our healthcare network with dual virus outbreaks. But the reality is that many of the workers who found themselves suddenly dispersed months ago have already been living through a double pandemic of COVID-19 and loneliness.

In the past I’ve used this forum to discuss the potentially debilitating impact of loneliness for employees (including higher risk of burnout and declines in productivity and collaboration) as well as what organizations can do to help employees form the meaningful connections needed to stem off a potential social recession. Put simply, I know what the research tells us about the risks of isolation and lack of social connection and—while I understood the need—was especially concerned when, like so many organizations, ITA Group fully mobilized our team members in early March.

While many (including ITA Group) are dabbling in return to office plans this fall and look forward to reclaiming a sense of normalcy, there is also agreement that even when COVID-19 is a distant memory we’ll see more mobile workers than pre-pandemic, whether that’s by choice or by necessity.

That’s why it’s so important that organizations look for long-term, sustainable strategies they can use to maintain connection with employees no matter where they’re physically working from.

I recently shared high-level strategies for maintaining culture for dispersed employees but am getting tactical today to delve in to ideas for how leaders can help dispersed workers increase connection to peers and the organization. While inspirational stories about what’s working are emerging from many organizations (and I encourage you to ask inside your own walls!), here are some of the best ideas I’ve seen from the leaders at ITA Group—in their own words—over the past eight months!

1. Send mail—the real kind.

  • “My people are tired of electronic communication so I went old school and mailed handwritten notes—91 of them so far! They’re personalized and communicate the value I see in each of them. People have been really appreciative of the time I’ve taken to do this and the way they’re cared for carries over to the way they care for their customers.”
  • “I sent handwritten notes of encouragement to leader/team member homes. This created meaningful connection and different effort that has resulted in positive response.

2. Make time for small talk.

  • “My team has really responded to an informal chat or phone call to simply say, 'Hey! I hope your day is going well!' with no anticipated discussion of work or a specific ask.”
  • “I’ve been scheduling 15-minute ‘Breakroom Chats’ with those that aren’t on my immediate team so I’m still connecting with those that I would have typically run into in the halls or the breakroom.”
  • “I set up virtual 1:1 skip-level coffee chats with my extended team and it was great—similar to hallway talk that we were all missing from when we were in the office.”

3. Share your own tips and tricks (we’re all learning how to do this together).

  • “Functionality has been an area I’ve tried to keep my team in the loop with as things come up. Being remote in multiple locations means less cross-sharing so whenever I learn something new (video conference tricks, software shortcut, etc.) I share it with the team and encourage them to do the same. I think it helps share knowledge and also spark those little connections that help us feel less isolated.”
  • “Every Monday morning I send an email to give awareness to the team on what everyone is working on, when they are out of the office, and highlight any news for the week. I also include a ‘Question of the Week’ that spurs that Monday morning conversation that you’d most likely have if you were sitting in your pods.”

4. Help your employees adjust their outlook.

  • “Sharing books or podcasts with relevant content helps to shift mindsets to positivity and personal growth/development.”
  • “Our Fri-YAY huddles are 15 minutes where the department comes together weekly to share highlights from the week, expand on corporate announcements/updates, celebrate professional and personal milestone events, talk about fun weekend plans, etc. It’s quick, fun, informative and a chance for a positivity boost!”

5. Adjust your 1:1 strategy.

  • “I’m moving away from asking “How are you?” at the top of each phone call. It’s an expected question and frankly, it can be a boring one. There are 50 ways to ask the same question in a deeper, more impactful way.”
  •  “I shortened my 1:1s to 30 minutes from an hour and moved them to once a week instead of every other week. This helps me be more intentional about connecting weekly at a minimum and when I asked the team if they liked this change they all agreed they wanted to keep it.”

6. Get out of the house together (when and where it’s safe).

  • “My team is small and very close with one another. We’ve been going to each other’s decks this summer and having a socially distant lunch once every two weeks so we can stay in contact.”
  • “Instead of sitting by the computer I’ve been asking my team members to do a walking one on one with me for our meetings. Sometimes I drive to their house and have it in person and sometimes we’ll just talk while we walk. Great for the body and mind to get out of the house and away from the screen!”
  • “Meeting up for volunteer opportunities has been a great chance to see each other and work toward helping others.”

7. Add impact to your recognition.

  • “In addition to using our recognition platform I’ve been making a phone call or [video call] to offer a heartfelt congratulations for the tackling of a large task, the reaching of an important milestone, etc. More than ever, the necessity to remember those big activities, accomplishments and/or events feels critical (and has been received positively).”
  • “If a team member has had a rough week juggling a large task or project I have been showing my appreciation by shooing them out the door a few hours early to do whatever allows them to recharge. And if they’re hesitant, I remind them that a recharge is necessary in order to create our very best work and service for our clients.”

8. Increase your personal connection level.

  • “We’ve set a weekly half hour team meeting with the intention of personal connection, and a work cross-share. Our team has a ton of meetings, so I wanted to be careful not just to inflict more [video conference] time on people. The structure of the meeting provides an outlet for team face time, and with added work value too. Not too loose, not too formal. Just right! We’ve been doing it for a couple months now regularly, and I’ve had really good feedback on these sessions. The team is taking turns leading the meeting, coming up with different ice breaker and cross-share or discussion topics.”
  • “Our team hosted a ‘Cribs’ call where we all got together to share something important with each other about our homes so we were seeing each other’s faces but getting to know each other better.”

9. Accept that being separated can be hard—and show empathy.

  • “For team members that were accustomed to being face-to-face nearly every day, the virtual environment has bring forth different thoughts and feelings (loneliness, depression, anxiety and uncertainty around COVID-19). Acknowledging those feelings and creating a safe space to discuss has led to insightful and important dialogue with team members, plus it allows me to meet them where they're at.”
  • “I always try to understand connection at the individual level. When we are in the office, some of my team needs connecting in one manner and others in another manner. The same holds true during the disruption of the past six months. Treating everyone the same does not work well. You have to make a conscious effort to understand how each individual needs support connecting and then adopt your practice accordingly.”

Whether you’re looking to form stronger emotional bonds, improve cultural consistency, or increase effectiveness and productivity with enhanced interpersonal skills, “connecting with employees” can mean a lot of things to different people. But as you can see from this list, there are many different ways to successfully create whatever connection you’re looking for—what's most important is taking the time to do it.

To learn more about the importance of connection to the employee experience, check out our ebook, Fostering Human Connections in the Workplace.

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.