Nurturing Human Connections While Working Remotely. An Interview with Tamara Fluss, Chief HR Officer at intive

It’s been 7 months since intive has made a transition to the home-office-first approach in all its locations. In this interview, we’ve asked Tamara Fluss, intive’s Chief HR Officer, about the best ways for making work from home enjoyable and meaningful, and how to put human connections first in the new reality. 

As many organizations have shifted to remote work, we’ve been receiving a lot of advice regarding the strategies and tools for staying productive, ensuring effective collaboration, driving performance. Where’s the place for interpersonal relationships in all of this? 

The place for our interactions, our connections is in the center of it all. Without doubt. The shift to remote working forced by Covid-19 has proven that productivity isn’t really an issue. Work gets done, in or out of the office. The biggest impact is on our interpersonal relationships. To me, this is the most important challenge that remote work settings have to face: how to create the best possible environment for our people to let them thrive and feel connected,  still a part of the team.

What should companies do to ensure that workplace connections stay strong, when the physical barrier of remote work gets in the way of team building?

Of course, there are many cool little things, like coffee sessions, webinars, baking challenges that companies can offer to strengthen interpersonal connections within the team. But the truth is quite simple – the most important thing is to reach out. Showing that you care, listening, initiating conversations about topics that don’t focus exclusively on work, the tasks at hand.  

It’s easy to get ensnared in the efficiency trap and neglect the social contact that we naturally have when we get a cup of coffee or hang around the watercooler. And human beings need those breaks. 

It’s just that when we work from home, all of our virtual meetings are scheduled. So it becomes a conscious effort to ping a colleague and have a cup of coffee in front of the laptop screen together, instead of bumping into them in real life in the company kitchen.

Good internal communication helps, but the personal connection is maintained on a, well, more personal level. I find, for example, that my most enjoyable workdays are those with lots of one-on-ones – or very small group meetings of up to 4 people. So I think it’s helpful to foster those “meet ups”, “coffee breaks” and try to form habits around connecting.

What’s more important – connection to the team, role, or organization?

That is a difficult question! For myself, I have to say the connection to my team is most important – but this team also includes the organization’s management, so I might be a special case. :) To me, the team is the nucleus – it’s the smallest unit, your inner circle, if you will. 

But staying connected to the company is important too – it is that bigger team, one that embraces all of us intivers, so there’s a special need to keep this connection now, as it may be in danger of becoming less natural and less tangible without the unifying company events, such as our fantastic picnics, for example.

Despite the crisis, intive has recently hired some new employees. For those new hires, who have not had the chance to experience the company’s culture, the sense of detachment can be especially bothersome. How can we properly welcome new team members while fully remote?

I actually have a team member that I’ve never met in person. But it feels like I know her really well!  For me, it’s all about making people feel welcome and bringing them into contact with other intivers. Not starting conversations immediately with a set agenda  - but having a short talk about other topics. Ask people’s opinions, share funny stories, complain together. It’s up to us to make our conversations not only more frequent, but also meaningful. 

I personally always use video during calls - I think it’s important and only fair to give people the opportunity to read my face, see my emotions, but also vulnerabilities. We’re all in the same boat now, we’re all humans – so it’s not too unusual for my colleges to see me sometimes without makeup or catch a glimpse of my daughter walking behind me. 

I’m also a bit curious and tend to ask people about what I can see behind them, if they choose to share a video of their background space. So when someone has a cute cat or an adorable kid- I will not ignore them when they walk through the video call! This is a unique kind of interaction, one we haven’t had the chance to experience at the office – a little peek into our private lives.  In a sense, it adds quite a nice casual touch – learning a bit more about the personal side of your teammates. 

Even in the teams that have been working together for a long time, unusual circumstances can cause people to feel burnt out and disengaged. What are the best ways to improve the interpersonal dynamics of remote teams?

Open conversation. Less e-mailing, more talking. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed or frustrated or sad from time to time, everyone does – and we should create an atmosphere that allows people to openly express their thoughts and feelings. That’s the best way to prevent conflicts from building up.

Also, we shouldn’t only focus on the challenges of the current situation, but try to appreciate the unexpected benefits, too. My team, for instance, is truly international – we have members in Germany, Poland and Argentina. In the pre-covid times I shared the same office space with my teammate from Germany, we would meet in person and talk every day, and naturally, for that reason we were much more used to each other.  Now this dynamic has changed – we talk quite equally and regularly with all our colleagues, our relationships within the team have become much more homogeneous and balanced. And that’s so great!

Business management guru Peter Drucker once famously stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Do you think it still applies to our new reality? 

I’ve always liked this saying, although it leaves a lot to the imagination. What is this famous “culture”? How do you measure culture, how do you even grasp it? It is a fascinating topic.

My personal view is that culture is a living thing. It changes over time, it changes with the people that come and go, but it also changes when people change, when attitudes, behaviors and visions change. 

We shouldn’t forget that we are in a unique situation in history, none of us have experienced anything like this before. I think the remote working, geographically distant teams, video calls - all this is changing the way we interact, communicate, work; it might even change how we feel about our organization. And a good company strategy will certainly consider this and make the most of it.

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