It’s been months since companies the world over were forced into remote work by COVID-19. Many newly distributed teams have struggled to try and recreate the collaborative environments they had in the office. It’s not easy to recreate that whiteboard brainstorming session or spontaneous coffee machine chat while remote.
But Officevibe’s Julie Jeannotte, in her role as Employee Engagement Expert and Lead Researcher, has found the right formula for improving remote collaboration, and it relies on relational intelligence. In this interview, she shares practical strategies you can take away and apply in your company today.
Unito: Tell us a little bit about Officevibe by GSoft.
Julie Jeannotte: Officevibe is an engagement platform for busy managers who care as much about their people as performance. We help managers and their teams measure their engagement at work, and help them build a safe space, the key ingredient to strong collaboration and performance. In the words of our amazing clients and ambassadors, our platform is simple and easy to use — and it aligns perfectly with their desire to always keep a finger on the pulse on employee well-being and morale to ensure the work environment is always a positive one.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and your role at Officevibe.
Most importantly, I am a mom of 3 energetic youngins, wife to a devoted paramedic, and a food enthusiast. We all live together in Montreal, Canada.
I am Officevibe’s Employee Engagement Expert and Lead Researcher. Put simply, I’m the internal subject matter expert to all Officevibe teams, bringing to the table my organizational and people development expertise to the service of our product teams as they create solutions to answer our users’ needs. I also help our team flex their user empathy muscles as I surface impactful insights (and empower them to do the same!) from user research, always committed to understanding needs, pains and aspirations.
Lastly, I am deeply passionate about humans at work and strongly believe in the power of relationships.
Conversations around collaboration are so often focused on tools and tactics, but you default to talking about relationships. Why is that?
Tools and tactics are great and they enable people to work better and faster, but the quality of relationships within a team is what makes or breaks collaboration. Think about it: you can have the best tools and tactics in working together but if your relationship is dysfunctional, collaboration will inevitably take a huge hit. Amongst the dysfunctions that can exist within a team, the absence of trust — the foundation of any successful relationship — has the biggest impact on the team’s performance and hampers their overall productivity, not to mention their engagement, morale, and well-being.
As Lencioni explains it in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “the bottom of the pyramid is the absence of trust, when team members are unable to show their weakness, resulting in being reluctant to be vulnerable and being open with one another. Team members will be afraid of admitting their mistakes and will be unwilling to ask for help.”
I strongly believe that the biggest and most important commitment that can be made to improve collaboration is to focus on developing strong and meaningful relationships that have as a foundation a high level of trust. Then, tools and tactics can come in and work their magic: improve the team’s efficiency!
So how do you get past the differences between people and build a positive collaboration?
Margaret Mead once said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” To me, that just says it all!
In all seriousness, I think it boils down to understanding how we’re different just as much as how we’re alike. Differences surely exist but we can see them in two ways: as dividers or as additioners. Let me explain what I mean. Each member of a work team has a unique personality, strengths and a set of experiences and when these are put to the use of others, the team becomes stronger. They form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, when individuals are connected together to form one entity, they are worth more, and accomplish more than they would if they worked in silos. When we’re cognizant of that, we can appreciate people for who they are, the skills and powers they bring and the strengths they add to our team, instead of focusing on our differences.
There’s this quote from Esther Perel that encapsulates my vision really well: “It’s the quality of our relationships that determines the quality of our lives.” I strongly believe that this is true for all relationships, professional ones included. With that in mind, I want to tie in here the concept of relational intelligence. You’ve likely all heard about emotional intelligence, which refers to the collection of abilities used to identify, understand, control and assess the emotions of the self and others. Relational intelligence is a bit different — it refers to our ability as humans (being the complex creatures that we are) to connect with others and establish trust. In my opinion, emotional intelligence and relational intelligence go hand in hand: emotional intelligence is the foundation for relational intelligence to develop and grow. For relationships to develop and become strong, humans need to develop their relational intelligence, which obviously, takes time.
So how do you get past the differences between people and build a positive collaboration? Well, you embrace these differences as additions to your own strengths, you devote time to learn about them through curiosity, empathy, and listening and thus, you develop your relational intelligence.
How can people concretely build relational intelligence?
I wish there was a magic recipe I could share! Truthfully, building relational intelligence takes time, energy and patience. We have to be intentional about it, and use the tools that are at our disposal to build it through our daily interactions with others. Curiosity, deep listening, and empathy are some of these tools. We can bake these moments into our existing rituals, language, and work meetings and conversations. In time, this will build trust and walls will start to come down, silos will begin breaking, thus enabling better collaboration. So in short, developing our relational intelligence is a process and we have to willingly invest time to connect with others meaningfully to establish trust.
Let me continue by providing easy and fun ways to put empathy, listening, and curiosity to work in building our collective relational intelligence:
- Set aside time for you and your collaborators to run through a ‘discovery exercise’ so you can learn more about each other’s background. This exercise could be held in a lunch and learn sort of fashion, where team members take turns sharing their expertise and prior work experience to understand each other’s reality, background, and experience better. This can be done when a new team forms, or someone new joins the team!
- Add a five-minute ‘check-in’ round to team meetings (so relevant now that many of us are working remotely!) and go beyond the usual “How are you doing? How’s life?” intro questions. Come up with deeper yet fun questions to answer like “When do you feel the most motivated at work?” or ‘Share in one minute an activity/hobby you have that makes you feel alive/excited”.
- As a team principle, come up with a go-to question you all use when you feel there’s an elephant in the room. This question can be used to get past the infamous unspoken conversations — the #1 killer of high-performing teams. Mine is “Where’s the poop?” It’s easy, effective, and instantly breaks the tension around the conversation as it makes everyone laugh.
- Play the Trust Roulette with your team members. This tip is a little more elaborate but it works wonders in building great relationships. Form pairs in a rotating schedule so that every team member meets up with another team member every two weeks for 30 minutes (minimum, you can go above). The only rule of these meetings is that you cannot discuss work. Here are some conversation starters you could try. By the end of the rounds, every team member will have met up with every other team member!
And how will people know when they’ve managed to build relationships that will foster better collaboration?
If you’re looking to assess the power of relationships amongst your teams, here a clear signs of strong relationships:
- People are vulnerable with each other and share their honest thoughts
- People willingly share information and learnings with one another
- Teams and individuals experiment with new ideas and think outside of the box
As you can see from the above, they all indicate a high level of trust and vulnerability. As I’ve said before, trust is an essential component of strong relationships with peers, which are at the heart of engagement, and performance. Communication and collaboration are the two other elements of this triangle. That’s precisely why they together form the three sub-metrics of the Relationship with Peers Metric in our Officevibe Model for measuring engagement at work.
So I’d say that finding a way to measure these relationships is a great place to start. Pulse Surveys are an easy way to do that. Then, you’ll have clear and continuously relevant indicators of what works well within the team, and what needs to improve. From there, team members along with their coaches and/or managers can use these indicators as conversation starters to get to the heart of what is making their team awesome, and how they can collectively address their dysfunctions (even the best teams have some!). Officevibe has a great blog post on relational intelligence that shows how to measure the quality of your relationships with colleagues.
Not only will these conversations enable the team to work better and smarter together, but the the business will also reap the amazing benefits:
- The fear of having difficult or sensitive conversations is removed and alignment increases
- Silos are broken and teams work together towards common goals faster and more efficiently
- The fear of failure is removed and innovation and creativity unfolds
How does remote work impact relational intelligence and its effect on collaboration?
Yish! Well, let’s start with the obvious. There’s just so many things that are more difficult when we’re not together in person! It’s harder to read reactions, gauge someone’s mood, and detect potential issues when we don’t interact in person frequently. Non-verbal communication is such a big part of how we communicate with one another and it’s just plain harder to read these cues over video calls and email/chat messages.
As for any ‘long-distance’ relationship, you have to be willing to make it work. What I mean by that is that you have to commit to investing the time and energy to recreate moments that used to just happen naturally when we were all working in an office together, let’s say. Casual run-ins at the coffee machine or hallway chats are long gone, and that has a huge impact on our relational intelligence because these moments meant connecting in informal ways, chatting about life and work, and getting to know each other. For many of us, we now often end up only connecting with people we have formal meetings with, unless we’re really intentional about recreating informal chats over Zoom, Slack, or Teams calls.
I’ve also observed a default to chatting over Slack instead of talking to each other face-to-face (over video calls of course!), which in many cases creates confusion, misinterpretations, and a lot of back-and-forth. All this can be detrimental to collaboration, communication, and trust. So whenever you can and it makes sense, call each other and discuss “in person!”
A huge thank you to Julie for sharing her collaboration insights and strategies with us!