Illustration of 3 coworkers hanging out and having coffee
5-second summary
  • Feeling connected to your colleagues isn’t about high-fives at the office. It’s about being able to be your real, authentic self at work.
  • Teams with strong personal relationships tend to produce better results.
  • Making time to talk about things such as your shared purpose as a team, what you expect from one another, and what “fills your cup” when you’re not at work go a long way toward building deep rapport.

Every organization is built on a foundation of human connection. And you don’t have to be a structural engineer to know your house is only as strong as the base it rests on. If you assume connection and belonging are just fluffy stuff that can wait, you do so at your own risk.

Leaders need to create an environment where people are productive and effective in their work, while also honoring their humanity. I’ll go out on a limb and posit that not referring to people as “resources” is a good start. But where do we go from there?

My one-word answer is this: belonging. Feeling secure and connected at work (especially when we’re not “at” work) is vital. It’s also really hard. We’re working with colleagues we may not have met in person. Chances are, deeper relationships are still trying to take root. In a recent study Atlassian conducted, 56 percent of participants said their team is poorly connected on a personal level, and 37 percent feel like they can’t try new things or express themselves fully. That’s bad news for the team’s innovation potential and overall performance.

So what does it take to crack this nut? I’m not totally sure. But I’ve observed enough to have some ideas worth sharing.

What does connection mean in the age of distributed teams?

7 ways a hybrid work model could fail (and how to avoid them)

One thing it doesn’t mean is high-fives all around. No toxic positivity, please.

It’s really about the ability to be authentic and, at times, a little vulnerable. Now that we don’t see each other in a physical sense as often as we used to (if at all), I suspect connection and belonging are more about being seen in a metaphorical sense. For example:

  • Not feeling like you need to have a separate “work persona” and only allowing your “real” self to come out of hiding when you shut your laptop.
  • Digging into meaty discussions about your work. Expressing dissenting opinions (in a respectful way, of course) without fearing punishment.
  • Having colleagues you enjoy chit-chatting with.

I think this has always been the case. It’s just that in the Before Times™ when more of us went to the office every day, the high-fives and smiles and all-around buzz created by physical proximity were so satisfying we didn’t realize how reliant we were on it. All those in-person interactions, the incidental conversations, the casual friendships – they developed organically over time. We’ve been holding our collective breath for nearly two years and it’s time to find an oxygen source we can tap into.

4 steps to build cohesion in remote teams

Very few leaders I know have really gotten the hang of this. We know that personal connections help build healthy teams, and that healthy teams produce better results for the business. We also know what healthy teams look like:

  • They have a shared purpose.
  • They’re able to see how their work contributes to the big picture.
  • They operate in a psychologically safe environment.
  • They use shared practices and rituals that shape how they work together.
  • They have high-fidelity interactions that strengthen personal relationships.

The trick is getting there without relying on being together in person. Wherever you’re at on the spectrum of team health, you can use these techniques to build stronger connections both inside and outside the team.

1. Be intentional about getting to know each other

What we don’t know, we tend to fill with assumptions. Because we’re human. But we tend to get those assumptions wrong. So the first step is to ask the basic questions and listen to the answers with open hearts and minds. There are a few plays from the Atlassian Team Playbook that I think are really useful here.

  • My User Manual – You’ll share things like your ideal working hours, how and when you like to receive feedback, how you learn best, and silly stuff like your favorite animated .gif. Not only does this help your teammates get to know your personality and working style, the process of thinking through it all will let you get to know yourself better, too.
  • Working Agreements – As a team, you’ll create a list of expectations and agreements so you can work together successfully and avoid misunderstandings that may come up. Think of this exercise as codifying your team culture. (Which means it’s worth re-doing any time your team membership changes.)
  • Roles and Responsibilities – This is a one-hour workshop designed to clarify who does what, and identify any gaps that need to be filled. And you’ll document it in a way that is easy to share with other teams you work with.

Stepping through even one of these exercises will go a long way. Better still if you carve out time for all three.

2. Get to know the teams around you better

The surprising, science-backed value of boredom at work

Your team has a unique purpose, and each of the teams around you has its own unique purpose, as well. You know yours. But what are theirs? Talk to each team you work with and figure out where your purposes overlap. Be open about your experiences and lessons you’ve learned along the way.

Doing this could be as simple as getting everyone on Zoom for a workplace version of show and tell. Talk about your favorite mug and the story behind it, or some such. If you want more structure or need to get several teams acquainted, try a team-level version of the My User Manual play, above. Understanding your shared purpose won’t magically make your team best friends with all the teams they work with, but it will strengthen everyone’s professional connections.

If you lead teams of teams, I also recommend holding a listening session to get a sense of what’s top-of-mind for folks and what their general mood is. This should be a forum for expressing concerns, as well as asking questions. You don’t need to have a tidy little answer for everything. Saying “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out” is fine – as long as you follow through on that.

3. Carve out time to slack off a little

Once all the business-y stuff is humming along, shift your focus to building meaningful connections on a personal level. Again, there are real business benefits to this, but you’ll probably be having too much fun to notice.

One effective way of doing that is banning any “shop talk” for the first five minutes of every meeting. Maybe even do a quick icebreaker (loads of good ideas here) or an “around the horn” agenda item to share something you’re grateful for that day. Not only does this let you get to know each other as humans, but it also sends a message to your teams that you value them beyond how much work they can get done.


Don’t be afraid of deeper topics. Go ahead and ask people what they hope to be doing five years from now, or what about their job feels most satisfying. A recent study showed that most people are perfectly willing to go deep with you, even if you’ve only just met. Plus, people generally find those conversations surprisingly satisfying. So go for it.

4. Pay it forward

If you’ve been with the company for a while and have strong relationships, reach out to a recent hire in your department. Find out what they’re working on, how their onboarding is going, and what you can do to help. I love a good “walk and talk” for this kind of conversation. Doesn’t matter if you’re in person or on the phone together. Getting outside and away from the minutiae of work tends to put us in a better headspace for connecting on a personal level.

Then use the power of your network to give that person a boost. Introduce them to the people they didn’t even know they needed to meet. Because remember, small talk can lead to big things.

Small talk at work has big benefits