At last, at least in some locations, groups of people are beginning to reassemble. As an extravert, I’ve been longing for this day to come. I’m grateful that we had Zoom to carry us through all those lonely months, but you will never convince me that interacting with others virtually can create the same levels of trust, intimacy, and pleasure that meeting face-to-face can produce. 

That doesn’t mean the return to in-person feels entirely natural. As an individual, I have to figure out where I feel comfortable rejoining the world. And as a manager, I have to figure out how to bring a team back together when we’ve acclimated to the digital versions of each other. 

Like many others, I’ve been taking baby steps. I have offered my clients the option to meet face to face, and a couple of them have taken me up on it. So I’m once again hopping on public transportation and heading to my office in downtown Chicago. I love it, and at the same time it feels very strange. The first time I went back to my office, the calendar on the wall said “March 2020.” The jar of trail mix in my desk drawer looked like an archeological artifact. The streets and sidewalks are still remarkably empty at lunch time. And at the same time, it feels familiar and free.

Returning to networking and relationship building

I went to my first post-pandemic business networking event a couple of weeks ago. I’m a skilled networker. I find people endlessly fascinating and I enjoy talking with strangers. But I’ll tell you, when I first stepped onto that patio filled with little clumps of people already talking to each other, I had a moment of anxiety. Do I remember how to do this? 

Sure enough it came back pretty quickly. Walk over to the bar and get a glass of white wine (to prevent disastrous spills). Talk to the person next to you at the bar for a few minutes. Wander around and find someone who’s standing alone. He or she is almost always delighted to engage with you. Chat for a few minutes and then move on unless the two of you are really connecting. Exchange business cards. Show true interest in others. As soon as you get tired or bored, leave. It’s not all that hard.

We’re all feeling that mixture of pleasure and strangeness right now. I suspect it’s going to be like this for a while. What does that mean if you’re a business leader who will be bringing your team back to 3D reality in the coming months? What steps can you take to make it easier for people to re-engage with spirit and energy?

How to bring a team back together — break proverbial or literal bread

Dan Ariely, an advice columnist in the Wall Street Journal, offered a smart suggestion. A reader asked what she could do now to help her employees feel like more of a team again. Ariely’s suggestion was simple: “Organize an in-person dinner with your team before it returns to the office – and order family style.”

What’s the rationale? Ariely cited a (pre-pandemic) research study where subjects ate chips and salsa in pairs. Some duos shared a bowl of chips and a bowl of salsa, while others were given separate individual bowls. When they then engaged in a negotiation exercise, the pairs who had shared food came to an agreement much more quickly. Eating together led to working together. 

I’m sure that some of you are thinking, “Gail! What is the matter with you?! It’s not safe yet to share food.” Look, I’m not recommending that we take licks off each other’s ice cream cones. But I can certainly envision how passing around platters of food and sharing a meal together could accelerate a sense of community among people who have been apart for a long time. They don’t call it “family style” for nothing. 

I think Ariely is on the right track. And if you and your team aren’t yet ready to share a meal, think of other ways to bring people together in an atmosphere of relaxation and fun. I am confident that it will help you and your team re-connect more quickly than just barging back into work or engaging in some structured “team bonding” experience.  

If you’d like help in navigating the transition back to the workplace, contact us at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com.

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