The science of human connection

Team building across geographical divides

By Dr Jody Aked

human connection

I was speaking on the science of happiness to an organization in London recently and the biggest take-away for them was the latest research into the importance of face-to-face interactions for relationship building.

This organization, like our own and a lot of the companies we work with, are geographically dispersed. Employees are working from different cultures, countries, cities, offices and homes. This set up often works for the business and it grants a lot of flexibility to employees. But it also creates a challenge for both: team building.

Psychological and social research studies have a lot to say about why we find it difficult trying to craft effective work relationships from a distance. There are three things worth knowing for high quality work relationships:

1. Getting visual feedback

We are reliant on lots of kinds of feedback when relationship building. Electronic information passed back and forth in emails, on intranets and screen-based conversation channels is one – fairly limited – way of interacting. As human beings we have evolved to use non-verbal signals – like posture and facial expressions alongside verbal cues – like tone of voice – to read a situation and understand people’s intentions. These signals are easier to get in face-to-face interactions, making time spent together an effective way of building trust.

2. Connecting for empathy

Empathy is a strong foundation of relationship-building and it’s very difficult to nurture when people remain faceless. Empathy is about understanding. It is about seeing things from other people’s perspective. It is impossible to understand why colleagues behave the way they do if they remain one dimensional to us. We are prone to all sorts of sense-making biases. For example, we are more likely to down-play situational factors (e.g., heavy workload, stress at home) and up-play personality traits (e.g., selfishness, competitiveness) to explain an action. Misunderstandings are a big source of frustration in businesses, and they are more common among people who do not share work realities.

3. All about chemistry

Barbara Fredrickson’s research looking at happiness between people has found that shared moments of positivity bind us together. Through hormone release and the mirroring of brain states, eye contact facilitates the synching of our emotions and experiences. There is little better for personal and relational happiness than laughter in the company of others. A limitation of video conferencing is that people’s gaze never meets. If you are looking into the camera, you can’t see the eyes of the person you are talking to. And if you look into their eyes, then they can’t easily follow your gaze.

How do we apply this research to team building?

1. Ritualise face-to-face meetings

There really is no substitute for meeting in person. It’s good practice to invest money the company saves in office rents from remote workers into all-hands meetings that bring everyone together. At Friday we began bi-monthly all-hands and then we made them monthly because they helped so much. Outside of the all-hands, we strive to get as many people in the room as possible for important meetings, and especially those requiring cross-functional decision-making. We can manage with one or two attendees remote but after this the meeting dynamic tends to suffer.

2. Invest in good video-conferencing software

When organizations and teams can’t meet, fantastic video-conferencing software is a good Plan B. You need something that is super easy to initiate – like picking up the phone or sending an email. We use many platforms to communicate with clients –skype, google hangouts, gotowebinar – but we particularly like the zoom integration in slack for internal meetings. At the click of a button it creates a custom meeting space.

We also love the playfulness of It harnesses the power of positive emotion to improve the meeting experience. Each meeting space is given its own unique signature – an adjective randomly paired with an animal – “fabulous peafowl”, “economic sandpiper”, “numberless squid”. They are quirky, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a guaranteed recipe for starting the meeting with a smile!

Team building has never been easy. The geographies we traverse to work together is making the task more difficult. But innovations are taking place, as companies and technology innovates around a business-critical issue. As we learn more, we’ll keep sharing the initiatives and tools we find most promising.