Stand up when you talk, take a virtual tea break: how to bond with workmates during the pandemic


Pamela Iyer has little idea what her director looks like. Not properly. When she started her new role as a commissioning specialist for Wokingham borough council back in July, remote working was in full swing. And the custom in her organisation is for “everyone to have their camera off” during Zoom calls, so, so far, she has only seen his photograph.

It has made her conversation a little stilted. “I can’t tell what facial expressions he is making,” she says. “I’m somebody who make jokes in the course of daily conversations. But I haven’t done that because I can’t tell how it’s going to be received – if someone is smiling or thinking, ‘God, shut up!’”

It is a small thing, an everyday tiny detail that shows the seismic upheaval the pandemic has caused in our working lives. About 730,000 jobs have been lost since lockdown began, and many others are worried that redundancy could be looming. But even without this insecurity, working from home has changed things for vast swathes of the population. When Jeremy Hunt attempted, recently, to encourage workers back to the office by talking of the “fizz and excitement”, and insisting Brits need “a bit of office banter” to stay creative, he was quickly mocked with queries about whether an increased risk of Covid was the sort of excitement workers needed. But his words did have a kernel of truth – for many of us the camaraderie of shared toil in a shared space has been lost. From long chats over coffee, small talk in the lift or (my personal favourite) gossip under the pretence of photocopying, there is a web of social face-to face interactions that make our days more pleasant, help us feel more connected and can bloom into genuine, long-lasting friendships.

And, for people starting new jobs, being restricted to calls, emails and chat functions can make navigating the teething issues even more isolating. For Iyer, joining a new office during the pandemic has allowed her to do enjoyable work with wholly positive professional relationships. Yet people with a close friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged with the work itself. And such friendships can be maintained and nurtured remotely, say the experts – if you follow these top tips.

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Establish trust

“There are two types of trust,” says Stuart Duff, head of development at workplace psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola. “The first is cognitive trust, which is trust in someone’s experience, knowledge and ability. The second type is emotional trust, which determines how much one person likes and believes in another.”

Achieving cognitive trust is hopefully achieved when your colleagues see you in action (although, with a recent survey suggesting 51% of Brits suspected their remote colleagues of doing less work than they say, you may need to show off more than usual). The emotional trust, however, might need some extra polishing. Iyer describes a tradition from a previous job. “We called it ‘the clear-out’. Every Friday we would go to the canteen and take all the food they were giving away, and see who could get the best sandwich. Then we’d go and have a drink and eat sandwiches,” she says. “I miss that. I miss the stupid jokes and knowing more about my colleagues’ lives.”

Bring some fun to the table

Those stupid jokes and personal titbits are integral to forming close-knit colleague relationships, so carve out space for them. For office newcomers, Emma Koubayssi, a career coach, recommends the “Fact or Fiction” exercise, “where a group shares three ‘facts’ about themselves, two truths and one lie,” she says. “Then colleagues guess which is fact or fiction. You learn things about your colleagues that you wouldn’t ordinarily know.”

The time to do this may be during a “virtual tea break”, something suggested by Beth Hood, founder of coaching consultancy Verosa. “Everyone brings a cuppa and spends 15 minutes not discussing work.”

Keep emotionally connected

All relationships need nurturing, whether they are established work friendships forged in the fire of looming deadlines or acquaintanceships whose chit-chat make your working space seem more friendly. The spontaneous collisions of office life are usually enough: the “water cooler” conversation about television, or the “How’s life?’ in the canteen. But if we are not crossing paths in real life, it is time to consider ways to cross paths virtually – such as a WhatsApp thread earmarked for banter and sharing “Saw this, thought of you” pictures and links. Remember to be patient: colleagues working from home may still be pressed for time, and juggling other commitments off-screen.

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Daniel Sheridan, a communications consultant, looks for opportune moments to create space for bonding. “If you find yourself at the end of a group call and one other person is still on the line, ask them something to keep the conversation going.” Technology provides new opportunities for this: when else do you get to see into the homes of your colleagues? “It’s OK to ask questions about their surroundings – the picture on the wall or their bookshelf,” says Susy Roberts, co-founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts. “If someone says they’re catching up after a holiday, ask them where they went.” It may sound obvious but it is little chit-chat like this that has fallen through the gaps in the move to working from home, and which requires a bit more effort to bring back.

Express yourself

Even conversation between old work buddies can become stilted in the face of alien conferencing software and busy schedules. If that happens, Lily Walford, a dating coach from Love With Intelligence, has some universal principles. “Being relatable beats being perfect,” she says. “Feel free to talk about what you are doing and use your emotions because this opens the door for them to do the same. For example: ‘Fantastic, isn’t that exciting! I can’t wait to check that out straight away after I’ve finished the school run.’”

“Humour and challenge brings us closer together too,” she continues. “So when you experience or share an emotional high or low with someone, that makes you more likely to be remembered, understood and cared for. It could be reminiscing over working on a project together that was time pressured.”

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However you are chatting, it is important to be more expressive than usual. “Body language has been estimated to account for up to 93% of communication but can be much less visible online,” says Nicky Hartigan, clinical director at counselling brand HelloSelf. She suggests ramping up the nodding and eye contact and leaning forward to show understanding, interest and warmth. “These may be helped by standing up for video calls and turning off your view of yourself.”

Find your happy technical place

While some people might be starved of conversation, others can feel bombarded by chatter across Zoom, WhatsApp and office intranets. Using the right technology can help foster intimacy although, Sheridan notes, “different tools suit different people, so by using a mix you can be sure to embrace everyone”. But he has noticed that WhatsApp or texting is better for personal connections because it cuts through this clutter. “We are so wedded to our phones that it works as a great spontaneous conversation tool on a one-to-one basis. You suddenly find people open up, given the familiarity of the app and the fact they might not be at their desk.”

Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone

Millennials like myself might shirk at the thought of a phone call with a colleague, but listening intently to one voice can add intimacy, so established work friends may benefit from an old-fashioned phone call.

And if all else fails you can’t go wrong with paying a colleague a compliment. “At my office we have a system called “thumbs up or high fives”, where you can congratulate any person in the company for a job well done,” says Hope Cowan, an HR administrator and receptionist who joined Belfast interior fit-out company Portview during the lockdown. Studies suggest that paying someone a sincere compliment reciprocates warmth. And, as Cowan says: “At the end of the day, everyone wants recognition.”



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