Can a cat walking across a keyboard really help your team build working relationships on a remote or hybrid team? I have been thinking about this for a while, and as silly as it sounds, one of the signs of a healthy working relationship might be the team’s reaction to Mister Fluffybutt getting webcam time during a meeting.
This might seem odd, and there’s no doubt there are times when it could be inappropriate or viewed as unprofessional, but stick with me. There’s logic at work here.
In the “before times,” (pre-COVID) when fewer people worked at home, I could always tell when someone was used to being at home and when they worked a hundred percent of the time in the office. We would be on a conference call, and someone’s dog would bark. Office dwellers would stop in confusion and say something like, “Is that a dog?” as if they’d never heard such a thing before. The people who worked from home would say something like, “Tell Rudy I say hi.”
When we have a workplace to go to, there are clear rules about professional behavior, what is work-related and what’s personal. Working from home blurs those lines. The notion of a dog, cat or small human interrupting a meeting would be unthinkable. But people aren’t always in an antiseptic, dedicated workspace. We are in our homes.
The home office is still a home first
Webcams bring our bosses, teammates and even customers into our most private spaces. Those spaces are sometimes messy and shared with other creatures. When most people started working from home, there was a reluctance to share their working situation with their bosses and teammates.
The ways they did this ranged from hanging curtains behind them to block the view of a messy kitchen, to refusing to use webcams at all. Eventually, we began to relax a bit. In fact, it was fun seeing the view out our colleague’s window, or the artwork on their walls.
Occasionally a cat would appear on a lap, or a dog would stick its nose up on the desk. Something funny happened. Instead of most people being morally outraged, they smiled. They asked what the critter’s name was. They showed pictures of their own four-legged office mates. Next time they’d ask how the dog was doing. You know, like people do.
Sharing humanity makes for stronger work relationships
We talked casually and pleasantly about something besides the pending performance review. We got to see the personal, relaxed side of people. This began a movement to more casual communication and less tension about being on camera, which resulted in people being more open and relaxed in their communication, which builds relationships over time.
There were several signs that people were becoming more comfortable getting work done and not being so concerned what someone might think of them. The creation of background images on Zoom and Microsoft Teams is a direct response to this notion of what’s professional and what’s not. Slack channels have “watercoolers.” Where conversations that have nothing specific to do with work allow us to have pleasant sidebar conversations about kids, dogs, sports teams and just stuff that makes us smile.
Professionalism still matters
This is not to say that there are no standards of professionalism to maintain. If you are on a high-stakes conversation with a client, they want to know they have your undivided attention. The cat walking across the camera sends a message you’re paying more attention to her than the customer. If you are having a coaching conversation, checking in on the pets makes for fine small-talk, but once you get down to business, neither you nor your manager want the distraction. And we all have colleagues who don’t care about small talk and want to get down to business. Boring them with details of your latest vet visit when all they want to do is get an answer and get back to work won’t endear you to them.
When people know they can relax and be their authentic selves, they are more comfortable in their work and less defensive. You and your team will want to set standards of professionalism and discuss when private matters start to become distractions, but we’re long past the days when a dog barking in the background should bring everything to a halt.
Working from home adds complexity to both our work and personal relationships. This DISC program can help you revolutionize your communication, making you a better remote teammate and improve your relationships with your “original colleagues” that you live with.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.