We’re missing something really important in this virtual work environment, and we haven’t quite figured out how to fix it yet.

Let’s start with a story about Fred’s experience working virtually in a previous life:

In the late 2000s, I spent three and a half years straight working remotely at consulting giant Accenture. My team was scattered across the globe, and I had never physically shared the same space with some of the people that I led on my team. Just like today, I thought the flexibility was great. Having a stairway-only commute was awesome. I felt more productive. The technology was only ok, with phone and chat and document storage, but none of that was integrated. Video wasn’t a thing yet, so it was conference call after conference call. Despite all of that, it seemed great!

But I didn’t realize that my energy and engagement were slowly being depleted. I was the proverbial frog in the pot of cool water that was slowly getting hotter, but I didn’t recognize it. What I didn’t realize was how much the separation from the people I spent half of my waking hours with was costing me emotionally, and even physically. I had no idea, but I was missing the deeper relationships, creativity, laughter, and joy that comes from the small interactions that come with being in the same place as other people.

I didn’t realize how bad it was until I left and joined Jabian, a consulting firm that was focused on our local markets and the clients who live and work in our city. Suddenly, I got to see lots of people every day: coworkers, clients, and people in the community. I was out and about.

I had lots of short, quick, but meaningful interactions with people. “Got any plans for the weekend?” “How are the kids?” “Did you see that game last night?” Or simply, “How are you?” Based on what we see in the physical reaction to those kinds of questions, we get so much information. We might notice a cringe when you asked about the kids, or the wide-eyed excitement that you saw when you asked about the weekend. Those things convey so much real information and created true connection. And those “small talk” questions led to deeper, meaningful, conversation. I noticed it in a big way. I felt whole again. It was a truly remarkable experience for him.

It’s the small interactions, the body language, and the deep connection we get from that one-on-one time that is still missing in our virtual work environment. It was missing for Fred 15 years ago, and it’s still missing today. Sure, those of us that just started working remotely in mid-March all feel ok now, but how will we feel a year from now? Is the life being sucked out of us, too?

We wonder about that. The technology is so much better now. Video is a game-changer, and it’s only getting better. Being able to see “shoulder and above” body language helps me to involve people that seem to disagree or appear eager to say something. That’s helpful. Without video, you’d never notice physical cues that would normally be conversations starters. When a colleague recently came to a video meeting with a bandaged hand, we talked about how she ended up in the minor emergency room recently after slicing some potatoes, and her fingers, with a mandolin (ouch!).

Video for one-on-one interactions is even better, and ironically, that’s the situation where we find people are most reluctant to use it (“just call me”). No, let’s do video. It’s the next best thing to being there, and it’s a good (not perfect) way to keep people engaged and paying attention. Video enables the typical chit chat and catch ups that are so foundational to our work relationships. We find it more natural to spend time catching up at the beginning of video meetings that we’re normally accustomed to having when milling about in the conference room before the meeting really gets rolling. We’ve found that people still resist it, though, preferring to turn off the camera. That is, unless peer pressure sets in. We’ve found that when one of us turns on video, more are likely to follow. That’s especially true when the leader turns on the camera. It’s a great way to lead by example.

But how do we do that desk or office fly-by, that water cooler or hallway chat? It’s hard when there is no cue like an open door, or even a doorway to stand in, that invite those small conversations that often are the ones that make our day.

We’ve tried a few things to replace those small interactions. One is to use something like this in an email, or better yet, a chat:

“Got time for a quick catch up today? If not, no biggie. Consider it just a fly-by where I would have stopped in the doorway of your office to chat. 😊 I’m free after 3. Hope you’re having a great day.”

That resulted in a walking meeting. Yes, we took a walk together, virtually, on the phone. Getting away from your chair and your screens for a walk is a great way to focus on the conversation and avoid distractions that inevitably pop up on your PC. Think twice before opting for a regular phone call for an intense, high-stakes conversation. Video still results in the richest experience, especially one-on-one.

Another way to kick off a virtual hallway conversation is to just press that video call button when someone’s status shows green/available. Most often people actually answer. It initially felt a little intrusive to us when we would call others that way but once it became common practice with our team it started to feel strange when video happened to be turned off. Does that feel intrusive to you? Should it?

The “Donut” app in Slack intrigues us. It is a tool to set up random short coffee break chats with random co-workers based on everyone’s calendar availability. We love that idea. Have any of you used it or experienced it?

The best and most creative interactions we’ve had, though, are still end of the day, impromptu or scheduled times to connect and unwind and have a fun conversation. One-on-one, or with up to four or five others. But it’s still not the same.

What tactics or tools do you think will replace that key random interaction relationship-building ingredient that is missing in our virtual work environments? Or is that even possible?