Do You Miss the Water Cooler Chats?
Some of us might have forgotten what it was like to pass a colleague in the corridor on the way to a meeting, and to be casually asked, ‘hey how are you, how was your weekend’? And you were able to tell a story of your weekend family dinner.
Or to have a colleague notice that you came in late and looked stressed, giving you the space to share that your child is ill and you had to take her to the doctor.
Maybe your boss popped by about a work project and stayed a few minutes longer and you were both able to share a personal story about schooling issues, or the traffic, or anything that wasn’t about the work particularly.
We had seemingly casual and natural opportunities to check in which each other, to find out how we were doing. But with remote working these opportunities are few and far between.
Good Intentions Have Petered Out
Recently two coaching clients, CEOs of two different organisations, confessed that when the pandemic began last year, and everyone was forced to work from home, they were diligent in checking in with their teams. Their check-ins went beyond the casual hello, and they took time to find out how each team member was settling into the new routine, and what challenges they were having.
Almost 18 months later, with the yo-yo lock downs and the monotony of day-in-day-out back-to-back virtual meetings, they were not as diligent in checking in with their teams. And they and their teams were paying the price for it.
Before we go further, it is worthwhile noting that some employees found that during this period their managers were checking up with them more regularly than usual on the status of their work and projects. That’s more of a sign of being micromanaged and checking up, and not to be confused with the focus of this article, which is a check-in to find out the well-being of a team member.
Checking-in is about care and collaboration. Checking-up is about insecurity and control.
Does This Feel Familiar?
You are booked on back-to-back virtual meetings. You are clicking in and out of meetings with very little time to arrive and be present. Your colleague is often a black square with a name on the screen, and with everyone muted you feel like you are talking to yourself.
No one has asked how you are.
And neither have you asked anyone else.
What Is A Check-In?
A check-in is inviting someone to share a status update, about how they are doing, feeling, and the progress of their work etc. Pre-pandemic these status updates were in real-time and happened naturally and spontaneously. Now with remote and hybrid work, and asynchronous workflows, it won’t happen unless you make it happen.
There are psychological, emotional, social, and organisational fall-outs when we don’t check-in, and when we don’t have a sense of how everyone is doing, especially during these months and months of isolation.
Fallouts of not checking in
- Increases the sense of disconnection and isolation from each other.
- Decreases the sense of safety and trust with each other, as relationships become distant
- Creates miscommunication, especially as we might not have context or background information as to why someone has not turned up for a meeting or not replied to an email
- Leads to problems not getting highlighted until they are out of control
- Leaves employees not feeling cared for, leading to disengagement from their organisations, their teams and their work
The power of checking in
- Allows your team member to be present, and for everyone to acknowledge each other. Most importantly it also allows everyone to know where they are at currently, what’s going on and what they are feeling.
- Shows you care about each other. It boosts morale and motivation.
- Enables people to share their concerns and challenges, even personal, and how they might be affecting their work.
Let’s face it, even 18 months on from the pandemic, we are still making it up as we go along. In some countries, children have not been to school for over a year. Not only are you isolated, and working more than a full days’ work, but you are also trying to soothe frayed nerves and pent up energies of young children and isolated teenagers. Many of us might not have seen our loved ones in a while. Many of us might have suffered losses and not been able to grieve or attend to ourselves in the ways we would need to.
A genuine, caring check-in will go a long way in helping someone feel better and to become engaged with themselves, their work and their teams.
Elements of A Good Check-In
A good check-in has three important elements: cadence, context, cause.
Cadence is the rhythm of your check-in. Are you checking in too often or too late from the fact?
Today, one of my aunts had to wear a holter monitor for 24 hours following an ECG. I called her in the morning and she was already complaining about wearing it. When I said it’s only for 24 hours and asked her how she is. “It’s been only 16 minutes since I have had it on” was the reply. Too soon Mihirini, too soon. On the other hand, if I call her a week later and ask how she is, it is too late from the event.
There isn’t a formula for getting the rhythm right. The value of cadence is in the question and the answer. Is the question right for the situation? Will the answer change from the last time you checked in? Pay attention to the situation, the person, their needs and your intentions and of course timing.
Context is about understanding the ground situation and whether your question fits in with what is going on and how relevant the question is for the other person.
If you are calling someone who is tied up with an urgent project delivery, and you ask her how she thinks her team is handling the pressure, the person may not be in a frame of mind to give a relevant and useful answer. However, if you send a WhatsApp or Slack message, saying you would be interested to know how everyone is faring and to reach out if they need support, then it is more likely you will receive genuine feedback and timely requests for help.
Cause is about the intention and what you hope to achieve.
As in the above example, you are reaching out because you care about the welfare and the performance of the team. You are also reaching out to indicate you are there should they need any support.
Genuineness and transparency matter in a check-in. People are inspired to share and connect when they know and trust the intentions of the check-in. If it is purely serving your self-interest, your team will cotton on and is likely to be cynical in their response.
Ways to Check-In and Connect Meaningfully (For Remote Work Teams)
Use different channels to check-in
There are many ways in which you could check in. It could range from check-ins at team meetings, to scheduled one-on-one meetings, to a spontaneous call or text, to an organised virtual coffee or Friday eve drinks.
Mix real-time and asynchronous check-ins
Don’t forget that, checking in doesn’t mean that it has to be over a virtual call. Sometimes, it is better to use other asynchronous communication tools, whether it is text, WhatsApp or Slack or any other internal communication tool you use.
Use technology to its fullest
If you are using a virtual meeting platform use the chat or even polling to its full advantage. Ask people to raise hands to type in an emoji. Use inbuilt whiteboards or other tools like Google Jamboard to drop in an answer to a check-in question with a sticky note or an image.
Balance individual initiatives with rituals
A good balance between leaving checking in to be the prerogative of each leader, to building in rituals will help.
Rituals are at the heart of any culture. To create a culture of care and openness, then you must create rituals that normalise these practices. These rituals could be around the Monday morning team meeting, where everyone is invited to share a status update. For example, ask them to share a high or low point from the previous weekend, or what they are most looking forward to in the week. Or do this at the end of the weekly team meetings.
Ask evocative questions
Responses and engagements are only as good as the questions asked. If you are paying attention to the cadence, context and cause, next pay attention to the quality of questions
- What’s going on for you right now?
- What are you most looking forward to this week
- What do you appreciate most about working from home?
- What do you miss about not coming to work?
- How can I support you this week? Where do you need my support?
- What helps you ground yourself and be present?
- What do you think you need most to take care of yourself now? Your family? Your work?
- If you could change one thing this week, what would it be?
- What are you glad to see the back of?
Some of these questions might feel awkward to ask at first because they might not be in your usual repertoire of questions. But play with them and make them your own. You won’t be disappointed.
Leaders should go first
What that means is that at meetings, if leaders were to check in and share something about what is going on for them, others are more likely to accept the invitation to do so themselves. By doing so the leader creates and holds a safe space for people to open up and share themselves. It nurtures a culture of openness and demonstrates the willingness of the leader to be consciously vulnerable.
Don’t forget the check-outs
As much as check-ins are important, so are check-outs at the end of a meeting or week.
- What was the highlight of that meeting?
- How do you feel from before to now – same, better, worse? Describe.
- What is your biggest takeaway?
- What will you do differently next time?
An Example of a Check-In from My Coaching Practice
Before each call with my coaching clients, I send a Pre-session Check-in worksheet via my Coaching System. It has 3 simple questions.
- What is your outlook on things right now?
- What are you currently excited about or looking forward to?
- What are you currently putting off or avoiding (i.e. where are you stuck)?
This is automatically assigned by the system 24 hours prior to the call. They are asked to spend no more than 5 minutes and invited to write a few bullet points before the call.
This allows them to think about what is going on for them right now and what might be useful to bring up in the call. It gives me insights into how they might be feeling when they turn up for the call. Generally, we always address important points from the check-in before moving on to the rest of the coaching conversation. This simple check-in sheet has changed the quality of how both, my client and I both come prepared and are present for the call.
In the same manner, I also assign a straightforward check-out worksheet after the call, to find out how the call went and what they are taking away from the call.
To be seen and heard and accepted is a universal human need. At a time when many of us are isolated from our normal social networks, when more and more companies are opting to continue working-from-home or opt for a hybrid, finding new ways to connect and engage is important. Research shows that the quality of mental health and well-being has been severely affected during the pandemic.
As leaders we will have to
- develop our leadership skills to communicate and connect differently,
- nurture cultures that allow openness and sharing
- deploy technology and tools that will enable us to do so
I Know the Value of a Genuine Check-In
Someone checking in is a big deal for me
In the months after my late husband was diagnosed with cancer, we both left for the UK. With our whole world turned upside down, we never felt so isolated and scared as we did then.
Whilst I attended to the daily ups and downs of his illness, I was far away from my support network of family and friends. Four of my closest friends, who knew each other as acquaintances, connected and formed a WhatsApp group. They checked in with each other to help each other process the shock and fear of what was happening to me, their friend. And then they all checked in with me as a group. As did a few other very close friends. My family checked in with me daily. I was not expected to answer all messages. But at some point, I would answer someone, and then that person took it upon themselves to keep others informed.
Not only close family and friends, I was also amazed at how much it meant to me to have acquaintances and even strangers, who knew of my story, taking the trouble to reach out.
To this date, the WhatsApp group that my 4 friends created, is going strong. Now they all know each other intimately. The group now serves all of us, not just me. We all need support from time to time. And a space to laugh and cry and share our highs and lows.
As someone undergoing a deeply traumatic event, the messages of love and support held me and my husband through some of our darkest times. It made all the difference to our mental health. I am deeply grateful for everyone who checked in on us.
Never underestimate the power of a check-in
Maybe a family member of one of your colleagues tested positive for Covid19. Or their pet is not well. Or they are just feeling a little down. Or they want to celebrate some good news.
Send a text, saying you are thinking of them, and that you are here to help and support them.
Your check-in could mean the difference between being enveloped in darkness and feeling a ray of light.
It could also mean the difference between a team feeling disengaged and feeling like a cog in a virtual machine, to feeling engaged and knowing they matter.
Who are you checking in on today?
And I hope someone is checking in on you too.
Thanks for this inspiring piece, in such difficult times, for someone like me who’s got a new team to lead (after 5 years without any) yet only having met face to face 2 of my 3 team members.
Good to be reading you again!