Break The Norm — New Remote Connection Practices

The Party Scientist
13 min readJan 16, 2024

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If you manage a remote team, lead virtual learning initiatives, or facilitate virtual meetings, please put aside your assumptions about the limitations of virtual for the next 10 minutes.

This guide will show you how to create MORE nourishing and MORE authentic connections than what’s possible in a conventional office.

CONTENTS

1 What Research Tells Us

2 Defining Social Health

3 Three Paradigm Shifts To Embrace

4 Principles of Social Neuroscience

5 The Social Neuroscience Equation

6 A Checklist For Applying Social Neuroscience

7 The Logic Of Habitual Connection

8 A Final Recommendation

Like all my articles, let’s first get motivated. Let’s explore the data. Why should you prioritize upgrading your remote connection practices?

As reported by Buffer’s State Of Remote Work 2023

  • One in four remote workers struggles with loneliness.

As reported by Cigna’s Workplace Loneliness Report

  • 65% of lonely workers report their mental health impacting work activities vs. 24% non-lonely

As reported by Gallup’s Engagement Report

  • Employees that can strongly agree to having a best friend at work are 7 times as engaged.

As reported by Cigna’s Loneliness In America Survey (Jan 2020)

  • Three out of every five adults report that they sometimes or always feel lonely.

As reported by the 2021 American Perspectives Survey

  • Close to half (49 percent) of Americans report having three or fewer ‘close friends.’

Human connection is not measurable, but its impact is immeasurable.

It’s easy to say “Not in my company. These statistics don’t apply to me.” You may very well have a special, progressive culture, where people feel like they belong. You may not have disengaged people. You may not have group tensions.

Regardless of whether you have a problem, consider this. How connected your people are impacts everything you care about — performance, average tenure, employer ratings, engagement scores, and levels of mental health.

There’s one more that I want to emphasize: Joy. When you feel safe to be your authentic self around your colleagues, more joy can emerge. You enjoy your work more because your interactions with colleagues become enjoyable. And joy supercharges creativity.

All this to say, making an effort to elevate the social health of your organization is worth it, no matter how ahead of the herd you are. It’s worth it even with just one fact — it will make your work more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Social Health

The purpose of this guide is to give you new tools to create a state of perfect social health in your organization. This is the outcome you’re going for.

Social health is a group dynamic. It’s present when it’s normal to have positive and authentic interactions with your colleagues. Consider social health as a high average interaction quality — the degree to which social interactions are authentic and positive.

Interaction quality is related to concepts you likely know (psychological safety + belonging) and those you likely don’t know (positivity + authenticity + intentionality). Let’s define these 5 features from the standpoint of a participant in a single social interaction.

Psychological safety: I can take social risks in this interaction.

Belonging: I am accepted by this person for all my imperfections, quirks, and demographics.

Positivity: I feel energized and joyful when I am with this person.

Authenticity: I can express my unfiltered feelings, concerns, joys, and frustrations with this person.

Intentionality: I want to deepen my relationship with this person.

Note that nearly all of them are enabled by the presence of psychological safety.

When these 5 features are present very frequently in your group dynamic, then you have a socially healthy group. And guess what? This translates to a mentally and physically healthy group too. It also translates into a group that people don’t want to leave.

Low social health is characterized by either shallow interactions, negative interactions, or pseudo- interactions, which characterize most team-building. Your goal is to foster direct interactions among team members — they’re face-to-face with their attention on each other. They are not tangentially interacting by looking at a deck of cards or a spectacle (pseudo-interactions).

You may be thinking: Is social health related to the culture within my organization? Indeed it is. Culture is just a fancy word for social norms. If your social norms do not reward positivity, social risk-taking, and personal disclosure, then you bet you’re going to struggle to create social health. But, you’ll get there!

What are the different pathways to social health? There’s the norm. And then there’s social neuroscience. Let’s first identify the norm.

The Norm

To appreciate the new perspectives in this article, it’s important to evaluate the old way of combatting remote loneliness and fostering team-building.

The norm is summed up in this sentence.

Irregular, company-wide, in-person gatherings focusing on fun!

Every three months, the company will spend a large amount of cash to fly everyone together. During these gatherings, teams do fun activities together, like sports or karaoke.

First, this strategy does not feature frequent consistency. It doesn’t happen too often. The effects wear off because there’s no ongoing reinforcement as a team expands or evolves.

Second, the focus on fun — sports, scavenger hunts, and drinking. Often, fun takes the form of shallow fun — fun that doesn’t require vulnerability. Put another way, entertainment.

So… what happens in between these gatherings? Likely, not much.

Or worse. Cringey icebreakers and jack box games. In other words, shallow fun but facilitated virtually.

Search best-selling virtual events, and this is what you’ll find on elevent. You tell me if these are effective exercises or merely entertainment.

So what must we do to escape the norm?

Paradigm Shifts

There are three paradigm shifts necessary here. Note these shifts apply to building team relationships, not to improving work flows.

Asynchronous ➡ Real-time

Irregular ➡ Habitual

Fun ➡ Vulnerable

Asynchronous ➡ Real-time

Let’s start with the impact from an individual’s perspective first. In my article, Why Texting Is Ruining Your Health, I lay down the logic for reducing the amount of text communication in your life.

The less you are on your phone, the more present you are with humans in front of you.

Text communication has fewer health and social benefits than emotionally rich, real-time communication. In a remote setting, this can be phone calls or video calls (without self-view).

Empathy and vulnerability have less friction when face-to-face. Text communication has limitations on the amount of emotion transmitted — there are no nonverbal cues or facial expressions.

There’s more. Text communication, I argue, has negative health effects. Let me ask you this: Why are you drawn to checking your phone? Because you have unread messages. Would you check your phone if you didn’t? Probably, because it’s still addictive… 😅 but maybe less often.

Text communication fills our lives with notifications, making it difficult to be fully present with face-to-face, real-time humans. We always have unread messages to get back to. So, asynchronous communication via text reduces the quality of your face-to-face connections by making you more distracted.

Text communication removes us from life.

Multi-tasking and phone-checking are not conducive to healthy interactions with co-workers. But who can resist? When you’re overwhelmed with text communication, why not answer a few DMs during a team meeting? No one will notice, right?

Before the advent of apps, most humans had one text channel: email. This funneled all connection into face-to-face and phone calls. But today? On average, a smartphone user gets 46 notifications per day and picks up their phone 96 times.

Regardless, the belief that text communication contributes to authentic team-bonding is prevalent. Even X-Team proclaims their ‘busy slack’ to combat remote loneliness. They think it’s a good thing.

You know what I think is a good thing. Picking up the phone and calling people, spontaneously, responsibly, and respectfully.

Key Action: Change the culture of relationship-building in your organization toward face-to-face and live.

Irregular ➡ Habitual

Let me explain the results of each approach with a diagram. On the X-axis, we have time. On the Y-axis, we have the level of nourishment, authenticity, and joy present in interactions among team members = the level of social health.

Every zigzag in a line represents a team-building event. With irregular events (top), progress is not made. The culture goes back to default, until another boost. With regular reinforcement (bottom), team-building makes steady progress. It sticks!

Key Insight: Break up team-building into smaller bits. Make it a weekly habit.

Fun ➡ Vulnerable & Emotional

Here’s the truth. You can live with someone, spend all the time in the day with them, and you can still feel disconnected from them. Time together does not necessarily lead to a deep sense of connection. The quality of the time spent together does.

Fun stimulates emotions. It lays the foundation for bonding. But it is not enough. Fun is certainly better than mere small talk. But it doesn’t get teams to the place we’re excited about.

This is a place of authentic, real, nourishing connection. A place of being seen and celebrated. A place of feeling understood.

If spending time with humans was enough, there wouldn’t be a loneliness epidemic. Because we’re constantly surrounded with social opportunities.

Having fun is not enough.

Whether it is dancing, story-telling, or improv games, an invitation to be vulnerable (to take social risks) is necessary for stronger connections. The key is inviting, not forcing, participants to reveal themselves, express their emotions, and be more alive.

Key Insight: The more vulnerability and authenticity, the deeper bonding.

Principles Of Social Neuroscience

Let’s shift gears and imagine a new way to do things. This is one of my favorite diagrams on Earth. It shows the four happiness neurotransmitters.

Social neuroscience is the study of what’s going on in the brain during social bonding — focusing primarily on endorphins and oxytocin.

Oxytocin is especially important. Dr. Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule (Oxytocin), goes so far to offer us a prescription.

“Eight hugs a day. We’ve shown that if you give eight hugs a day you’ll be happier, and the world will be a better place because you’ll be causing others’ brains to release oxytocin. They, in turn, will connect better to others, treat them more generously, causing oxytocin release…yes, the virtuous cycle begins with a hug. The other thing I do when anyone comes to see me is to ask how I can make their visit with me the most valuable and fulfilling. This is part of being fully present and available, which is another lesson I’ve learned from the Moral Molecule.”

When hugs are not possible, other strategies for oxytocin must be used. Suffice it to say, I’ve done the research.

Aknin. Positive feelings reward and promote prosocial behavior, Current Opinion in Psychology.

The key social neuroscience principles are…

  1. Physiology predicts the quality of your team’s interactions.
  2. Positive emotions create a physiological state that creates positive interactions.
  3. Sitting and talking have a small impact on physiology.
  4. Music and movement have a large impact on physiology.
  5. When physiological states synchronize, it increases bonding.

The goal of social neuroscience is to maximize the interaction quality of the connections among your team.

Principle #1 When stress, sleepiness, or pain chemicals are in the bloodstream, it’s more difficult to have positive interactions. There are plenty of neuro-modulators that impact your readiness to connect.

If your team members are stressed, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, or malnourished, the interaction quality in your team will likely be low.

Tool: Box Breathing, Hydration

Principle #2 This is encapsulated by the above figure. When positive emotion signals are present in the bloodstream, high interaction quality is facilitated.

Positive emotions can be induced beforehand or can be induced by the interpersonal connection itself. Once positive emotions are present, deeper bonding is possible.

Positive emotions represent the ultimate activation of the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ nervous system response — the opposite of stress.

Tool: Lighthearted Music

Principle #3 Most interactions happen between heads — they are merely intellectual — no touch, no emotion, no movement. Factual, verbal conversations will only get you so far, when compared to other tools we will discuss.

These heady interactions often happen while sitting. Sitting fosters low-energy states. Whereas, expansive postures are correlated with elevated mood and confidence (Source).

Tool: Open Postures

Principle #4 Music and movement are the simplest tools for elevating mood and energy. Combine them and they serve as an excellent lubricant for high-interaction-quality connections!

Music works through two mechanisms. It can activate human memories and emotions. When memories are activated, it can revert the body’s physiology to the moment in the memory.

Movement is doubly effective. It can elevate your mental focus and vigor, and synchrony of movement in groups can directly bond humans through the endorphin neurotransmitter system.

Tool: Mirroring

Principle #5 When two individuals or a group is existing in the same physiological state, it promotes bonding. This is why looking at the grand canyon for the first time with any stranger makes you feel connected to them — it creates the same physiological state of awe.

The goal of social neuroscience is to elevate and synchronize the physiological states of the group. In other words, the goal is to collectively lower cortisol (stress) and elevate oxytocin (trust).

This principle also applies to sadness. At funerals, collective sadness (and vulnerability in expressing that sadness) serves to promote social-bonding.

The Social Neuroscience Equation

(Baseline State) x (Physiological Impact Of Activity) x (Synchrony Of Physiology) = Social Bond’s Strength

Knowing someone is not a necessary condition for feeling like you know them. This is where the social neuroscience approach breaks the existing paradigm — the more facts I know about someone, the better relationship I’ll have with them.

Instead, what matters most is not not how much you know them, but how you feel in their presence. Do you feel safe, welcome, and celebrated? That’s a high interaction quality!

At last, what can you do to apply everything here?

A Checklist For Applying Social Neuroscience

☑️ Encourage participation in staff events over Slack (text) communication. Instead of having a pet channel on Slack, host a virtual event where everyone shows off their pet!

— To maximize connection, ditch async. To maximize productivity, embrace async. When a company normalizes connection via text, more backlogged notifications are created, which increases screen time and burnout.

☑️ Start a weekly team connection ritual — make a habit of advancing psychological safety on your team by reserving 10 minutes per team meeting.

— You could consult your team to design this. Then, a different team member could lead it each week. Alternatively, you can join Connection Class and use the effective rituals I publish for extra-progressive remote leaders, every week.

☑️ Incorporate movement and open postures.

“the study used saliva samples to prove that expansive postures altered the participants’ hormone levels — decreasing cortisol © and increasing testosterone (T)” (Source)

— In other words, get your team moving. Elevate your team’s physiology with the social neuroscience equation in mind.

☑️ Incorporate music to activate joy in your group.

— Songs will have different connotations based on your audience. For a primarily western audience, songs from the 90s and 80s tend to activate memories from those ‘good times.’ These songs will do the trick. ex. Careless Whisper.

☑️ Incorporate conversational prompts that invite team members to share personal and emotional stories. ex. What was a challenging situation you’ve overcome?

— Guided conversation can be more vulnerable, energizing, and worthwhile. If the goal is psychological safety, invite your team members to reveal REAL parts of themselves, in pairs, not in the larger group.

What Not To Do

❌ Book entertainment, a comedian, or something people ‘do together, but separate.’ People may be following along with the cooking class, but they aren’t connecting. Having a shared experience is not enough to achieve social health. There must be emotional interactions.

❌ Use shallow or factual icebreakers at the beginning of meetings. What I mean by factual is information without emotional or personal content. ex. What did you do on the weekend? What’s your favorite place to travel?

❌ Flood ‘social slack channels’ with GIFs and text messages, focusing on asynchronous discussion over high-empathy, live communication.

❌ Reserve connection & psychological safety for the upcoming offsite. ‘We’ll do all of this when we’re physically together!’ Don’t delay. Habituate.

❌ Do nothing. “Ok, everyone is here. Let’s get started on the meeting agenda.”

The Logic Of Habitual Connection

If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. — James Clear

The central recommendation of this article is to break down your connection activities into snacks, which you practice on a habitual basis. Thus, you make a habit out of reinforcing psychological safety.

Most remote managers wait until they’re in person, or worse, they wait until people start leaving the team. Starting a connection ritual on your team is proactive.

It will improve your mental health, your productivity, and that of your team’s.

If you’re not sure where to start, or you want the most effective connection rituals, consider requesting an invitation to Connection Class — my collective of progressive remote leaders who use weekly psychological safety rituals to boost the joy and productivity of their team members.

To learn the most effective format for a connection ritual, watch the video on social neuroscience, here.

Final Recommendation

Consult your team on establishing a connection ritual.

If you’re feeling thankful, could you like or comment this article? What wisdom do you have to share with other readers? We’d love to hear your additions.

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Thanks for spreading healthier human connections 🧠

— Jacques, The Chief Connection Scientist

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The Party Scientist

Human Connection & Belonging Strategist | Professor of Shared Joy | I help leaders reinvent how they connect their people and build community