When I was a teenager, thanks to my father’s career as an actor and voice-over, I earned my pocket money recording voice-overs for UK commercial radio stations. With the advent of cutting edge ISDN technology there was no need to travel: we could connect between our home studio (formerly the living room!) and station producers from Aberdeen to Exeter and everywhere in between. As a result, I built lots of working relationships with people I had never met in person.
After a few years I did eventually get to meet most of my radio producer friends. It was at an annual awards and industry get-together my father organised, precisely because people in the industry felt they were missing out on those in-person interactions. It helped me understand how you can build relationships using both tech and human connections.
Fast forward a few (alright more than a few) years, and I find myself in a strangely similar situation. I may now be orchestrating global communications campaigns rather than voicing ads for the Science Museum or Totton College’s sixth form open day, but many of my working relationships are still primarily built remotely.
There’s no doubt that technology has made it easier to connect with people around the world – and to do so in an authentic way. Along with our daily client interactions, another great example of this is the bi-weekly ‘Tech Tea’ WebEx series we host, bringing together colleagues from our tech teams in New York, San Francisco, Dallas – and soon Johannesburg – to discuss and debate hot topics in the tech industry and broader society. It’s a great way to foster new connections and bolster existing relationships.
However, there’s still something magical about having everyone in the same room together. That’s why, for clients with multiple teams around the world, we facilitate regular in-person summits at least annually. The content of these meetings is of course the most important aspect, and the purpose will always be client-specific. But there are some common principles you can apply to make the most of these global gatherings:
- Set the tone: Is this a deeply serious meeting or do you want people to feel relaxed, open to sharing ideas and challenges? Do you want people to be reflective or energised? Consider the event branding as well as the look and feel of the room. They might seem like frivolous extras, but these elements are incredibly important in setting the mood for the event. Everything down to the meeting title can help. By branding a recent event in a playful way, we set a mood that encouraged attendees to express themselves and relax – leading to more frank and open discussions.
- Allow plenty of space and opportunity for unstructured networking and socialising: Social elements can build team spirit and connections that no conference call can mimic. Consider carrying the event theme through to any social activities that doesn’t necessarily revolve around alcohol or ‘forced fun.’ For a recent global summit, we organised an evening of indoor crazy golf at a cool venue in London which was a cross between a club and a golf course. We provided plenty of food and drink and left it up to attendees whether they wanted to play golf or just chill out. In the same vein, be sure to leave ‘breathing room’ during the day’s agenda. It’s tempting to pack the day with as many sessions as possible, but unstructured moments provide opportunities for people to talk through key stumbling blocks, have difficult conversations, or simply chat with their colleagues and get to know each other better.
- Continue the momentum: Set specific goals upfront to ensure the event is action-oriented. Consider a post-meeting survey to gather feedback and additional next steps. It’s all about fuelling attendees with a sense of purpose and creating tangible outcomes so that they can carry the energy out of the room and back to their day to day roles.
Ultimately, we work in the relationships business. While events of this kind serve a primary business purpose, they also offer an opportunity for us to delight our clients with an experience that fosters team spirit and sets us up for future success. If it’s a while since you gathered your team together in person, think about the ways you could supplement your virtual interactions with in-person ones to build authentic engagement across your team. It’ll undoubtedly create better connections – no matter where you are in the world.
Henrietta Aitken, Technology