The surprising power of checking in with your coworkers

Zena Alana
Talent & People Manager
21 April 2021
4 minute read

“When the pandemic hit I was working 12-16 hour days” says psychiatrist and executive coach Dr Rhonda Mattox. “My brother, the silent type who rarely texts anyone, sent me a text that said "Hey Sis, thinking about you. How are you doing? I love you." I had not slowed down long enough to think about how I was doing. That act brought tears to my eyes.”

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or lonely, human contact can make all the difference. Whether it’s grabbing a (virtual) cup of tea with a colleague, or sending a thoughtful message, small acts of kindness can help us feel valued, connected and respected.

Check-ins aren’t just the kind thing to do, they make great business sense too. "Informal chats between managers and employees are key to engagement and productivity” says Carlos Castelán, MD of business management consulting firm The Navio Group.

But how do you plan for check-ins when they are so often spontaneous? And how do you recreate the magic if you’re sitting down for a virtual cuppa, instead of a physical one? Try our 7 practical tips:

1. Make check-ins regular

“Nobody wants to be the only person who’s asking for help” says dental nurse Naveen. “My manager runs a drop-in session for everyone in our workplace. It’s not compulsory, but so far we have all turned up. She holds them outside in a peaceful courtyard so it’s also a chance to get some fresh air, whether you’ve got something ‘important’ to say or not.”

2. Choose your language carefully

“Everyday I ask my colleagues "How's it going?" and I quickly found out that they will just tell me an update on the task they're working on” says Daryl Tavernor, digital advertising consultant and tech start up founder. “However, if I ask explicitly, "how are you, is everything going okay?", they will often give me a personal anecdote of something going well or more importantly, an issue in their personal lives. It can really be eye opening.”

3. Embed wellbeing in your professional standards

“As a sustainability professional I find companies understanding more and more how wellbeing needs to be considered as part of the ‘S’ of ‘ESG’ (Environmental, social and corporate governance)” says Martha McPherson, sustainability consultant at Design Portfolio. “I had a new hire join my team who’d also just moved to London. We decided to meet outside near the office, so I could at least show him the outside of the building. Sitting outside, eating socially-distanced pancakes with my new recruit, and properly getting to know him, turned out to be one of my social highlights of the last year.”

What might encourage your team to boost social connection? Consider embedding formal metrics for staff wellbeing, work/life balance and social connection in team targets. A connected team is an effective team, so you may find that social support reaps rewards across all your work.

4. Share your vulnerabilities

“Another tip, which most bosses or founders would advise against, is sharing personal issues/problems with your employees” says Tavernor. “You're a human, just like them. By sharing your issues openly, such as anxiety or illnesses, or just those funny silly issues that come up, it can enable you to have a much deeper relationship with your work family, which is great for morale, work loyalty and dedication.”

5. Read between the lines

“I have formal check in structures in place such as monthly 1:1s with each of my franchisees” says Rebecca Newenham, founder and director of virtual agency Get Ahead. “But to me, informal check-ins are just as important. Running a remote team means I am always on the look-out for signals – in emails or on social media, to see if any of the team might need some support. If someone has gone quiet I usually pick up the phone for an informal check in. Using a vintage phone call seems to encourage people to open up much more than a text or email.”

6. Reduce barriers to asking for help

If one of your team is struggling, they may be feeling exhausted, anxious about asking for help or worried about being judged. You can take away some of these barriers by setting up simple, private and speedy ways to reach out.

“I have introduced Calendly so that anyone can book in for an informal catch up with me, without needing to have a particular reason” says Newenham.

7. Try traffic light signals

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable just telling my whole team that I’m struggling” says IT consultant Dan. “It could look like I’m the only one who’s having problems, or that I’m not good at my job. Instead, my manager asks us to rate our capacity (workload) and capabilities (if we have the skills and resources we need to do these tasks), using a traffic light system. It’s helped me to say ‘This project is status red because I need technical support, and this one is amber because there’s a bottleneck in the process’ instead of feeling like I’m the problem.”

8. Bring your whole self to work

"Coming from a software background, I can sometimes be too clinical or immediately focused on work objectives” says Alec Dobbie, CEO of FanFinders. “It makes everything better if you can have a chat about the other stuff and it’s genuinely interesting too. Who doesn’t want to know when someone is buying a house, or getting a new pet? I think these topics would come up naturally in an office environment, but you can’t really manufacture them. If you take the time to remember what’s most important to a member of your team, then you can build a genuine rapport with that person."

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