A woman wearing a business suit pulls back a red curtain to reveal a bright blue sky and clouds.

‘Breaking the fourth wall’ and other ways to be a great boss in a virtual world

Is it possible to connect well with colleagues when we’re working apart?

How do I make sure that I’m bringing my best self to work each day?

If you’re looking for trending business ponderings, these are two that are currently riding high in the charts. The uncharted territory we find ourselves in means that individuals and managers are looking to replicate the normality and benefits of a close-knit team, in a virtual world. Enter stage left, the celebrated leadership expert, David Meade. His keynote speeches and expertise in areas such as motivation, innovation and change have seen him invited to work with some of the world’s biggest organisations, as they look to inspire their people to be more efficient and effective. He offers some great advice that will help managers and teams to traverse the new terrain into whatever the ‘new normal’ might be:

Break the fourth wall

A term normally used to describe the act of performers moving into the space of the audience, David has seen video conferencing become the workplace equivalent of a dividing line between people. By changing the way we conduct ourselves online, we can ultimately create better connections.

“You need to find a way to break through the screens between you and the people you work with,” he says, but cautions not to always take the easy route. “A lazy way is to have a team social, Zoom quiz etc. But there are better ways.” He recommends something like a virtual painting class, where the team receives materials by post with instructions not to open them until the Zoom session goes live. They then spend 90 minutes producing a piece of art with a professional tutor. “It also creates a sense of horizon – as when teams eventually come together, these works can be shared and displayed physically.”

A young woman stands in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and smiling at her laptop, as though she is on a video call.
Team activities online don’t have to be restricted to a ‘social’. Learning something new together or having a shared focus can be a powerful way to connect a group.

Don’t just ‘communicate’, talk and make meaningful connections

It’s easy to ‘check in’, but much harder to foster a sense of belonging. Think about the conversations you have with other team members and what they achieve emotionally. Discovering and learning more about the people you work with and showing that you care can have a profound long-term effect on the individual and the wider team.

“Our current experience of working from home has opened our eyes and ears to the fact that people that we work with every day are not having it easy,” says David. We need to remind ourselves that whatever industry we work in we need to take the opportunities to have meaningful connections with the people around us. Because even though we’re working remotely, we still need a sense of belonging, of having a human connection. And that truly helps us to bring our best self to work.” This might manifest itself as a regular “how are you?” that isn’t simply a scheduled ‘check-in’. Or dropping a direct line to colleagues that has a much more personal flavour than you might normally have.

Be generous with your time

The organisations that will grow from today are the ones who are not looking for quick fixes, but those extending generosity and advice, who are working to relearn whatever the next step is through strong human relationships and better understanding of each other, our stakeholders – even our supply chain.  

David also strongly recommends investing in the mental health of our teams, which will not only immediately create stronger bonds across the organisation but is an investment in everyone’s future. “It’s uncomfortable to have these tough conversations with people around us,” he says. “But we need to do it if we’re going to come back stronger and more resilient.” He recommends that everyone familiarises themselves with the Kübler-Ross Change Curve and when you engage with your team, ask yourself where they might be on that model and whether you are ready and equipped to offer the necessary support.

If uncertainty is the new certainty, then our resilience is going to be tested

Know that trust is powerful

What’s the difference between someone who is good and someone who is great? The only thing that separates good organisations from great ones here is the level of discretionary effort – what people do when they think no one is watching.

It may be a wider issue for many organisations, but the benefits are clear– when people have an awareness of the needs of their customers and a real understanding of company purpose, then they commit and often exceed expectations of their own volition. “We need to accept that people need autonomy,” advises David. “Some businesses are hyper-monitoring their employees because they’re working remotely. Culturally, that’s a reflection of the trust they feel inside their organisation. I think one of the big opportunities out of this is that organisations will realise that people really can flourish when they work from home.”

Motivate through recognition and care

There are two types of motive in organisations: a market motive (your salary and perks) and a social motive (purpose and responsibility). By only looking at performance based on financial reward, we’re entirely missing a huge chance for further collective relationship-based productivity, engagement, self-leadership and loyalty. In short, people need to feel that their work matters, is acknowledged and can even be worth celebrating. A genuine and personal thank you from manager to team member can make a real difference. 

“It changes the relationship between employee and organisation. If people feel they have meaning and purpose in their work and that it’s recognised, then nothing is more powerful in difficult times like this.” However, David acknowledges that reward and recognition go hand-in-hand, and people also need to feel that they are valued. A person only feels important if they feel they’re being invested in,” he says. “They know that in climates like this that this is discretionary. However, personal and professional development opportunities are really affordable and today is an unequalled opportunity to educate our teams and help them to be their best selves.”

A man sits at a desk, with a small child on his lap. The child is leaning to play with his laptop while he checks his diary.
What are the challenges facing your team? What are they juggling alongside their working life? Forging meaningful connections and recognising individual needs can make all the difference.

Learn how mindsets make us mindful

We know more about the brain than we ever have, and it’s had a real impact on the way we approach and deal with everyday challenges. In our work, we may have encountered the expressions ‘fixed and growth mindsets’ as a way to explain differing attitudes to the same issues. However, it’s important to remember that we all move between the two mindsets for different things. 

David describes the two as follows: “A fixed mindset is defined by individuals who try to avoid challenges and shy away from things they don’t know. They find it really difficult to handle criticism and feedback, and maybe feel that their intelligence is fixed and cannot be developed.”

“A person with a growth mindset sees challenges as opportunities. They know that if something doesn’t go well, they can learn from it and embrace their weaknesses so they can get better, be better and do better. The receive constructive criticism incredibly effectively and consequently this transforms the way that they feel about the things that happen to them every day.”

Knowledge is important here, because simply knowing these definitions can help us to be mindful of our mindset in the moment. If we can identify when and where we are operating with a fixed or growth mindset, it could change the way we approach life’s difficult times.

Begin today

“If uncertainty is the new certainty, then our resilience is going to be tested,” says David. It’s time to work together as a team to learn, create bonds, support each other and understand the mindsets that will be beneficial to everyone. “I would schedule some time with your team, play this video on fixed and growth mindset from Carol Dweck and ask them to take some notes,” he advises. “Then have an unguided and unstructured conversation about it afterwards and how the business might be able to support them.” It opens lines of communication, introduces your team to concepts they may not be familiar with. It creates a space of openness and accountability for all, which is a great place to start.

Find David Meade and other inspiring figures on the Canon Illuminate Connects podcast, where you’ll find fresh thinking, great ideas and new ways to improve the way we live and work.

Written by Giuliana Fantini

Related Articles