“Conversations are the threads that make up any relationship. The stronger the conversation, the stronger the relationship,” says Kate Feeney, senior people science consultant at Glint. Feeney shares her latest thinking in this Q&A interview about how work conversations can support employee engagement in a time of heightened stress, accelerating change, and—for many—the abrupt shift to remote work.

Why are conversations so important to people’s success at work?

Conversations allow us to develop a shared understanding across a relationship, facilitating creativity, decisions, and actions to be taken. At work, conversations range from the informal “How are you?” chats between colleagues to complex conversations about the future of an organization—and both are important for individual and organizational health. 

But as common as conversations are, it’s rare for them to be as connected or as meaningful as they could be. And what we’re seeing now, particularly within our remote, work-from-home world, is that we have to be even more intentional about having high-quality conversations.

How can we improve our conversations?

At the organizational level, we talk about making conversations a habit—something that’s built into workflow and culture. Having regular conversations and putting the right content into conversations are what really facilitate success. That’s where the conversation habit connects with other behaviors that Glint calls People Success habits

Conversations shape things like what goals we set, what learning is required to achieve those goals, and how we check in on whether or not we’re getting there. So conversations effectively feed a virtuous loop of positive habits. They’re both a habit in themselves and the lifeblood of other habits for successful organizations.

What are your tips for one-to-one conversations? 

One-to-one conversations are critical for making sure that people are not only focused on the right things, but also getting the support they need within the team. For managers right now, it’s really important that they start by simply finding out how people are doing. Josh Bersin, the global HR thought leader, talks about this idea of a check-in not being about micromanaging or checking up on your team, but rather really checking in and building that relationship by being aware of what’s going on for the individual. 

We know that 96% of employees are saying that COVID-19 has had some impact on their stress levels. So it’s important for managers to acknowledge that there’s a strong likelihood that their attention will have shifted to other parts of their lives. They may have health concerns or challenges that make it hard to focus at work or balance competing priorities. So it’s important to check in, first and foremost, on how people are doing, in an authentic way.

After that, a one-to-one conversation should create focus on priorities, uncover roadblocks, and recognize progress towards goals and learning that has happened or is needed to enable success. Beyond a discussion of the work to be completed, managers should reflect on how they can support their team members to be happy and successful in their roles. Gaining an insight into how your team members feel about their work is only really possible when you have meaningful conversations that go beyond the “what” of work to explore what a person feels proud of and energized by.

Why is “How are you?” such an important question?

First, there’s the practical piece. If someone isn’t doing well, or even if they’re doing great, the state in which they arrive to the conversation will impact the nature of that conversation. When we’re working digitally, it’s harder to pick up on cues like body language that we’d previously have observed when someone walked into a meeting room. So we really do have to ask that question to understand what someone is bringing into that conversation. 

It’s also important for the creation of trust to ask the question with full curiosity and to sit with whatever answer may come. Right now many of us can’t say, “Let’s grab a coffee” to connect with a colleague, so carving out dedicated time to truly build connection is something that, while it may feel slightly inorganic, is a habit that will naturally improve our work lives and relationships. 

How should leaders think about opening up about their own challenges? 

In this era when many of us are effectively inviting one another into our homes on a daily basis, there’s an inherent vulnerability to the way that we’re all working—we’re all opening up our own worlds to one another. We’re also all going through this challenging time together, so it’s a unique shared experience. The measures that have been taken to prevent COVID-19 mean we’ve all actually been part of the biggest behavioral intervention of all time, at the same time, regardless of geography. 

Statistically, we know that people are struggling. So I think for leaders, managers, and team members to be able to acknowledge that struggle is an important step for building stronger relationships. You don’t need to put on a coat of armor and pretend everything’s fine when it’s not. The reality of this moment is challenging. The best way to welcome reality at work is for leaders to go first and set the tone by sharing some of their own experiences. 

What tips do you have for team conversations? 

Teams are modern containers for the age-old concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Right now it’s critically important for managers to be open and transparent within their team, particularly about any changes that might be going on; to recognize the need for frequent and open conversations about ways of working; and to signpost resources to support well-being, such as an employee assistance program or counseling, if that’s covered as an employee benefit. Our research at Glint shows that 37% of employees are feeling less connected to their colleagues as a result of our new remote working world, so finding ways for the team to connect is also more important than ever. 

Team conversations are also a place to foster a sense of belonging. The one thing we all have in common is that we all feel different in some way or another. At the heart of belonging is the trust that you can be different, you don’t need to amend who you are in order to fit in—by being yourself, you inherently fit in. That trust comes bit by bit, and it comes from effectively building relationships through conversations that go beyond the day to day. Employees with a strong sense of belonging are over six times more likely to be engaged, and so being intentional about belonging has a tangible impact on a team’s performance.  

Beyond that, the most important team conversations are about priorities. What are we all focused on? Who needs support and what are we learning together? Conversations are the place for course correcting. 

A manager or leader in an organization will have access to their own reality and to one set of facts. A team member or a team will have access to a whole different set of realities. Conversations bring those realities together and expand the potential of the team as a whole. It’s very difficult to uncover roadblocks or potentially helpful resources without having conversations that extend the breadth of awareness within an organization. 

How have conversations affected your own life?

When I reflect on this question, I realize that conversations are effectively my career. I’ve worked as a facilitator and coach for the past 10 years. My work now, with Glint, is facilitating honest conversations at scale—helping organizations to listen to their employees and then focus on what is the most important message. 

The process can be quite meaningful in that you’re giving voice to people who as individuals wouldn’t have access to power to have their say. There’s a really important loop that gets closed by the process of intentional employee listening. Leaders really get to hear from the frontline and from every layer within the organization. So I’m quite passionate about conversations for organizations. 

On a personal level, any time I’ve made a big decision in my life, any time I have been stuck in making those decisions or looking for inspiration, the conversation is always the starting point to get to a new way of thinking. Being asked a really good question can alter your entire way of thinking—making conversations inherently creative. As we move into a world where life is much more technology-focused, technology can facilitate conversations, but the conversation itself is still what facilitates the discovery of the unknown. 

In that way, conversations are also inherently human. So that’s what has drawn me to this type of work—it’s inherently human, and conversations support the humanity of work. 

Find out more about success habits when you download The People Success Advantage: 4 habits to help your organization thrive in the new world of work.