Here’s the new reality: Leaders have to create an atmosphere where teams can get to know each other in the virtual world

I’m an introvert and small talk and “getting to know you” conversations are not my sweet spot. I’ve always gotten to know my colleagues and develop my relationships through the actual work we do as lawyers – sitting in a meeting and talking about this or that rule, or the facts of a case.

When I rejoined WilmerHale as a practice leader after working at a regulator, it was only a month before the pandemic lockdowns. Then in March 2020, our lives were broken down into 30-minute video conference chunks. You would think that is an introvert’s dream – no more small talk! Everything is about the rules and the cases! But I came to realize there was a missing piece to the way we were all interacting – with our peers, leadership, the less experienced attorneys, and our business professionals.

Without bumping into each other in the hallway or collectively procrastinating in each other’s offices, it was more difficult to get to know people as actual human beings. That’s not just important because it is pleasant to know and like your colleagues – it’s important because you have to trust your colleagues. As a leader, I need my team to be able to take risks, speak up, think creatively – and that means they need to be able to make mistakes and trust they will still be a valued team member if they say the “wrong” thing or have an idea that ultimately doesn’t get adopted.

But at the same time, I recognize that it’s not always realistic or preferable for everyone to be in the same physical space. It’s easy to romanticize the in-office camaraderie I experienced 20 years ago, until I remember the challenges of being stuck in the office as a young partner with a two-year-old daughter at home. We have to find a way to balance individual flexibility and professional community.

So, as a first step I’ve tried to find ways to make my team’s interactions less transactional while accommodating flexibility. For instance, I try to add 15 minutes of video conference “debrief ” after meetings with clients or regulators, so that the internal team can reflect on what we heard and share ideas. We all need to be actively looking for new and inclusive ways to create interstitial spaces for people to connect.