Keep on climbing: tips on building camaraderie and connection from an expert mountaineer

People Activation - 4 mins

When teams left offices in March last year, few would have guessed then that in January 2021 most of us would still be at home, continuing to adapt to new ways of working.

January is a month of new beginnings, fresh starts and resolutions, but this year, it’s also the month of lockdown, of continued remote working and, for many, of homeschooling.

In this continued landscape of uncertainty for businesses, what are the key priorities for team leaders in order to keep their teams connected, focused and inspired?

To get some fresh perspective on the topic, we spoke to Andy Cave, an elite British mountaineer, mountain guide and motivational speaker. Working with teams on the side of a mountain, Andy says that there are important lessons to be learned about camaraderie that can be applied to a professional context.

Hold on to the rope

Remote working has been a major challenge for employees and for managers in terms of keeping their team engaged. Rather than coming into a shared, professional space every day as usual, employees have mostly had to stay at home, communicating with colleagues over email, IMs or at best, on a video call.

There’s been no change of scenery, no quick natters over the desk, no brew rounds or after-work drinks. Instead, employees have had to stay at home, with many working from dining tables or on sofas, and some having to juggle work with homeschooling children. It’s understandable why many people could be feeling emotionally drained.

Andy compares this to when you are climbing a mountain and you are working alongside a team who might be at the other end of a 200 foot piece of rope.

He says: “In a sense, you could say that in this virtual world a lot of us feel like we're a bit untied from the rope. We're not close to our team, but in a way we've got to work harder to look after each other, so it's trying to find creative ways that we can do that where it's just sending little messages to each other.”

More than ever, it’s crucial to make an extra effort to check in with colleagues, and to ensure everyone feels heard.

Andy suggests jumping on calls a little earlier or staying on a little longer at the end, giving people the opportunity to have a more casual conversation, and also to be able to raise and discuss problems.

He mentions a meeting he was in recently where at the beginning of the meeting, the host said: "Can we just have five minutes onscreen?" On the screen was a grid of different feelings, and as part of the warm-up exercise they each had to pick one feeling to say which one they resonated with that day.

“‘Actually, I feel very grateful,’ for whatever reason. Or, ‘I'm feeling particularly sleepy’, somebody said. I think it's a really good way to start meetings before jumping into the tactics and what needs to be done, just checking in with people,” said Andy.

To recreate this exercise with teams, it could simply be done by adding a selection of emotions to a presentation slide. Alternatively, there are plenty of tools available, such as the Mood Meter app which helps individuals develop emotional intelligence skills.

Trust your team

If your team is not in the office with you, how can you make sure they are actually doing their work properly?

Well, even though we aren’t physically together, it’s important to trust their team to carry out the work that has been set out.

Andy says: “If you think about it in a big mountain context, a big 26,000-foot mountain in the Himalayas, it's quite a complex business climbing mountains like that, and you as the leader you're not always on the rope with all of your team members.

“Some of the satellite teams can be camp two, and you're at camp three, and so you have to trust that people are behaving in the right way both in terms of the skills and the tasks, but also the mindset and looking out for each other, so there's an element of letting go, especially if you're used to operating in quite a small team where you are all tied together and in close proximity.

“I always believe that if people have got the skills, that you have to give them that freedom to make the choice … you have to trust people unless there's a reason not to.”

With remote working looking set to continue for the foreseeable future, managers and business owners should do what they can to make employees feel engaged and supported by setting out a clear plan, offering guidance and checking in regularly.

It’s equally important, though, to understand when to take a step back. Once a team understands their purpose, has been told their part of the plan and feels energised, have faith in them to get on with it and do their job. A strong team is an empowered one and that requires faith.