Throughout my son’s high school cross-country running career, I was often moved to tears while watching his team race. The intensity the kids put into training, the respect the boys had for one another (both on the field and off) and their commitment to their coach were inspirational in ways I never thought possible. All their work, all these relationships came down to a 17-minute race, with each runner pulling their own weight and supporting each other until the end.
As the team prepared to head to the state championships, I had the opportunity to speak to their coach, a seasoned athlete herself who had run professionally in her youth. In pointing out my admiration for these kids and all they had accomplished, she said something that really resonated with me— “It’s all about the van.”
What she meant was, it was the time spent in the van on long rides to and from races that bonded these kids in ways that set them up for success. Sure, the training and hard work they put in mattered—but that was enabled by the inside jokes, long talks, secrets, and shared pizzas that happened in that van. Their success was made possible through the shared experiences and connections that happened in that informal space. It’s also what made it all worthwhile.
The way we work professionally is changing. Today’s offices are often fractured between telecommuters, those who are constantly in meetings, freelancers, and those working flexible schedules, making it hard to know who’s coming and going at any given time. While a lot of this is good for efficiency and work-life balance, it removes a lot of opportunity for teamwork and informal relationship building that happens around the work. The answer isn’t a slide back into a traditional, 9 to 5 butts-in-seats model, and it sure isn’t more meetings, but rather a mindful effort to make time and space for interactions that offer opportunities to truly bond and make work fun.
The thing that the traditional working model and the new working model have in common is a single-minded focus on hard productivity. Being at your computer and getting the product out is the priority, often to the detriment of the processes that could make for a better product. With this mind-set, we’re working in a world where it’s always about the race, and hardly ever about the van. Workers suffer as they are left with little time for ideation, sharing, and reflection—some of the key ingredients that produce winning work and winning client relationships.
While we’re at this crossroad, working to define new models for working, it’s important to remember that it’s not just about the work. It’s about the spaces you create around the work and the positive, creative feelings developed in those spaces. It’s about identifying the winning team early on and finding moments for team chemistry to build and strengthen.
Prioritizing daily check-ins allows for impromptu discussions to take place based on priorities to be solved at that moment. Driving to meetings together (yes, all of us) often proves to bear impactful dialogue, camaraderie, and better preparation. And, really utilizing the moments after client meetings (in airports, taxis, restaurants) allows us to capitalize on immediate hypothesis generation — frequently helping to overcome pitch hurdles that might not have been solved otherwise
Quite possibly one of the best environments for solving problems and making space for great thinking is during commute hours. Picking up a co-worker on the way in, riding home with others, and utilizing the time for impromptu conference calls with members of our team can be great ways to bring the benefits of “the van” to an entirely different kind of team.
As we grow more connected via technology, we’ve allowed ourselves to grow less physically connected. Bringing the right people together at the right moments to discuss a pertinent topic or decompress and connect a bit can happen anywhere, but it needs to be an ongoing goal. Humans naturally crave connection. It’s part of what makes working together worthwhile. By making it a priority to create your own “van” for your team, you’ll encourage better collaboration, thinking, and — ultimately — winning.