The shift to remote work created significant disruption in the workplace. People had to adjust to doing things in new ways and many aspects inherent to working in close physical proximity were lost through this shift. We often take them for granted and underestimate how important they are, not just in creating a happy workplace, but also how they contribute to business results.
What We've Lost and What We've Gained in the Move to Remote Work
The three areas that I feel are lost when moving from physical to remote work are:
- Causal conversation happens in many places, including chatting in the lunchroom or use of time before or after gathering for a meeting. This casual conversation allows people to get to know each other personally. With more personal connection comes trust. In the 2014 Harvard Business Review article “Proven Ways to Earn Your Employee’s Trust" Carolyn O’Hara states, “One of the most effective trust-building strategies is to create a personal connection.” Business operations improve when there's trust. Stephen M.R. Covey writes in his book, "The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything," “Low trust slows everything — every decision, every communication, and every relationship.”
- Physical interaction also provides spontaneous discussion and collaboration. When tackling a problem, it is much easier for someone to reach over the cubicle wall and say, “Hey buddy, got a minute for me to talk something through with you?” I know I've made much more progress on solving a problem by just taking five minutes to hash it out with someone else rather than trying to solve it myself.
- Casual conversation, spontaneous discussion and cross-department interaction are hindered when losing the physical setting of work. The risk of creating an impersonal, siloed workplace where there is limited understanding of each other or the business goes up significantly when pushed to an all remote setting. It is possible to reintroduce these elements into remote work. The challenge is these interactions happen naturally in a physical environment. A virtual environment requires proactively planning.
People have tried many different approaches to solving the above problems with varying degrees of success. Translating previously in-person social interactions directly to virtual rarely works. Virtual happy hours were popular at the beginning of the pandemic, but the novelty quickly faded. So while we can’t look for “like for like” replacements, there are unique advantages of using technology in a remote work situation to capture the lost interaction. What are some advantages of a virtual environment over physical?
- Asynchronous methods of communication allow people to participate on their own timelines. This is particularly true for persistent chats as they don’t have to be at a certain place at a certain time.
- Everyone has the opportunity for equal participation. In a social setting extroverts can dominate the conversation. With remote work, there is the opportunity of introverts who may be more reflective to consider their response and participate more (in fact, I’ve seen previously quiet people participating a lot more in virtual meetings).
- Cross-department interaction can be much broader than the local physical office. You have a much larger opportunity to build your internal network than falling back to the local one from before.
Capture the Lessons Today for Tomorrow's Future Planning
The current situation has impacted the future of work and this future will be one which blurs the divide between the physical workspace and virtual workspace. Global companies with global employees, spread across the world, will require the ability to collaborate from anywhere, anytime and from any device. This already exists, but with COVID-19 it has accelerated. It will further embrace the new generation (gen Z) who don't see a barrier between the virtual and the physical world. Workforces will continue to be broadly distributed around the world where companies can find and leverage the best person for the role vs. the best person in a city/state.
So, what are some key elements to make it work?
- Leadership: Organization’s leadership must model the behavior. Senior leadership must show it’s OK to book a meeting or reach out just for an informal conversation. Culture becomes even more important in these uncertain times. The openness and approachable nature of leadership can have a huge positive impact on employees. Having regular two-way communications with the entire organization through virtual townhalls or informal connects are great ways of maintaining transparent communication and ensuring that people feel supported.
- Culture of curiosity: Encourage people to understand other parts of the business. Build a mechanism where they can connect with people they never run into during business. As an employee or a people manager, try having regular conversations. Even though we might have thought our conversation were informal, they often happen on a structured basis. Just look at who goes to the coffee machine the same time every day at the office. Perhaps try having an open meeting around the time people are getting their coffee for informal conversation.
- Having a strong digital workforce strategy: A digital workforce based on persona, recognizing the diversity of the skills and need to provide efficiency in term of use, adoption and productivity, can help harmonize how you work, how you connect with your customers and how your employees come together to deliver your products and services. And the most important consideration to tie it all together is having an adoption plan for your organization. The best of technology can fail if your employees don’t adopt it.
Six months into their remote work journeys, organizations and people have had a lot of opportunity to experiment and discover what works and what does not. Capture these insights now to inform future approaches to business operations. Ignoring the innovative ways employees find to work in the current situation would be a lost opportunity. Technology is the enabler. But people are the most important factor. Making sure your people have the right direction, support and mentorship is key.
How have you kept conversations and interactions going during this period?