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PHOTO: Drew Coffman

Achieving a performant workplace culture is challenging at the best of times. With millions of employees now being asked to work from home in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders are faced with even greater challenges to preserving strong culture.

During these times, the digital workplace becomes the new office. Intranets and other collaborative technologies act as a central hub for remote workers, where they can access tools, communicate with colleagues, and stay connected to their organization's policies, news and insights.

Enterprise social networks are already proving invaluable. Insights from my firm, Unily’s, customer community, indicate social activity has increased by 20% in the last two weeks alone, with COVID-19 the subject of a fifth of all posts. Corporate communications have become equally vital as employees rely on their intranets for updates and direction. Engagement with coronavirus-related content has skyrocketed by 675% since late February and more than 5000% in a 10-week span as article views jumped from under 17,000 to around 130,000 in just a fortnight.

The shift to remote work is described as the greatest work-from-home experiment the world has experienced. Yet despite the benefits remote work offers, businesses are beginning to encounter the cultural challenges associated with a remote workforce. Globally, 52% of employees already work from home at least once per week, but this leaves almost half of the world’s workforce inexperienced or entirely new to the concept.

With no clear end in sight, only organizations that ensure their culture transcends physical boundaries with a combination of the right technology and deft strategy will safeguard business continuity.

Combatting Isolation

With widespread remote working policies taking effect, people are without the social interaction commonly enjoyed in the workplace. Those logging in from home may find it to be a solitary experience, as people can feel isolated without the informal office chatter they’re used to.

Physical isolation doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Enterprise social networks, with features that mirror their consumer counterparts, serve as an intuitive way of preserving the social element of workplace culture and keeping people connected. Encouraging employees to engage with their company’s social offerings by posting open questions and setting up channels for non-work discussions can help you mimic the hubbub of an office in a virtual space.

Related Article: The Loneliness Epidemic Revisited: A 2020 Update

Maintaining Productivity

Business leaders have, for many years, been opening their minds to the reality that hours worked does not equal increased output. In fact, employee engagement and satisfaction are far more effective drivers of performance.

Getting the most out of people who now find themselves working from home demands a revised approach. It can take time for employees to adjust to the shift towards remote work. Easing the transition can prove key to reducing time and money lost to inefficiency.

If staff are struggling with technology or having difficulty adapting to working from home, employee productivity can take a severe hit. Training people to get the most out of available technology and providing easy access to tools and resources they need is crucial to maintaining productivity. Enterprises should look to amp up training and support so that people get to grips with the new tools they will need to continue to work. Easily accessible how-to guides and training resources hosted on a central platform will help employees to quickly get up to speed.

Related Article: Virtual Workspaces: How to Do More Than Just Meetings Online

Keeping Morale Up

Workforce morale is a key area of focus even in the best of times. With a remote workforce it takes on even greater significance, as it’s easy for engagement to suffer when employees feel removed from the bigger picture.

To combat this challenge, businesses should focus on creating a positive environment with rich internal comms. While there is an undeniable need for the delivery of critical information in uncertain times, it’s important for enterprises to find a balance between cold hard facts and softer, more human stories. Look to uncover examples of positive responses to challenges throughout your internal community to weave an upbeat thread through your crisis comms.

Leaders also have a crucial role to play in fueling positive culture and engendering the support of the workforce. CEOs and key players should use their influence to spread messages of hope and solidarity, showing employees that their concerns are shared at all levels of the business. Write blogs, be active on social channels, and maintain visible leadership with video content and live streams.

Related Article: Putting Leadership to the Test

Opening Avenues for Collaboration

Collaboration is the key to business success, with collaborative organizations five times more likely to be high-performing. In a remote working scenario, teams can no longer rely on being in the same place at the same time to collaborate, which puts effective teamwork at risk. In response, businesses need to use digital tools to connect people and circumvent the physical barriers preventing teamwork.

Knowledge sharing boosts performance and breeds innovation. Finding ways to support the flow of information is key to facilitating collaborative practices beyond the office walls. A digital employee directory, searchable by skills and interests, can help users to pinpoint expertise and locate potential collaborators from around the business. Meanwhile, project sites allow teamwork to continue, unhindered, with a digital home for discussion, resources, and relevant documentation.

Collaboration is also a chance for remote workers to socialize with colleagues, regardless of location. As well as fueling a positive corporate culture, collaboration helps to preserve the unique sub-cultures that different departments thrive on. Dedicated workspaces for teams and extra-curricular groups provide open forums for networking, helping to combat isolation and increase connectivity among remote workers.

Related Article: The Remote Working Pendulum Swings Again: 9 Lessons Learned

Speak Your Worker's Language, Provide Mobile Access

It can be easy for some to feel left out when working remotely, while others may feel overwhelmed by the dramatic change to how they work. Ensuring proper access to tools becomes critical when employees are dependent upon technology to perform their role.

Make communications and resources available in every user’s native language. Mutli-lingual translation democratizes access to communications and provides a consistent experience to the workforce, wherever they are located. Similarly, providing mobile digital workplace access ensures those users without desktop access can stay connected from their phones.

The Future Is Remote

Remote working is a modern reality of business. Trends show that more and more organizations were adopting remote work policies even before the current situation, while many predict that the changes brought about by COVID-19 will have lasting effects on office hours and traditional workplaces. Whether preparing for an entirely remote workforce for the months ahead, or simply evaluating the efficacy of allowing employees to work from home, enterprises around the world need to address these five cultural challenges before they can confidently transition towards remote work.

By taking these small steps towards forging a positive and inclusive culture, enterprises will find the result of their efforts is a more cohesive, productive and connected workforce, that's well prepared for the challenges of remote working.