March 24th, 2021 | Sterling

5 Tips to Maintain A Culture of Connectedness in a Remote Work Environment

Before 2020, says Pew Research, only 20% of people whose jobs could be done remotely actually worked from home all or most of the time. But when the global pandemic demanded a quick pivot to accommodate social distancing mandates, that number quickly rose to 71%.  In addition, more than half of the workers surveyed expressed interest in continuing to work remotely, even after the pandemic has receded. How do you develop real connection—and drive active engagement—in a virtual workplace?

Lead with your values to create culture crusaders

Traditional offices may look more like ghost towns now, but the work goes on. Adapting the company culture to thrive with a work-from-home model can deliver real advantages. For instance, borderless recruiting expands your talent pool exponentially, allowing you to find the best candidates regardless of location. In order to realize the benefits of a virtual workplace, key points in the employee lifecycle may need to be reimagined to suit a more distributed workforce—from adjusting the onboarding experience for remote hires to supporting employee development with more virtual training sessions.

In a largely remote work environment, teams can suffer from a feeling of disconnection—whether they’re extraverts who miss the camaraderie of in- person meetings or introverts who are even less inclined to unmute during a Zoom call. A people-first approach acknowledges these differing needs and creates strategies that overcome the various hurdles that remote workplaces entail. Here are some tactics to focus on:

  1. Keep lines of communication open—and keep messages transparent and authentic. Uncertainty breeds hesitation. Hesitation leads to missed opportunities. We’ve noted previously that 52% of newly remote workers feel more anxious working from home. By establishing a communication strategy that addresses a variety of needs, you empower employees to act with confidence. Consider dedicating 15 minutes, 3 times a week, to have one-on-one conversations with employees about their concerns—and make sure you look at the whole person; not the employee. A holistic view gives you insights into additional stresses that allow you to better support employee health and wellness. Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack can facilitate both personal chats and group forums for sharing ideas, allowing employees to have more frequent, casual interactions that are often missing in a remote work model. Forums can be especially useful for driving engagement with less vocal team members who may feel more comfortable weighing in on conversations in a digital environment.
  2. Match your engagement strategy to the employee lifecycle. In a virtual workplace, every touchpoint matters—from candidate screening to the exit interview. Creating a culture of connectedness starts on Day 1, when an interviewee gets his or her first impression of an organization. Pre-pandemic, the interview might include a site visit where the corporate culture is on full display. Remote hiring practices need to deliver a similar experience, offering a seamless view into the values and vision of a company and expectations for employees. Likewise, onboarding needs to adapt to meet the needs of remote workers. Consider involving sociable brand ambassadors as virtual onboarding mentors to guide new hires as they get acquainted with the company, processes and team members. At the other end of the lifecycle, offboarding must adapt as well. Feedback from exit interviews is more valuable than ever, offering insights into the new normal, but you also need to think about asset collection when an employee leaves, since in-person collection is not practical.
  3. Think outside the box. Team building exercises aren’t just for on premises employees. Before social distancing became a part of our collective vocabulary, most team building events were hands on, but now companies need to get creative—from starting a wellness challenge or virtual fundraiser to supporting a local charity andto scheduling Zoom coffee breaks to encourage casual brainstorming. Also, in the absence of frequent feedback that employees get when they’re in the office daily, consider launching a “Just Because” gratitude campaign to ensure that employees feel recognized and valued. Community channels can also strengthen personal connections, encouraging occasional “chats” about kids, pets, or sports that used to take place over lunch or during a break.
  4. Encourage leaders to stay visible. The shift from on premises to work- from- home environments can make employees feel isolated, especially from managers and other leaders who they don’t have day-to-day contact with. We’re all in this together, and leaders can inspire confidence during times of uncertainty. Help your managers stay proactive by educating them on signs of isolation in their employees and strategies for addressing slips in performance with empathy. Writing in Entrepreneur, Tanner Simkins notes that “Leaders in my network have shared their secrets, and many are doing all-company huddles weekly. This relaxed forum allows for the introduction of new team members, sharing company news and giving shout-outs to top performers.” And these interactions don’t have to be all business; create space at the top of a meeting for casual conversation. Talking about the latest streaming sensation on Netflix or vacation plans for this summer humanizes what can otherwise feel like sterile, virtual interactions. Consider a Mentoring Program where leaders can mentor employees they may have never otherwise met. Create other interactions through Buddy Programs and encourage leaders to care deeply about the health of the culture by taking part in ways to stay connected.
  5. Be proactive to prevent burnout. We’ve all been there: fewer fulfilling social interactions, calendars filled with Zoom calls and overburdened wi-fi routers—especially now, with remote employees sharing bandwidth with spouses and kids that have their own Zoom-filled agendas. Employees’ health and well-being can be negatively impacted by a lifestyle where the boundary between work and home is blurred. Ongoing coaching and employee mentoring can help with navigating these types of challenges. So can specialty forums where colleagues can share tips based on their own experiences, such as a Women’s Network or Parents Network. Companies can also take advantage of a toolbox of strategies for supporting good habits, building team rapport, addressing issues that emerge from a virtual workplace, and more. While companies are working hard to create connections, and amazing cultures, let’s face it, this pandemic has been a trauma to all of us and it is important to realize that even with all the amazing programs you have in place, some employees still need help. Communicate often about any EAP (employee assistance programs) to ensure they stay visible and re-evaluate benefits to ensure they are robust and align with the needs of today.

A culture of connectedness matters. According to Gallup’s analysis of employee engagement, highly engaged teams yield measurable benefits, including:

  • 17% higher productivity
  • 10% higher customer ratings
  • 21% greater profitability

Plus, higher employee satisfaction that results in up to 28% less turnover, which is a big savings on the bottom line, too.

The virtual workplace may have sprouted out of necessity, but it can truly flourish with an authentic, people-first approach. One of the biggest lessons learned in the past year is that companies must care about the whole person, not just the employee—especially when the line between work and home is so fluid. By creating a culture of connectedness, companies can build trust among all stakeholders and ensure that a remote work environment brings employees together to fuel success.

What tactics are you currently using to maintain critical connections in a virtual workplace?

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