How can organisations keep people connected in a virtual world?

virtual world
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Howard Dickel, CEO, Step5 Group, discusses how businesses can maintain human connections in an increasingly virtual world and why it’s important

Despite a drive to get everyone back to the office, many people in the UK are continuing to work from home and are keen to keep doing so. In a recent study by the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, almost half of employees (47.3%) said they wanted to work at home often or all of the time. It is understandable that people might not want to give up the flexibility they have enjoyed during the pandemic, and we have seen that they can work productively from home, but what about the human cost of teams being physically apart?

The fear is that the longer people are away from the office and from each other, the harder it will be for businesses to maintain cohesion and to nurture creativity and boost morale. Some will argue that in the digital age it has never been easier – the tools to conduct business are almost unlimited – but are these tools enough to protect company culture and motivate and guide an increasingly remote workforce?

User first

There is no denying that digital tools are effective business enablers, allowing us to communicate, collaborate, manage projects and even brainstorm without being together in the same place. Before the pandemic they were a nice-to-have, but now they have established themselves as essential. However, there is a danger of businesses getting too caught up in technology and losing sight of the human element.

Consider the company that decided to introduce a new self-service model but couldn’t understand why its employees were less than enthusiastic. It transpired that the business hadn’t involved its employees in any aspect of the transition. It was what it thought employees wanted; not what employees said they needed.

In much the same way, businesses that neglect the needs of their workforce in the new virtual world are likely to experience disengagement.

Strategic use of technology

Many companies are guilty of overusing technology or not using it strategically. When employees are out of sight, the temptation can be to over-communicate, with some people reporting that they are spending entire days in back-to-back video calls. The resulting mental fatigue has even earned its own term – Zoom fatigue.

Not every conversation merits a video call. Sometimes picking up the phone for a quick chat is what is required.

It is also easy to fall into the trap of applying collaboration technologies to old, offline processes in the hope that they will work just as well remotely. Instead, businesses should be reinventing and reimagining how they do things, using technology as an enabler.

Turning a face-to-face brainstorm session into a video call might not be the best way to get people’s creative juices flowing. A more effective approach might be a period of asynchronous brainstorming using a digital whiteboard followed by a video call to refine ideas.  Similarly, a training course developed for delivery face-to-face will need to be adapted for online delivery – with more breaks and more thought given to how to encourage the discussions that happen naturally when everyone is in the same room.

Clear purpose

When people are more connected digitally than personally, there needs to be a clarity of purpose. Employees should be clear on what is expected of them and how they contribute to the company’s wider goals. This is a top engagement driver, according to Brian Kopp, Distinguished Vice President, Research, Gartner, “Employees who feel confident about the importance of their job to the success of the organisation feel less anxious about their job security.”

An agreed view of success is also the key to productive teamwork. If some people within the team see the priority as delivering a project quickly while others see it as the quality of the project, success will flounder. Setting clear objectives is all the more important when the team is distributed.

Authentic relationships

There is no doubt that digital collaboration tools can help ‘get work done’, but can they connect people on a personal level? The relationships we form with our colleagues away from the pressures of work – chatting at the coffee machine or catching up over a drink in the pub – are really important.

Research from Gallup has consistently shown that when employees have a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, “they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business”.

People have an innate desire to connect with other people, to feel valued and understood. And according to countless studies over the years, it is this lack of social interaction that people miss most when they work remotely.

So how can companies foster these human connections using technology? Hosting a virtual ‘Friday Happy Hour’ is one way to encourage employees to engage socially. Organising activities based on employees’ interests can also help; virtual book clubs, virtual cooking sessions, virtual running clubs – the possibilities are endless. Simply building ‘chat time’ into the start of team catch-ups can make a real difference – as can encouraging people to pick up the phone for a ‘no agenda’ chat. It is all about enabling employees to experience some of the camaraderies of office life, wherever they are.

The right balance

As more and more businesses move to remote ways of working, they need to find new ways to build and bind teams and keep them productive. Having a clear purpose, using technology strategically and creating opportunities for employees to connect and build personal relationships is vital. The challenge, as with everything in life, is to strike the right balance – play is an important part of work and technology is there to enhance human interactions, not replace them.

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