When co-workers don’t get together in-person, the social fabric of the organization frays. Here’s how some companies are trying to rebuild relationships.
Workers are facing a loneliness crisis — a reality that hasn’t been improved by the dramatic rise of remote work.
Flexible work has many benefits for workers, but social connection is a challenge. Some pre-pandemic research found that full-time remote employment increased loneliness by 67% compared to in-office work.
However, remote and hybrid work is unlikely to end anytime soon.
“People have changed, their preferences have changed, the way they like to work has changed,” says Anuradha Mayer, chief people officer at Wind River.
Now companies are trying to balance essential business functions that demand in-person interaction with what has become an outdated way of working.
“The tagline for how our flexible hybrid arrangement works is ‘flexibility with business requirements,’” says Mayer.
“When I have flexibility, I can go pick up my daughter; I can run to the grocery store; I can do what I need to do. But then when there’s a business requirement, a key meeting, an offsite — I need to show up to that. That’s a business requirement.”
Should social interaction and connection with colleagues be a business requirement? Research from Great Place To Work® shows that having a “fun” workplace drives higher levels of well-being for all ages of workers.
“There is and will always be a need for human beings to come together in the workplace, in person, in real life,” says Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer at Deloitte, on the “Better” podcast. “We need to engage…because when we’re remote, we then have a stronger connection with those people.”
Many workers have trepidation about what a fully remote role will mean for their professional life and social connections.
“I was hesitant to commit to a fully remote-forever position, as work relationships and collaboration have always been super important to me,” shares Becky Sharp, principal data scientist at Lex Machina.
At Wind River, employee surveys showed that 92% of employees wanted flexibility and 50% of workers wanted to be fully remote. However, all employees said connection with their colleagues mattered to them.
One of the ways fewer in-person gatherings can stunt workplace culture is that colleagues don’t have as many opportunities to learn about one another. Rather than casually observing things about co-workers over time, hybrid and remote work requires more intentional sharing.
Mayer stresses the importance of vulnerability and for leaders to push past their discomfort in sharing more about their lives.
“That’s how you build trust,” she says, “and that’s the glue that helps us work better when we’re remote.” She recommends that teams make a conscious effort to share stories with each other and build that connection into work meetings, in part because that connection is so invaluable.
“Teams that don’t do that, they just go slower,” she says. “Sometimes they never get there on being the best team that they could be. … This is all in service of working better together.”
Making virtual “fun”
Just because workers are remote doesn’t mean they have to be excluded from “fun” activities.
At Lex Machina, a dedicated culture club plans activities such as a virtual “campfire” where the company hired a professional storyteller and camp singer to lead employees in campfire songs. Employees were mailed kits with marshmallows and graham crackers so everyone could make s’mores — a traditional camping treat.
“They find super creative ways to get us ‘together’ remotely for fun, and it’s really successful!” says Sharp. “As a result, even though the work is remote, I have developed relationships with my co-workers and we have a lot of rich collaboration.”
For workers who want a more passive social experience, Lex Machina employees can log on to a “coworking space” — an open meeting where people turn their cameras on and work on whatever project they like.
“This kind of mimics a coffee shop or coworking space setting, where you are around other people but aren’t directly interacting with them,” Sharp says.
Tips for leaders
How can you ensure remote work really works for your team? Here’s what Mayer and Sharp recommend:
1. Enable your teams to meet their unique needs
“Every team is different,” says Mayer. “Their needs are different — so really understand, what are the needs of the team and what are the needs of business?”
Once you have a process in place, document the policy so everyone is on the same page.
2. Push for transparency
Push for all conversations about a project to be in ‘public,’” says Sharp. For Lex Machina, that means talking on GitHub or Slack where everyone can see the conversation.
“This ensures that people can be on the same page much more easily, especially since we’re not all hanging out such that we would catch up organically,” Sharp adds. “It also allows people to go back and look things up later.”
When possible, Lex Machina tries to encourage team members to work through their problems on the public channel to destigmatize asking for help.
“Lex Machina has explicit expectations of their people managers to publicly discuss their questions/bugs/problems with the code,” Sharp says. “This serves as a model for vulnerability. By normalizing bugs and confusion, all team members can feel more comfortable sharing.”
3. Recommit to listening.
It’s one of the most important high-trust leadership behaviors and Mayer says listening is even more crucial in a remote or hybrid work environment.
“Sometimes we make assumptions,” Mayer says. “I always ask leaders, ‘How do you know? Have you done a listening session? Have you done a survey? What’s your data?’”
Make sure your remote work policies have plenty of input from the people who will be affected by them.
4. Demand that in-person meetings are purpose driven
“People come together for four reasons: to create, to connect, to celebrate, and to learn,” says Mayer. “When we come together, it is very purpose driven.”
What people go to the office for is changing, Fisher adds. “People go to the office to have their human needs met, and one of those human needs — the biggest of those human needs — is human connection.”
Team meetings should have a robust agenda to make every moment count. Organizers should clearly communicate the intended outcomes of the meeting and participants should model high levels of engagement (put away the cell phones and keep laptops closed).
Mayer emphasizes that people expect more than a free lunch when asked to show up for a team meeting.
“Free food alone is not an incentive anymore.”
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