The abrupt shift to remote, hybrid and more physically distant work over the past 9 months has reshaped norms around how we do our work and how we interact with our colleagues. With remote workdays more than doubling since the pandemic began, we have quickly embraced new work practices and behaviors.
While we’re seeing encouraging vaccine and therapeutic advancements that will dramatically improve public health in 2021, the trends with remote and physically distant work will only continue. 64% of companies will broaden permanent remote work policies and 76% of office workers want to continue to work from home in some capacity going forward. And when at the office, we’ll continue physical separation from our colleagues, with over 60% of executives planning to hire staff to manage on-site social distancing.
What this means is for the foreseeable future we’ll continue to have fewer in-person interactions with our coworkers, which absolutely comes at a cost. You can’t fully replicate the authentic interaction that happens when people are physically in the same room. Over 90% of information we convey is non-verbal, like tone, facial expressions and body language - elements that don’t translate well in a virtual setting. This dynamic, combined with the accrued stress and grief that employees will still have to manage through as they cope from the pandemic, signal that we’ll be seeing even higher levels of burnout, isolation and distrust as we enter into 2021.
The most important step for companies to take
For organizations, this continued strain on employees puts culture at risk with collaboration, innovation, wellbeing and, ultimately, organizational performance on the line. And while we can’t bring back the days of seamless in-person meetings and team gatherings, companies are still in a position to improve the ways coworkers connect and communicate with one another. When it comes to digital communications, the single most important thing companies should be doing is deploying employee-centered technology and resources that strengthen both day-to-day productivity and coworker relationships.
Companies must continue to build on the amazing progress they made to stand up platforms and formalize policies that enable daily tasks and collaboration virtually. Productivity tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, which bring essential messaging, file sharing and video conferencing capabilities, will remain foundational systems required to get work done. We see how critical these tools have become by the fact that employees spend an average of 10 hours a day logged into them.
Though ensuring employees are functional in their roles is not all that’s required to enable a modern workforce. As we continue to experience fewer interactions with our colleagues, it will place a unique strain on the employee relationships so critical to establishing trust, belonging and a healthy company culture. And it’s here where companies may make a key mistake: leaning on productivity platforms and channels to promote human connection across the workforce.
Limits of productivity platforms
The problem is that productivity tools aren’t positioned to also support the non-work interactions with our coworkers that are vital to culture, wellbeing and engagement. User experience and features aside, that’s because our most meaningful non-work interactions need separation from the work itself to take root. The water cooler, intramural sports team or happy hour are special because they are physically and mentally distant from doing work, creating the “permission” and context switch we need for informal conversations.
And when you try to use platforms designed for doing work for more than that, you actually make it worse – the more time we spend using tools we associate with work, the more burned out we feel.
How to grow work relationships
To find commonality and get to know each other as people, employees need to have separation from their work, as well as a digital experience that’s designed to build relationships. Based on this, organizations must be purposeful and strategic in fostering human connections among coworkers. To do so requires two main elements:
Dedicated communications platform for coworker relationships
Building coworker relationships today requires a new communications space for all employees - apart from those they use for completing their work. Companies must create a digital home for the casual and spontaneous interactions we used to routinely have at the office.
And this new space must offer a different, tailored user experience. We know from our personal lives using Instagram and Facebook that forming relationships is more about photos and videos than rapid fire texting, more mobile-first than desktop-centric and revolves around sharing high quality content with larger groups vs. chat communication in small ones.
In other words, the experience and features that make productivity tools great for getting work done are exactly why they are ill-equipped for building workplace relationships. Employees need something designed for this purpose.
Training, resources and insights that empower managers
As it comes to nurturing relationships, doing this digitally is not second nature to everyone. Many leaders didn’t “grow up” on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, so offering them a platform alone may not set them up for success. And more broadly, with work demands increasing, it’s hard to remember to put in time around developing coworker relationships, much less do it effectively.
Team building will remain a key leader responsibility, so companies must help their managers develop the new digital skills required to be successful. Empowering leaders with training programs, communication strategies and pre-packaged team building activities will make them more effective in building trust, inclusion and belonging within their teams.
Companies must also get sophisticated in promoting the employee behaviors most associated with their priority business metrics. The analysis of meta data, platform actions and employee survey responses can identify communication behaviors linked with positive outcomes like engagement, retention and performance. Allowing these insights to shape recommended actions for leaders can deliver continuous improvement.
While we’ll continue to have fewer in-person interactions with our colleagues in 2021, companies can build on their digital strategies and communications infrastructure to meet the unique needs associated with daily productivity and employee relationships.