What has more than a year of remote work, job uncertainty, and canceled networking events done to our work relationships — and where do we go from here?
The future of the physical workplace is still in flux. While some employees head back to the office this fall, other companies are putting a hold on in-person interaction, opting instead to extend remote working or enact a hybrid workplace. Regardless of employees’ physical location, it’s important to recognize that as work evolves, the ways we communicate and socialize at work also need to evolve.
Our Social Challenge
The pandemic has taken its toll on emotional states and social skills. Many people are fatigued, socially out of practice, and generally burnt out. Many others have seen their words or intent misunderstood over email or chat. The familiarity and goodwill established over informal and random, unplanned interactions in the hallways or at work events are no longer as easy to come by. These informal interactions were often the key to acquiring social capital — benefits people can get because of whom they know. Although some leaders have been quick to turn to more video meetings as a fix for less face time, more meetings don’t necessarily mean more connection. On the contrary, too many video meetings can often lead to feelings of isolation and a lack of connection. The key now is to figure out how to recreate these informal interactions in a remote environment for similar results.
The Value of Our Work Relationships
Some supervisors may have micromanaged workers without experience managing a remote team, seeding mistrust and resentment and adding more problems in an already stressful situation. This culture of distrust can diminish motivation, collaboration, and productivity and significantly impact an organization’s bottom line.
Strong relationships are at the heart of a productive and effective organization. In Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, survey results found that people who said they felt more productive also reported stronger workplace relationships than those who didn’t feel as productive. In contrast, those who said their interactions with colleagues have decreased this year were less likely to think strategically, collaborate or brainstorm with others, and propose innovative ideas. With fewer networking events and training sessions, younger and newer workers, in particular, are feeling a lack of interaction at work.
With work relationships — or a lack thereof — affecting our emotional state and our ability to do our jobs well, how do we rekindle our relationships at work to build trust, strengthen bonds, and effectively communicate in a virtual environment?
How to Create New Social Bonds at Work
Whether everyone at the organization is remote, split between remote and in-person, or all are back at the office, a post-pandemic communication refresh is likely in order. It’s essential to set up a plan to keep information flowing and strengthen relationships, whether your team is remote, in-person, or somewhere in-between. Here are five ideas to consider as you put a plan into place.
1. Proactively over-communicate.
Both employees and their bosses can make an extra effort to communicate how their projects are going and where they are seeing obstacles and ask for help where needed. Regular check-ins, even if they’re brief, can help team members feel connected and heard. As a leader, employees need to hear from you regularly about work-related issues and non-work musings. Be human, present, and open.
Conducting live video sessions where people can submit questions or ask things on the spot.
Sending out regular newsletter-style communications to keep employees informed.
Having a dedicated channel on Slack for employees to submit questions and ideas.
Regularly responding to questions and feedback to the organization as a whole.
Encouraging open and honest communication and being an active listener. Allow people to vent and work together to come up with solutions, and leave space for non-work discussion where it’s needed.
Recognizing both individuals and teams for their accomplishments and finding new ways to celebrate wins as a company.
2. Experiment with collaboration.
Although it’s clear that constant video meetings aren’t the way to go, leaders can still use the tools they have at their disposal — which, in a remote or hybrid work environment, often include electronic communication — to encourage collaboration and bonding. Video conference platforms like Zoom can be limiting if you let them, but they can also give space for experimenting with new types of gatherings. How can you bring some of your favorite elements of in-person meetings and events into a virtual environment? Even when a computer screen separates people, you can still create opportunities for employees to treat one another with kindness, show interest in one another’s lives, mentor and share knowledge, and go above and beyond to help one another. It’s possible to make work bonding fun without making it feel forced.
Bring events to life. Mix up the usual day-to-day by watching a movie as a group or asking your team to listen to a podcast or read a book on their own time, then discuss it, book club-style. Learn something new on a site like MasterClass, virtually visit a museum, or try an AirBnB Experience scavenger hunt or historical tour. Host virtual lunch-and-learns and bring on interesting guest speakers or internal employees who have something unique, relevant, or educational to share with others. Schedule virtual happy hours and incorporate themes like “crazy hat day” or “show off your pets.” Put regular coffee breaks and check-ins on the calendar. These types of chats don’t have to be mandatory; if employees are interested, they’ll join — and they may even create their own.
Get chatty. Encourage employees to suggest or create interest-based Slack channels to build on workplace culture and help people feel more connected and bonded. These channels can revolve around anything from video game-centric chats, to Ted Lasso analysis, to competitive running discussions. The options are endless, and your employees should drive what kinds of topics they want to talk about and share. Survey teams to find out what’s on their mind and respond accordingly.
Let your employees lead when it comes to event ideas or hosting, too — they have great ideas if you’re willing to hear them.
3. Be intentional.
Consider work gatherings, whether in-person, remote or a mix of both, with more intention. As Priya Parker says in her book The Art of Gathering, “The way we gather matters.” It’s possible that remote gatherings can outshine our rote in-person get-togethers when they are treated with intention, Parker says. She suggests that when considering a meeting or virtual get-together, start by focusing on the reason you’re gathering people together in the first place. Get very specific about what you really want to accomplish.
Before diving straight into the gathering, consider an opening ritual that welcomes everyone. Try asking people to share a physical object in their workspace and why it matters to them to help create a shared moment despite not being physically not together. This type of opening ritual, Parker says, also gives people insights into their colleagues and managers: their history, what they care about, and how they make decisions. And it’s a great way to get everyone invested and on the same page.
Keep in mind that while purpose is important, chatting about weekend plans or being silly together is just as important as serious conversations. Making meetings intentional and inclusive while being social can make a meeting or event a success. Today’s informal “hallway interactions” are often virtual — and they help create the goodwill and trust that leads to strong bonds and feeds all-important social capital.
4. Ensure everyone is on equal footing.
Physical workspaces have changed for many, but organizations haven’t necessarily changed with them. It’s vital to ensure a level playing field between remote and in-office workers. Christie Lenneville, GitLab vice president of user experience, suggested that companies work under the policy that “if one person is remote, everyone is remote” — in other words, participating in the meeting through their computer screen. Otherwise, it’s too easy for those in the physical meeting room to dominate the conversation and make others feel isolated and disengaged.
Lenneville recommended other tactics that have worked well for GitHub, a fully remote company. These include recording videos to support asynchronous communication, holding remote office hours and asynchronous brainstorms, optimizing conference rooms to accommodate both in-person and remote employees, and maintaining a written document like a Wiki to keep all employees up-to-date on important information constantly.
5. Be patient.
Having empathy and patience as a leader is paramount. Whether you’re keeping things status quo or changing your employees’ work environment, trying new things may take time to click, with a lot of trial and error along the way. Find out what your employees need from you before you decide to implement something new. Coming back into a physical office can bring anxiety and concerns, as may being part of a hybrid staff or being remote for the first time. Social norms may take a while to feel normal again. They may also fundamentally change, so take things as they come and let your employees lead. Work under the assumption that people are doing the best they can. Many people may be dealing with personal issues outside of work and seeking additional support. Others may feel out of the loop or uncertain about their place at the company after a year-plus of upended work norms. Make mental health a priority.
A More Intentional Path Forward
We can no longer take for granted the easy ways we used to build camaraderie, trust, and strong bonds with our colleagues and managers. We must be more creative and more intentional in a remote environment, which isn’t a bad thing. For many, changing the way we used to do things is likely something long overdue, and it will help us forge better relationships going forward in any work environment.