The New World of Work: Forging Connections (Part Two)

The workforce is beginning to emerge from what has been described as the world's largest work-from-home experiment. The experience has undoubtedly shed light on unforeseen scenarios and challenges for today's workforce—creating situations that will impact the world of work indelibly. As companies evaluate performance KPIs and other factors for returning to work in the office, it is crucial to anticipate the potential risks of an extended remote work period and identify learnings to carry forward as employers debate the future locations of their employees. To gather insights to inform those efforts, we surveyed over 300 employees working in companies across the United States to understand attitudes, challenges, and perspectives surrounding the remote work experience. In this blog series, we explore the trends to anticipate in your organization, along with opportunities to address them for improved employee experience outcomes.

Employees have long been accustomed to spending the bulk of their waking hours with co-workers rather than family and friends, and employers have relied on these bonds to improve teamwork, drive employee engagement, and increase productivity. Now, with many employees working from home and physically separated from their co-workers, many are struggling to build and foster the relationships that are so critical to getting work done.

Our research study revealed that newer employees are finding it more difficult than employees with longer tenure to navigate remote work and collaboration.1 Some longer-term employees say they are relying on the social collateral they have built up over their time in an organization. They have more connections and are therefore more informed on who does what and where experience lies. They know when they may need to connect with others, though many still mention that this can be hard due to the lack of unplanned interactions and hallway conversations. Newer employees recognize the need to make connections, but find virtual internal networking to be challenging and potentially cumbersome or annoying to their more tenured managers or teammates. While a casual cafeteria introduction seemed like a simple request, a virtual introduction meeting might be the remote equivalent, but also a sub-optimal alternative given the level of effort. This means they aren’t engaging as actively as they would in a normal in-office situation.

Also, many employees in our research, both new and tenured, say virtual environments breed tension and behaviors that would never occur in person. The lack of non-verbal cues (or limited non-verbal cues in video meetings) makes it challenging to gauge consensus or navigate interpersonal dynamics. Without these cues, employees may be inclined to interpret an interaction as passive-aggressive or combative—a dynamic that stifles the openness, vulnerability, and transparency that are foundational to a positive team working environment. Technology forms a de facto “shield” in which employees may be inclined to say certain things, do certain things, or form certain conclusions that would be unlikely in an in-person interaction.  

As employees navigate the virtual office, they’re finding that it’s easier to nurture existing relationships than build them from the ground-up in a remote setting. Many mentioned that they would not want to hire or onboard a new team member or that they are finding it incredibly difficult to train employees who started just before the shift to remote work. With existing employees, remote work has had an outsized impact on people in sales roles. For instance, those with strong relationships say they’ve kept up via socially distanced get-togethers but are finding it next to impossible to create new relationships—even with prospective customers in industries that have not been heavily impacted by COVID-19.

There’s a widespread feeling that virtual connections are a poor substitute for the real thing. Of the employees who have experienced working with new teams or team members (whether through internal shuffling or new hires), most say they are delaying certain aspects of onboarding or team rituals (e.g., technical sales training or team bonding) until they are back to on-site work. This is because they don’t see a reasonable virtual solution (but also still see this situation as temporary enough that they aren’t motivated to be more creative in how they solve it).

Zoom happy hours don't strengthen culture or build teams: Although employees that hold solid personal relationships with colleagues report successful virtual happy hours, video conferencing is limited in its ability to help employees forge connections. As a result, it is often met with limited enthusiasm. When virtual team bonding sessions are successful, it's usually because they're focused on a purpose beyond just the channel. Examples include discovery and discussion of enneagrams or personality types; games such as Pictionary or Scattergories; kids’ talent shows or show-and-tells; and Ted Talk-style instructional presentations or workshops on topics unrelated to work. The activity must fit with the organization’s culture to be successful—certain games could be alienating and inappropriate for some.

To bolster relationships across employees and teams in the remote workplace, organizations can:

  • Facilitate programs for internal networking to help new or less tenured employees build social collateral. Provide a suggestion for how to engage, rather than just the channel. Encourage tenured employees to champion efforts and motivate both new and tenured employee participation.
  • Reevaluate the new employee onboarding experience. Consider ways to be more intentional in how you cultivate inclusion, collaboration, and connection on your teams. For example, consider setting up one-on-one video chats between the new joiner and each member of the team, creating an opportunity to build personal connections. And give them a prompt to make the virtual networking less awkward and less like an extension of the interview process.
  • Facilitate remote team bonding activities that make sense within the company and team culture. Employees may have been more creative in their approach to personal get-togethers during the stay-at-home orders. Solicit their ideas and reward their creativity.
  • Create a platform for “virtual teaming” knowledge-sharing, utilizing employees and teams who have been successful in defining best practices. When one team solves a problem or enhances a remote experience, socialize those ideas across the organization.

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Making Sense of Insights with Rapid Innovation

These remote work insights offer high-level direction. Yet, as you plan, you’ll need to understand how they can help you form a smarter game plan to improve employee connections in the foreseeable future. Design thinking is a cognitive process that enables you to reimagine possibilities and alternatives—grounding those options in a view of what is desirable, feasible, and viable for your organization. Applying design thinking, North Highland's Rapid InnovationSMapproach can help you make sense of trends in your organization's unique context and identify targeted opportunities that solve your biggest remote-working challenges. By looking first at internal insights and then conducting mini design sprints to address the identified problems, you can get creative on quick solutions to test out. Employees have already demonstrated than they were more creative than they were previously, as evidenced by their successes in creating new workspaces and navigating the new exigencies of childcare. Harness that energy before employees revert to the status quo. 

Click here to read parts one and three in our series.

1: North Highland Remote Work Research Study, 2020.