Slack, the technology company, recently conducted a survey in light of the surge in remote working that includes some great data on communicating effectively with remote teams.

Of the nearly 3,000 workers Slack quizzed in March this year, 45% reported working remotely. Of these, two-thirds said they were doing so because of COVID-19 concerns.

But what I found most interesting about the survey was its distinction between ‘newly remote’ workers and those that are ‘experienced’ in working from home. Of the former, 45% said their sense of belonging had suffered, compared to just 25% of experienced remote workers.

Put differently, the survey shows that “newly remote workers are nearly twice as likely as their experienced counterparts to say that their sense of belonging has taken a hit since they started working from home”.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the work of a company just trying to push its wares to office workers. However, it does speak to a broader theme — the challenge to professional relationships that working from home presents. This is particularly the case for those who haven’t yet established their networks.

In my last post, I speculated that this pandemic might offer the moment in which we reimagine what it is to be human in a technology-driven world. As such, this could lead the way to the re-design of workplaces to better focus on the individual.

But it would be wrong to diagnose the problem of not communicating effectively and connection in the workplace purely in terms of the physical distance created by remote working. It would be equally wrong to blame this on the modern world’s infatuation with electronic communications at the expense of traditional human contact. Indeed, in a world of remote working, technology, when it’s being properly utilised, supports belonging in the workplace.

The key aspect to recognise is that good technology is supplemental to a much more fundamental set of conditions. These being the importance of a team member feeling emotionally connected to their place of work and the knowledge that their individual contribution meaningfully adds to the organisation’s broader purpose.

These conditions are the precursors to ensuring colleagues feel sufficiently energised to communicate effectively. They are the best defence employers have against the challenges posed by dispersed workforces. Properly executed, they can ensure that even members of staff wrenched from the office before they got to know the company feels connected to what it is you are trying to achieve.

I’ve already summarised in these pages the important principle of belonging, and how effective contribution — the art of aligning personal and company goals — can help burst open the reservoirs of productive potential in people.

But what I want to focus on today is the application of these principles to communicating effectively during an era of remote working. Below, are some practical tips for businesses struggling to keep their employees connected:

Energise your employees by empowering them

  • No CEO or business leader should underestimate the importance of regular messages to their people. Recorded videos or even live and interactive Q&A sessions offer a useful way to overcome the physical void. The important point is that these communications offer a tangible update on strategy and a guiding set of principles by which individual job roles can serve the broader company purpose.
  • Train your line managers to erase that ‘gofer’ mentality. Treating people like subordinates who pick up menial and sporadic tasks is a sure-fire way of breeding resentment and apathy. Of course, junior members of the team will still be expected to pick up some administrative tasks, but everyone should be given a personal development plan and a clear path for how they can improve their skills for progression. Project-based work, in which they are given a broad goal and an understanding of how it supports the business, then encouraged to work autonomously to get there, is a much better way of connecting with them.

A culture of inclusiveness and belonging

  • If you want to create a culture in which employees feel able to bring their whole selves to work, and in turn, feel connected to you, think about how your structures enable their individuality to shine. If, for example, they are from a minority, have you got a social network for existing minority employees or a mentoring system? Do you have a mechanism by which their perspectives demonstrably inform decision-making at the corporate level?
  • If an employee suffers from a form of anxiety that is affecting their morale and they think disqualifies them for a management position, can you call on a visible leader who has suffered from mental illness in the past? Could this leader offer a presentation and make it clear that, with the right level of support, they too can progress in your organisation?
  • As I’ve said before, the more leadership teams can demonstrate diversity, the more others from different backgrounds will feel validated by their individuality. This is not just in terms of representation of different ethnicities and genders but in varied leadership styles. Indeed, this will give them the confidence to express their talents and communicate authentically.

Workplace wellbeing

  • We should accept that people might need to operate more flexibly when they have to play teacher to children who have been sent home to self-isolate. Or perhaps they simply want to get some fresh air in the middle of the day to break up the boredom of staring at their screen. Judging performance on outcome-based tasks that can be completed in a reasonable timeframe, rather than how many hours in the day a team member has been logged on to their laptop, is surely a better approach.
  • Replace the camaraderie and spontaneous banter that arises from working in an office with online events such as quizzes or competitions such as scoring the best home-baked cakes. What might seem like trivial details actually enable employees to bring their whole selves to work and create bonds of loyalty.

Forward-thinking companies will see COVID-induced remote working as an opportunity, facing new expectations from staff who want to work more flexibly. They won’t fret about the dangers of workforces feeling disconnected. They won’t over-estimate the role of digital technology, in and of itself, in bridging the physical divide.

Instead, they are investing in the key principles that enable you to communicate effectively and support connected workforces — empowerment, inclusivity, and belonging.

If you’d like to learn more about applying these principles, please get in touch.

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