The quality of the relationships we hold at work – with our managers, colleagues and clients – is fundamental to the way we feel about our jobs. As hybrid working has taken hold, however, these connections have become harder to build and maintain.
On the one hand, virtual and hybrid working has the potential to offer greater opportunities for collaboration and inclusion than ever before, bringing people together across functions, departments and geographical boundaries and leading to unprecedented levels of connectivity. Many organisations have reaped the benefits in terms of greater team cohesion, as over the last few years employees have collaborated, supported each other and pulled together to keep the wheels turning.
Working remotely and managing your own time can, however, be challenging in many ways; people can become detached from colleagues, disengaged with work, isolated or lonely.
Worrying trends are beginning to emerge. Recent research suggests 70% of workers are feeling lonely, with side-effects such as depression and anxiety. Zoom fatigue is on the rise, and employees report missing the ‘water cooler’ conversations that help them understand what is really going on in the business. Tackling these issues is key to the bottom-line performance of any organisation.
The HR function need to continue to build on the benefits of hybrid working by increasing autonomy, whilst also paying attention to connecting people.
The above tensions were mirrored in our recent management report Reconnecting at work: The dark side and the sunny side.
Several participants felt the fact they no longer needed to be physically present in the office or at meetings was making the workplace more inclusive and collaborative. “I have access to 40 people around the world via Zoom. This was not possible before the pandemic. I am able now to reach more people across the globe and open up unique collaborations across geographical boundaries,” one interviewee told us.
Others, however, mentioned concerns about the lack of opportunity to ask colleagues for informal, just-in-time help. For some, this reduced connection is having a significant impact on wellbeing and productivity. “I experienced difficulties with writing a proposal…I was hesitant to approach others. Being home based, it was not easy to call or email colleagues. I very much miss the office where you can easily approach others”, said one interviewee.
Shifting power structures
The lack of a level playing field between home-workers and those who are mainly office based was also an issue raised by survey participants. Some reported feeling resentment, stemming from perception that work was being allocated unfairly, or that they had become ‘invisible’. A power imbalance at meetings, between remote workers and colleagues who were all together physically in the same room, was also highlighted. Some described how they felt more visible when they were physically in an office and could “bump into leaders”.
In order to move forward successfully, leaders and the HR function need to continue to build on the benefits of hybrid working by increasing autonomy, whilst also paying attention to connecting people and reducing loneliness. With that in mind, here are some recommendations for leaders and HR departments.
Reinforce collaboration and inclusivity
Research by Microsoft found that companies that provide bonuses for internal relationship building activities had employees with higher levels of job satisfaction and happiness. HR needs to reinforce the legitimacy of time spent on connecting, whether that is through formal reward and recognition, or through initiatives such as internal buddy systems.
Focus on purpose and belonging
Among the younger generation of workers, organisations that have a clear purpose are more attractive, as is a sense of belonging at work. Organisations need to review to what extent they offer such working environments and what else can be done to improve.
Improve boundaries between work/life balance
The changing work context has created new expectations in the workplace. Many employees (including those who are now joining the workforce) expect flexible working environments which allow a balance between work and social/home commitments. In general, we believe that this is a positive change.
For our wellbeing, we need to exchange real emotions which are critical to friendship and building working relationships.
At the same time, however, leaders need to be mindful that employees may feel obliged to join Zoom calls on their days off and would struggle to establish personal boundaries. There is growing evidence of some of the negative impacts of virtual working (e.g. Zoom fatigue). Organisations and leaders need to put in place rules and mechanisms that help employees to maintain a healthy balance and avoid poor mental health.
Increase psychological safety in your organisation
Given the loss of physical connection, it is important to invest more in a climate of psychological safety in which people can express themselves without fear of sanction. It’s especially important to bring ‘quieter voices’ into the conversation who may otherwise feel excluded from key conversations, or who are uncomfortable contributing to large, virtual meetings.
Hold regular open forums to express and share painful emotions
Organisations tend to focus on the more tangible aspects of organisational life, including targets, actions and bottom-line performance. It’s important, however, to organise forums where staff at all levels can discuss how they are feeling. For our wellbeing, we need to exchange real emotions which are critical to friendship and building working relationships.
We need to be prepared for a blended experience. In this context, it is critical to teach people how to develop meaningful relationships online.
Hold a kick-off meeting with your team and key stakeholders to reset expectations on the ground rules of reconnecting back at work, including who is doing what and how have roles shifted? What are the ‘open’ as well as the ‘hidden’ expectations? How do we communicate now? How do we make decisions and resolve conflict?
Skills development for working in a virtual world
Henry Timms, CEO of the performing arts Lincoln Centre argued that we need to challenge the notion that ‘in person’ is meaningful and everything else is trivial. We need to be prepared for a blended experience. In this context, it is critical to teach people how to develop meaningful relationships online. These activities can range from providing advanced skills training on how to use virtual platforms, starting meetings with a ‘check in’ on the mood of individuals as well as the overall team, and legitimising the importance of both offering and receiving support from others.
We must remember that for most of us, working remotely is a relatively recent phenomenon and as a result, we are still in a period of readjustment as we start to take these practices forward in the longer term. As a result, the way we think about and practice inclusion will have to adapt, and that can only be a good thing.
If you liked this, read: Do you need a hybrid mindset to go with your hybrid working?