Breaking down virtual barriers

Having been forced to embrace virtual technology and an entirely remote workforce, many organisations and employees are re-considering the value in traditional office environments. 

Microsoft has reported they’ve “seen total video calls in Teams grow by over 1,000 percent in the month of March” 1. Zoom has experienced similar success with the number of users increasing to over 300 million at the end of April, compared with around 10 million users prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.2

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the adoption of behaviours and technology that facilitates effective home working, with the Financial Times reporting that the crisis has engineered the “digital era’s equivalent of a rapid mass literacy programme, this time in how to use IT” 3. Many employees and organisations are now normalised to and “literate” in virtual working practices. With this in mind, and given that social distancing measures are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, businesses have no doubt already started questioning the need for an expensive office portfolio. Companies will be tentative to revert to the reliance on physical office space not only due to cost implications, but also because of the challenges office dependency presents to organisational resilience and employee wellbeing.

The FT reported that Capita’s Chief Executive may consider “a smaller property footprint once the pandemic is over” with offices being “less to house banks of standalone desks and much more to bring teams together to work collaboratively”. 4

However, many of us will have already experienced some of the pitfalls of remote working over the past few months. Holding collaborative workshops, sensitive conversations, building trust and recognising employee contribution can all prove difficult to navigate and deliver within a virtual context. Whilst in recent weeks, organisations have been on reactive mode to stay afloat within the circumstances, we’re now looking to explore how organisations can start to capitalise on the “new norm” and successfully engage, reward and develop employees within a virtual setting.

We’ve outlined some considerations for organisations as they seek to enhance the remote and virtual employee experience: 

Monitoring and rewarding performance

  • Act-fast, providing real-time feedback: if you are concerned about the performance of an employee, respond quickly and make time to communicate. This will give you the opportunity to ensure expectations are aligned and allow you to “check-in” on the overall well-being of your colleague. Remote working means we have less visibility of our colleagues’ workloads and personal circumstances which can make it easier for challenges to spiral or go un-addressed for long periods of time. 
  • Celebrate success: encourage regular and pro-active recognition of good employee performance, for example through professional social media platforms, like Yammer, or weekly team calls.

The Harvard Business Review proposes that “small and frequent performance guidance circumvents major corrections down the road and allows everyone to stay in sync despite distance and daily change” 5

Encouraging internal network building 

  • Eliminate siloes by engineering opportunities for cross-departmental conversation: at Moorhouse we have an optional weekly “coffee roulette” to encourage dialogue between employees across teams and facilitate ad-hoc conversations that an office environment more naturally lends itself to. Facilitating interactions to chat with colleagues outside of structured teams also provides a channel to discuss different perspectives and share advice on work or general ‘life’ challenges. 
  • Encourage employees to be pro-active and reach out to new joiners: the above recommendation is particularly pertinent for new joiners who will likely rely on formal interactions in their first few weeks and months at an organisation. Demonstrating visibility is really important and virtual working definitely acts as barrier to the onboarding process, a time when joiners are often keen to demonstrate their enthusiasm and capability. It is important that management is proactive and encourages the wider team to make the effort to generate dialogue and connections with new joiners, allowing them the opportunity to build their network across the firm. 

Prioritising company culture

  • Maintain motivation and purpose: sustained remote working may lead to employee disengagement. Finding purpose in your work can sometimes feel abstract without the physical visibility of your team. Providing transparent and honest communications on progress against your organisation’s strategic goals will help to re-focus employees and serve as a reminder that they are a valued contributor to something bigger, which can be difficult to grasp from your home study or living room! 
  • Provide opportunities to connect ‘outside’ of work: create a space for social interactions to maintain a sense of belonging and ensure colleagues feel connected and visible. It is important to provide lots of opportunities for this at different times and days to best accommodate varying home environments. However, do allow an opt-out and be conscious of over-whelming those employees for whom an additional work-related commitment may present added pressure. 

Developing your talent virtually

  • The importance of mentoring: the role of a mentor becomes even more significant when working remotely. Whilst there is a lot of value in informal mentoring relationships, it is now crucial for structured mentoring practices to be in place to ensure all employees feel connected and supported. Mentors should check-in with their mentees on a more regular basis to allow colleagues the forum to communicate any challenges. Our current working climate can also make the concept of long-terms goals and a career trajectory difficult to comprehend; in this context the traditional role of a mentor is heightened to provide direction and refocus mentees on professional development. 
  • Empower employees to take ownership of their training and development remotely: As companies move into the next phase of remote working, the need for effective learning solutions to continue to empower and develop their resources will be vital. In a recent perspective, we explored how organisations can optimise their development framework through online solutions which can improve the engagement and access to training across an organisations’ employee landscape in comparison to traditional face-to-face delivery.

These considerations are just the beginning as we all begin to contemplate what a model post-pandemic workplace and career will look like. In our next perspective, the People & Change team will explore what some of the lasting effects of the pandemic will be on employees, working environments and organisational design.

References: 

1. Microsoft 365 (Remote Work Trend Report: Meetings)  https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/blog/2020/04/09/remote-work-trend-report-meetings/
2. Bloomberg (Zoom Daily Users Surge to 300 Million Despite Privacy Woes) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-22/zoom-daily-users-surge-to-300-million-despite-privacy-woes 
3. The Financial Times (Glimpses of a silver lining in the Great Lockdown) https://www.ft.com/content/5d62f752-857a-11ea-b555-37a289098206
4. The Financial Times (The end of the Office? Coronavirus may change work forever) https://www.ft.com/content/1b304300-0756-4774-9263-c97958e0054d
5. Harvard Business Review (How can managers support remote employees) https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-managers-can-support-remote-employees

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Theni Paramaguru Consultant