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How to keep virtual workforces connected

Chris Parke, CEO - Talking Talent

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all been bombarded with new tools and policies to help us acclimatise to the changed world and its new ways of remote working. However, somewhere down the line, we must stop and re-evaluate our position as we risk becoming fixed in these separate and isolated groups. The various tools at our disposal – including Microsoft Teams and Zoom – make it easy to ‘communicate’ with colleagues and friends, but how much are we actually fostering a meaningful connection with one another? It’s crucial for people to feel like they belong in order to foster a truly inclusive workforce – and with working from home ‘hindering staff engagement’, businesses need to work even harder to keep employees engaged and motivated.

The truth is, whilst we may be successfully collaborating within our teams, the human factor has been removed – or at least pulled back. A whole generation of individuals are going to start their careers as remote workers, and will miss out on the crucial experience of interacting with colleagues in person. In fact, one in five employees are already working exclusively from home. From tea rounds to office banter, there are a number of workplace perks that are missing from home working that can make such a big difference to day-to-day life.

For all the positives home working brings – not having to commute and longer lie-ins – being disconnected from a teamwork environment can mean feeling disconnected from the business itself – and this is where problems can start to occur. It is easy to feel detached from a company when you are working largely or entirely from home – and that sense of doing meaningful and purposeful work, that’s making a genuine contribution, can be lost. It’s also easy to forget how important a physical work environment can be for mental wellbeing. Even WeWork and remote communal office spaces offer an environment much more vibrant and social than home offices.

Keeping connected to relieve isolation
With the nation in lockdown and office workers return to full-time home working, it is important for businesses to remember that communicating is not the same as connecting. It’s crucial to inject a personal touch into virtual communications and ensure that employees remain motivated and engaged. The first lockdown pushed many of us to our limits, and as we prepare to face another month of what will be isolation for many, businesses must offer support to employees to help them through these trying times.

Even for those in frequent communication with friends and colleagues, this winter period looks to be a very lonely time for some. Reports in the UK from Bupa show that its health and wellbeing advice line has received 300% more calls since the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, as thousands struggle to cope with pandemic-induced loneliness. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation confirms this reality – 48% of us believe people are getting lonelier in general and more than a third have felt depressed because they felt alone. Despite being technologically connected, we are rapidly becoming the least humanly connected society ever. Businesses must therefore refocus their attentions on bringing the workforce back to the heart of the business – especially as the future of so many teams now seems remote. Put simply, inclusion has never been more important than it is now.

Honesty is the best policy
With the rules of lockdown changing once again, frustrations are beginning to rise amongst the workforce as many are forced to re-adjust their work set-up and schedule again. For most individuals, it may no longer feel like they’re working from home – rather that they are ‘living at work’. Whilst there is little businesses can do to limit the amount of change taking place, leaders can and must make a conscious effort to try and alleviate the frustrations felt by their employees. Now, more than ever, honesty is the best policy – which includes having open and transparent conversations with your team each step of the way. The worst feeling for anyone at the moment is being left in the dark – everyone has a right to know what decisions are being made, and so it is the responsibility of business leaders to keep all employees informed at all times. Offering one-to-one sessions to talk through what practice will work best for each individual employee will be a key part of this. Everyone’s situation is different, so businesses need to work with their staff and ensure that everyone’s needs are accommodated for.

As part of these discussions, businesses must place emphasis on the opportunities for employee progression – and reassure teams that these changes will not halt personal development. It’s easy for workers to feel in limbo where everything is placed on hold until the worst passes – but this cannot be the case. Yes, things have to change in order to survive the twists and turns of the pandemic, but organisations must keep employee development as part of the core business agenda. This will keep workers motivated and ensure that companies continue to retain its invaluable talent – the foundation of any and every business.

Creating a permanent link
To keep the human factor at the forefront of all businesses, companies must make conscious efforts to bring their employees back to the heart of everything. Some employers have made this step in the form of creating a new role – one that is solely dedicated to keeping remote teams connected to the business as a whole. This new job position, the ‘Head of Remote Working’, could be the missing jigsaw piece for remote teams. This role has been created to give a voice to all remote workers, ensuring equality and inclusion for those who may never step foot into a corporate office. But although this is a step in the right direction for some, it’s not enough on its own; it will take dedication and meaningful action from companies and boards to ensure that employees feel connected moving in a long-term home-working dynamic. Diversity and inclusion efforts cannot be seen as a tick-box exercise; they require well thought out and ongoing attention from leaders in order to drive real change.

Employers must make this conscious effort towards true diversity and inclusion and use innovative strategies – such as coaching – to keep workers close to the centre of the business. Those that do are more likely to maintain a motivated and engaged workforce, as they will instil greater trust in their employees. For those who fail to acknowledge this requirement, however, they risk losing the personal touch in their day-to-day working and, as a result, remote teams could become disconnected. Once that human connection has been lost, it’s easy for teams to lose motivation – why stay engaged to a computer screen, or the job behind it, when you can no longer detect the human behind it or feel the contribution you’re making?

That’s why, now more than ever, companies must focus on bringing remote teams together with D&I efforts and usher the human element back into the business day – and into workers’ remote business lives.

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