As we weather the third wave of COVID-19 infections, many employees are feeling lonely and exhausted from more than a year of remote working. While most have adapted well to the work-from-home reality, isolation is taking a toll on even the most resilient. Companies need to keep focusing on creative ways to help people feel connected to the business and their teams.

According to international stats cited by Employee Benefits News, more than half of employees reported they have felt lonely while working from home. In addition to the emotional strain this places on employees, it could have a range of negative consequences for the business. These may include lower productivity, weaker collaboration, poor workforce morale, a loss of culture and feeling of belonging, and attrition of top talent. Companies can put proactive steps in place to ensure that this does not happen.

Here are some techniques that companies around the world are finding effective in supporting remote teams and helping people to feel connected.

  1. Check-in one on one

Managers can help their people to feel appreciated and supported by scheduling time for regular one-on-one check-ins. A mere 15-minute check in call can assist companies to find out how each person is doing, and if there is any support they need to be at their best from a mental, emotional and performance perspective.

In a digital world, check-ins have evolved into a deeper discussion where managers can get to know their people in a more personal way than before, and to understand their individual challenges during Covid 19. They  can communicate the message “We care about you, you are one of us, and you matter”.

In a digital world, it has become a mental health check-in for many in isolation, which requires leaders to develop new capabilities such as connective intelligence. Leaders are now required to become fluent in identifying digital body language, whereas it was easier in the past to spot if someone was having an off day. Even a drive-by email from a senior leader to ask how each person is doing can help keep their spirits up.

  1. Consider a buddy system 

Natural Resources Canada suggests putting a buddy system in place. “Having a buddy system on a team where employees can check in on each other helps ease some of the manager’s burden and keeps teammates connected… Today, we can still rely on each other to help us adjust to a new way of working and living,” according to the website.

Encourage and reinforce a culture where not only managers check in on employees, but where colleagues too can check in to uplift and encourage each other – and remember that your top management are also colleagues and equally need support, gratitude and encouragement during this time.

  1. Use collaboration tools in creative ways

Encourage employees to use tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom for social bonding. It will motivate teams as employees need to be reminded of the power of collaboration, inclusion and organisational values. Managers can from time to time allow the team to take the lead on what to talk about.  Start with an icebreaker and give the team members free rein. Such meetings will give teams an opportunity to express what is on their minds. It will win their respect and fuel their interests in and passion for those times when you need to talk about targets and achievements. There are great free online team building ideas to further cultivate team spirit and fun in a digital world.

  1. Put wellness under the spotlight 

At this stage of the pandemic, mental and physical wellness should still be at the top of the agenda. Employees who are practicing self-care will be better equipped to steer through the moments of frustration and loneliness they might experience working from home.

PwC offers three tips:

  • Creating at-home exercise programmes;
  • Conducting a steps challenge, where employees compete by taking steps throughout the day; and
  • Creating an online repository of recipes and ideas for healthy, tasty meals and snacks.

Here are some others:

  • Define your company’s areas of wellness, such as physical, educational, emotional, and financial requirements, and reaching out to others in need.
  • Arrange webinars with experts on the matters important to the overall wellbeing of your employees, such as stress, anxiety, burnout, bereavement and healthy eating during a pandemic.
  • Encourage intellectual stimulation such as studies to make sure employees stay focussed on a vision and enrich their careers.
  • Encourage employees to join exercise groups on Strava, Wellness Days, etc
  • Provide gamified experiences for employees to learn and practice good financial principles.
  • Shine the spotlight on those less fortunate and provide opportunities for employees to make a difference in their society.
  1. Encourage kindness

Research cited in HBR suggests that higher rates of courtesy, helping and praise in the organisation are predictive of productivity, efficiency and lower turnover rates. When leaders and employees are kind to each other, they build a business that is happier, more innovative and more collaborative.

The article suggests some ways that companies can encourage kindness in the remote workplace:

  • Leaders and other high-status team members should lead by example. When they praise others, they encourage similar behaviours across their teams.
  • It can be helpful to have a “kindness round” in video meetings, with team members encouraged to acknowledge each other’s work. Not only will your employees be kinder to themselves and their colleagues, but they will also pay it forward to your customers
  1. Create opportunities for ‘casual collisions’

Another article in HBR speaks about the importance of engineering ‘casual collisions’. This is about creating opportunities for employees to have the sort of spontaneous encounters in virtual settings that they would have in the office kitchen. One idea is ‘office video-chat roulettes’, pairing employees who don’t already know one another for real-time social interactions. Another is to leave an online room open for anyone who wants to drop by for a social coffee during the working day.

  1. Keep celebrating important days and company milestones

During a time of remote work and pandemic, many of the events companies used to celebrate pass by unmarked or noted with little more than a company-wide email. Finding ways to celebrate special days, occasions and achievements in a remote setting can do wonders for morale, from onboarding new employees and making them feel included, to recognising employees for good performance, birthdays, anniversaries and so forth. This blog post has some more ideas. Find reasons to celebrate and bring hope for the future.

  1. Empathic responses are key

After a prolonged period of remote work, days can blur together and the old boundaries between work and personal life can collapse. This makes it important to find new ways to help people connect and find purpose. Technology is the enabler, but empathy and understanding from colleagues and senior executives are what builds a great company culture, whether working remotely or in the office.

Although remote work is taking place, we have to acknowledge the many South Africans who are brave enough to go to their place of work daily due to the nature of their tasks.

References:

https://www.benefitnews.com/news/wfh-loneliness-is-the-latest-virtual-challenge-for-employers

https://teambuilding.com/blog/virtual-team-celebration

https://hbr.org/2021/05/dont-underestimate-the-power-of-kindness-at-work

https://hbr.org/2021/03/remote-workers-need-small-talk-too

https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/how-to-stay-connected-working-remotely.html

https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/nrcan/covid-coronavirus-nrcan-employee/working-nrcan-during-covid-19/6-tips-staying-connected-team-during-covid-19/22746

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=digital+behaviour+erica+dhawan&&view=detail&mid=6426F522B593F094C0A56426F522B593F094C0A5&&FORM=VRDGAR&ru=%2Fvideos%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Ddigital%2Bbehaviour%2Berica%2Bdhawan%26FORM%3DHDRSC4

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