COVID-19 plunged workplaces worldwide into a remote working paradigm, and the consensus is that work-from-home (WFH) will be a major part of our future lives. A global survey from Cisco finds that 53% of larger organisations will shrink office sizes beyond COVID-19. Despite the benefits of WFH, however, its impact on workplace relationships is mixed and complicated.

On the downside, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in a recent interview, workplace relationships become more transactional when you are not in the office with your colleagues and host most of your meetings via videoconferencing. “Work happens before meetings, after meetings,” says Nadella.

Not only are those watercooler moments important for team bonding, they are often also where the discussions that spark some of the business’s best ideas happen. It’s not surprising, then, that many CEOs around the world are concerned that prolonged work-from-home will erode company culture, innovation, and morale over the longer term.

RMB is one example of a South African company that has embraced WFH during the pandemic. CEO James Formby is vocal about the productivity benefits his company is enjoying as a result of WFH, but he admits employees miss the interaction with colleagues. Informal interactions such as having a coffee or lunch with a team member are difficult to replicate online.

On the upside, most organisations are learning how to support high-quality collaboration when teams aren’t located in the same office. Provided they are enabled with connectivity and the appropriate tools, many people are far more productive at home, away from the noise and politics of the office.

Some personality types that are overlooked in the office setting shine when they are working remotely. For instance, introverts may benefit when their output is assessed according to the quality of their work rather than how much they say in meetings. Motivation and energy levels can rise when people are not fighting traffic to and from work and get to spend more time with their families.

Team leaders and HR departments can use a range of tools and techniques to amplify the benefits of WFH and mitigate the drawbacks:

  • Facetime is important: Given that so many communication cues are non-verbal, it’s important to schedule video calls to help build trust and rapport among teams. Informal videoconference ‘coffee time’ can help people to build and maintain their relationships beyond sharing emails and instant messages.
  • Check-in calls and meetings can keep everyone on the same page: Whether it takes the form of a Monday morning videoconference or a short stand-up meeting each day, make space for the team to share updates and raise concerns about projects, priorities and expectations.
  • Set clear expectations: In a remote environment, clear communication of responsibilities and deadlines is more important than ever.
  • Listening is key: In today’s more fluid workplace, companies will need to be more imaginative and personal in their engagements with employees. It’s important to listen, whether via one-on-ones or anonymous workplace surveys, to understand the new challenges and expectations in the workplace.

There is general agreement that WFH is here to stay, although perhaps not in the same extreme form as we experienced during more restrictive levels of the national lockdown. Many South African companies will adopt a blended model, where some people can always WFH or where most people can WFH a couple of days a week.

To get it right, companies will need to understand how WFH will reshape culture in the workplace and be proactive in nurturing healthy relationships in their teams.