The majority of employees don’t feel a strong connection to their coworkers and say that collaboration with coworkers requires more effort than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, physical office spaces helped facilitate connection. Informal conversations in the hallway or break room, outings to grab coffee or lunch, or unscheduled visits to a coworker’s desk added up. Now that many organizations have work from anywhere environments, teams are collaborating via a virtual workplace without these natural connection points.

Employees now connect primarily through scheduled meetings, which feel more formal and less natural than in-person conversations. These meetings have led to jam-packed schedules for many employees, and they’re feeling the effects. Employees are burnt out and experiencing digital fatigue. They’re overwhelmed by the amount of time spent on digital devices and the amount of information they receive from them. Finding meeting-free time to complete work is challenging.

Without the benefits of a physical office space, employers must intentionally create or encourage opportunities for employee connections. We recommend taking the following eight steps to nurture a connected and collaborative work environment.

1. Accept that there’s no going back.

The workplace isn’t going to return to what it was before. Organizations need to identify creative ways to connect employees who work across different locations, time zones and work sites.

Employers who accept the workplace as constantly evolving and then pivot to meet employees’ expectations will be more likely to succeed in the long run. Those stuck in the old way of doing things will struggle to engage employees and retain talent who value collaboration, camaraderie and connection.

2. Involve your employees.

No one has all of the answers to what connection in the virtual workplace should look like or what it will look like in the future. Each organization will approach collaboration and connection differently according to what best aligns with their values and supports their purpose or mission.

Leaders should invite employees to participate in reshaping how they connect. Organizations can only shape a collaborative work environment if they understand what’s working today and what isn’t. We recommend employers listen to their employees through surveys and focus groups. Giving employees an opportunity to provide ideas and input helps them feel seen, heard and valued. Acting on that input builds trust.

3. Lead by example and give examples.

Organizations can launch new initiatives to encourage collaboration. But if leaders don’t model the behaviors, they’re unlikely to be widely adopted by employees. For example, an organization may choose to implement 15-minute daily “stand-up” meetings to encourage teams to connect each day. But if a leader or manager continuously reschedules or schedules over the stand-up meeting, the practice likely won’t stick with employees.

Collaborative practices will only become natural and authentic to the culture if leaders support and reinforce them. Leaders can share internal success stories from teams across the organization to provide examples of how to connect and collaborate effectively.

4. Rethink who delivers messages.

Many organizations are overcompensating for lack of interaction and connection by sending out more digital communication. Simply increasing the quantity of messages won’t be effective at building connection and collaboration. However, rethinking who delivers messages can help.

Many people prefer to hear information directly from their manager. Organizations that educate managers on how to communicate well and then arm them with important key messages can nurture healthy, connected teams. Employees have more opportunities to develop trusted relationships with their managers.

5. Define channels with inclusiveness in mind.

Building a culture of connection means ensuring that everyone feels included in it, regardless of where or how they work. Communication should be inclusive and not give priority or preference to certain audiences.

For example, organizations with warehouse or shift employees should consider what collaboration and connection look like to these teams and which channels best reach and engage those employees. Organizations that define their channels, including each channel’s intended purpose, can more effectively nurture relationships with employees.

6. Evaluate the tools you use.

Collaborative work environments are now largely dependent on the technology and tools that teams use to connect across the virtual workplace. Now is a good time to re-evaluate your teams’ tools. Identify how effective these tools are at facilitating collaboration and connection and whether there are any gaps.

Tools may include messaging applications like Slack or Microsoft Teams, project management tools like Asana or Monday, video platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams or collaboration platforms like SharePoint or Google Drive. Employees are a valuable source of input to determine which tools are working well, which aren’t and which are worth evaluating.

7. Set clear guidelines for meetings.

Setting organization-wide meeting guidelines can help companies create a culture of healthy and inspiring connection. Consider the following when establishing guidelines for meetings:

  • What agenda tools can the organization provide employees to ensure that meetings have a clear objective, stay on topic and end on time? If meetings are truly needed, they should be focused, productive and efficient.
  • Are there opportunities to reduce the amount of time employees spend on video during meetings? Which meetings require video, and which can they conduct via a phone call or video-free conference call? Having screen breaks is critical to managing digital fatigue.
  • How can the organization encourage employees to get up and away from their desks during informal meetings and check-ins? Scheduling a “walk and talk” is a great way to bring movement and energy into the day.
  • Are there opportunities to reduce the length of meetings or give employees buffer room between meetings? For example, can 60 minute meetings be reduced to 50 minutes to allow for short breaks between meetings?
  • How can the organization empower and encourage employees to block off chunks of work time on their calendar and create a culture that respects this meeting-free work time?

8. Adapt rituals and traditions for the virtual workplace.

Before the shift to work from anywhere, organizations had in-person rituals or traditions that made their culture special and provided points of connection for employees. There are opportunities to adapt these rituals and traditions, even if work now primarily happens virtually.

Cultural rituals could include daily team huddles and meeting-free Fridays that open up schedules for less formal connection or collaborative brainstorming. They could include monthly all-team meals, virtual “high fives”/employee recognition and more. Brainstorm with employees on how to revive these traditions or create new ones that align with the organization’s purpose, mission and values.

Infusing moments of connection into the virtual workplace and fostering a collaborative work environment generates a sense of belonging among employees. Employees who feel a sense of belonging at work are more engaged. And when they’re more engaged, they’re more committed to the organization and inspired and motivated to produce higher quality work. The organizations that embrace the virtual workplace and look for ways to connect employees will thrive.

Discover how to build a strong, human-centric organizational culture. Download our guide.

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