COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the nature of work, creating the opportunity for the workforce and C-suites to make meaningful connections that could improve retention, productivity and performance. How can organizations support these connections over time?
The rapid shift to remote work has fundamentally changed the way we work day-to-day. While this change highlights the amazing human capacity for ingenuity and innovation, it also comes with deep social side effects. Loneliness and isolation are on the rise as employees struggle to balance personal and professional obligations at scale when the boundaries between home and work have disappeared.
As a result, creating meaningful connections matters more than ever when it comes to boosting employee engagement, reducing team member stress and improving operational outcomes. But what does that look like in practice? How can businesses make — and maintain — these connections as they transition away from upheaval to navigate the new normal? How do we give our employees hope?
Stressed to Impress
If employees aren't fully engaged, and don't feel cared for, productivity suffers. Some organizations choose to attempt to prevent potential dips in performance by increasing the pressure — they ramp up expectations and reduce the chance for employees to invest time in creating meaningful connections. Not surprisingly, this approach typically backfires. Employees' health can suffer by adding this kind of stress to an already difficult situation, and loyalty, trust and engagement can also suffer because initial upticks in demands give way to frustration. This can lead to an increase in overall anxiety, on-the-job errors, lack of collaboration and attrition.
Cultivating connections offers a different path to success. Employees are the heart of an organization and those who feel heard and valued by their organization are more likely to deliver their best work. It is a question of engaging the heart and the mind to build a long-lasting and supportive connection between the organization and the employee. As Forbes notes, 89% of human resource leaders say this great work happens when team members receive value-based recognition, including from peers enabled by regular HR reach outs and check-ins. In other words, human connection in the workplace is critical to boost associates' satisfaction, improve retention and enhance productivity — it doesn't happen by accident, it has to be a deliberate strategy to stay connected.
The Remote Work Paradox
Working from home has created a performance paradox: While house-bound employees need connection more than ever, digital-first deployments naturally create social and cultural distance. As a result, many are reporting increased feelings of loneliness and isolation since stay-at-home orders started.
Consider the uptick of video collaboration tools. They offer more connective benefit than corporate email chains or team text chats, but they can also introduce social friction. From the potential for people to misunderstand colleagues if call quality suffers or connections suddenly drop to the added pressure of allowing peers to virtually visit their home office — often complete with rambunctious kids, parading pets and a host of digital distractions — while it can be humanizing to "visit" our team members homes - it's easy for employees to get overwhelmed by both the broad pressures of a COVID-19-impacted home life and the specific stressors of virtual interaction.
For HR teams, creating connections requires finding a way to amplify the upsides of "virtual togetherness" while avoiding the downsides of using socially distant tools and technologies.
Finding the Middle Ground
While there's no silver bullet here and no magic wand to remove the stress that our teammates feel in uncertain times, there are several ways HR colleagues and C-suite leaders can help boost morale and facilitate enterprise wide connections. These include:
- Bringing calm out of chaos — Employees look to leaders for calm in times of uncertainty, and it's easy for our people to get overwhelmed by their news feeds and the constantly evolving public health advice. By offering, on a regular and consistent cadence, a more positive look at current conditions, even if it's simply in the context of small company wide successes or affirmations of organizational health and support, HR and C-suite leaders can help increase certainty, reduce potential panic and improve performance.
- Removing communication barriers — The removal of physical barriers was a popular facilities project several years ago. By eliminating office walls and opening floor plans, businesses hoped to facilitate cross team connections. But this well-intended effort didn't address the underlying issue: lack of communication. When employees have space to freely voice opinions, make suggestions and offer thoughts — and leaders follow up — communicative walls come down and innovation and discovery of new ways of working happens.
- Asking real questions — Exchanging typical pleasantries won't cut it when it comes to creating meaningful connections. Leaders must be prepared to engage with employees by asking questions about how they're holding up, what challenges they're facing and where we can do better. We want our employees to feel that we care and want to know how we can help.
- Addressing the impact — Nothing is "normal" in the new normal, or it's "business as unusual" — and it's important for leaders to address this directly. By acknowledging the ongoing strangeness of current conditions and their own concerns, leaders can connect with their people on a more personal level.
- Creating consistency — Connections are severed if they're not consistently maintained. While there's no need to hold full team meetings or set up hour-long video calls with employees every day, it's critical for HR teams and C-suite members to regularly check in with their workforce and encourage people to spend at least some of their collaborative time socializing. While on-demand video calls will never replace the in-person camaraderie of a positive workplace culture, consistency can lead to better communication over time.
As organizations make their way back to physical work spaces, the need for critical connections and empathy doesn't disappear. While some people continue to work from home and others work in the office, HR teams can focus on playing to their greatest strength: the "human" element of their return-to-office approach.
Instead of returning to pre-COVID-19 communications as usual, it's worth cultivating a revised model that prioritizes the celebration of success, recognizes the importance of reaching out to employees and acknowledges that no matter how work and life intersect, there's always opportunity to create more meaningful connections.
Get resources to guide your employee communication efforts during this challenging time: COVID-19 Employee Communications Toolkit