As we embark on a new year, workers and employers have a major concern on their minds: Operating safely, efficiently and inclusively as the surging omicron variant continues to create a multitude of challenges.
The pandemic has created situations where the number of healthy people who can go to work may change on a daily basis. And in some cases, it has created new silos of isolation for workers who may have switched or started a new job during the pandemic.
Fortunately, the Help Desk is here to assist. To help us answer two common questions we get from readers, we turned to experts on remote work and organizational research. They offered us tips on how employers and workers can build stronger bonds within their organizations as well as some of the policies and procedures employers should be considering for a safe return to the office.
Before we dive in, I want to remind you to send in your questions and frustrations with tech as it relates to your job. What’s on your mind? What are you curious or concerned about? How can we help you with the tech in your professional life? Shoot us a note at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.
With that, let’s jump in.
Q: How can workers get to know each other and create a sense of community in a remote or hybrid work environment?
A: Maintaining a sense of community when people aren’t seeing each other regularly can be tricky. And while this question comes up regularly, Danny Groner of New York City took the question one step further. He tweeted to me: “I’d like to know how people are managing getting to know the people outside of those on their team directly or who they work with occasionally on projects and turn to then. How are they meeting the other people who work at the company in this setting?”
Three experts told me that the answer to these questions is a mix of things. First, organizations need to take an intentional approach to address this issue. That means creating onboarding processes that offer several points of connection and give new employees the chance to meet both their co-workers and other people across the organization. And when employees join, managers should make sure new hires feel like they have some ownership in the company’s culture.
“How you design your onboarding program becomes crucial,” said Alexia Cambon, a research director of the human resources practice at research firm Gartner. “We know employees who feel like they own and are a part of the culture are going to feel like they belong.”
Secondly, employers should consider what connection points employees have if they’re not in the office. Is there a platform in which employees are encouraged to chat with each other? Are there regular calls? Are there opportunities to team up with employees from different teams for something that might resemble a virtual water cooler?
Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor and author of “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere,” said managers might want to consider structuring unstructured time. That means doing things like starting every meeting with some personal connection time, versus jumping right into the subject matter at hand. Neeley said a good way to think about it is to allow for 10 to 15 percent of the meeting time to allow for the group to chat freely. Managers can encourage employees to share parts of their weekend or express what’s on their mind that day. They can also plan virtual coffees or lunches to allow for this connection.
“Starting in a personal way increases group cohesion and group performance,” Neeley said. “You have to build in the informal to get to know one another.”
Employers should also consider safely hosting a regular in-person get-together for the entire staff in which employees don’t have to get specific tasks done, Neeley said. That could mean doing things like hosting a quarterly outing or lunch.
But the main thing employers should be thinking about is how to minimize the psychological distance workers may be feeling in remote and hybrid environments, said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst of the Future of Work team at research firm Forrester. The goal: Humanize people by creating moments that may have happened serendipitously in the office. “Remote can feel very pressured and transactional,” Gownder said. “And it can kind of make you dehumanize a bit.”
Gownder also cautions against the overuse of video conferencing tools like Zoom to aid the problem, as many employees suffer from what’s become known as “Zoom fatigue” after back-to-back video meetings. Instead, he said, think about using tools that employees can use to participate in group conversations like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Make those spaces personal, conversational and lower the transactional temperature.
Managers also might want to consider breaking up an hour catch-up they would normally have with their direct report into “micro-interactions,” or quick points of connections via chat or instant message, Gownder said. This helps lessen the amount of video chat time but also create a greater sense of casual connection, he said.
Employers also might want to consider making empathy a part of leadership training and give people more space and time to connect to the organization, Cambon said.
While managers and employers carry much of the responsibility for creating an environment where employees feel connected and included, workers can also take some steps to make their experience better. In some cases, that might mean reaching out to your manager to ask for a list of people and their functions, Neeley said. You may want to ask: “Who are some people I should meet?” And you can ask for introductions to those people.
“You have to branch out to get to get to know people on a personal basis,” Gownder said. “You need to know who to talk to and who’s doing what.”
Q: What policies, procedures, or technologies should employers consider using to help workers feel safe about returning to the office?
A: Before we get into some of the policies and technologies companies might want to consider to keep their workers safe, I think we should point out that for safety purposes, it’s best to follow the recommendations of federal and local health authorities. They are constantly watching the ever-changing landscape and updating guidelines as a result.
That said, experts say all employers should be asking themselves a few questions as they craft their plans to return to the office. Things like: Should we require people to be vaccinated? If we do, what does that mean for unvaccinated employees? If we don’t, what does that mean for workers who don’t want to interact with unvaccinated colleagues? What about masks? When and where should employees have to wear them, if at all? And finally, the tech element: How will we manage employees’ health information, contact tracing or even things as simple as desk assignments?
Gownder said the first part of tackling this issue is asking yourself: What are the pluses and minuses of any policy or procedure. “There are costs either way,” he said.
For example, if a company chooses not to require employees to be vaccinated to avoid the cost of losing unvaccinated workers, how else might it ensure the safety of workers? Perhaps it opts for weekly testing, testing all visitors, or upgrading its heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems — all of which come at their own cost. Gownder said companies need to stop thinking about their policies and procedures as a temporary fix.
“There’s nothing about this situation that would make [this] just … a few more weeks or months,” he said. “You have to be prepared for the long haul.”
Neeley said numerous software providers are offering technology to aid with the management of safety procedures. So if an employer is requiring testing, for example, they have a dashboard that helps them track who’s been tested, when and the results. This helps them keep up with whatever cadence they set. Technology can also help managers assign seats such as Gensler’s Wisp software or Envoy Desks, and make sure employees are safely distanced as they take turns working from the office. It can also help managers track who was in the office, or in some cases specific rooms, in case a worker tests positive.
“Technology is very important to this,” Neeley said. “None of this is getting done manually, especially for large companies.”
Lastly, Cambon said another option employers may want to explore is technology that can help diminish the risk of spreading illness through contaminated surfaces — even though that risk is lower than person-to-person infections. So apps and systems — like vaccination passport apps — that will allow people to use their phones to scan something instead of passing papers around may be helpful, for example.
The key to safety, according to Gownder, is developing a plan that maximizes employees’ actual safety versus perceived safety. And that might mean implanting non-tech solutions like more flexible work or changing the number of people who can work together at the same time depending on infection rates.
“Let yourself be guided by employee safety,” he said. ”That’s the best way to build employee trust.”
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