With an increasing number of people working from home these days, stress seems to be on the rise. One of the reasons for this is that, while many tasks can be done remotely, there’s a social aspect to actually going into an office that’s missing when operating from home, and it can be hard to keep people connected.
Sure, teachers may teach classes online and office workers may have videoconferences, but it’s not really the same thing. In the workplace, there’s chit chat and personal conversations happen during meetings, in hallways and break rooms, and people go to lunch together. People socialize and unwind, swap stories and get a much-needed battery recharge with face-to-face communication.
But when you’re working from home, all that is missing. Humans are social creatures, and need that sense of belonging and camaraderie in order to function at their best. If part of successfully working out of a home office is mimicking the at-work experience as much as possible, how can technology be used to help foster this more abstract aspect of the workplace?
There are a few ways to continue to foster the sense of teamwork and belonging, even while people remain far apart. Some are things administrators can do, while others are things at-home workers can do on their own. Try to build more interactive ways of communicating. Just pushing information out to people can be wearing and make them feel like they’re at the end of the communications chain instead of a part of it. Make it more of an “us” experience than a “me and also you” one.
1. Accentuate the Positive
Get the idea out there that this is distance working situation is kind of great. Focus on the positive aspects of the WFH culture. It’s modern! It’s exciting! It’s the future! People have more flexibility. No more wasted commute time. And yes, casual attire. At the very least, your unbridled optimism will act as a counterbalance to all the grumbling, and it might even help some people cope with things a bit better.
2. Be Chatty
There’s a good chance your online work is more than just documents and meetings in the cloud. You’re probably in touch with your colleagues all day long via multiple communications platforms.
Consider using an instant messaging system instead of email. Email feels like push communications, a “message from on high”. Chat interfaces feel more, well, chatty. Even though the exact same information is imparted, a chat is more informal and more like the experience of talking face to face.
3. Meet & Greet
When scheduling online meetings, regardless of which platform you’re using, add 10 minutes to the beginning or end of the agenda so people can socialize. This mimics what would happen if everyone were meeting up in the real world. People naturally spend a little time catching up, going over what they did on the weekend, telling that new joke they heard, comparing sports scores and so on.
Enable chat during your online sessions. When people feel they have less control and less autonomy because information is just being pushed at them, it’s alienating. Just like people might ask questions or make a comment on the side in real life, let them do that while interacting online. Obviously, if people start abusing the chat, causing distractions or derailing the purpose of the virtual gathering, you’ll have need to clarify its purpose and maybe even disable it. But give everyone a little leeway here. Or, if your software allows it, maybe you can just mute the troublemakers. You can always try it again once people have seen how the ability to chat helps create a sense of togetherness and spontaneity.
Encourage people to participate by asking everyone for feedback. For those who are soft-spoken or shy, let them use chat or submit questions and topics in advance. You can even just call someone out for a job well done. The goal is for everyone to feel they’ve participated in some way at least once each session.
4. Get Some Face Time
One simple way to keep people connected is to let them see each other. Move away from conference calls and use videoconferencing every time. Require everyone to use their cameras. Seeing people’s faces is psychologically beneficial. And encourage everyone to dress appropriately. Since people are at home, it’s very tempting for them to just sit around in their bathrobe all day. This has the psychological effect of blurring the line between work or school life and home life, which is a major cause of stress. People need to groom and dress as if they were actually meeting in person so they can feel that difference.
Also, think about meeting more often than you would if everyone weren’t working remotely. Departments should come together at least once per week, and some teams may even have daily check-ins for just 10 minutes or so. This can create a sense of togetherness and make sure that everyone gets a chance to contribute and have their voice heard.
Have town hall type meetings every two weeks or so. This lets people not only see and interact with their colleagues but gives them valuable insight into the state of things. Transparency breeds trust and lessens stress, so be open and honest about the current situation. This also gives you a chance to get feedback on how working from home is going for people, and solicit ideas for improving things as you go.
5. Play Together
Hold a few virtual events that aren’t work related. They’re a way to encourage people to socialize even if they can’t be in the same room together. Make them optional, though. Nobody wants “Big Brother” telling them how to spend their free time. This should be an opportunity, not a requirement.
These can be as simple as an online bingo game or a trivia quiz. Two rounds of bingo only take around 15 minutes. Or you can go further. Have costume contests or holiday parties. Find out what your team is interested in and do that. You can even have a set a weekly timeslot where employees volunteer to lead some fun activity of their own. It’s always better to have activities led by all levels of the organization, not just managers.
Whatever you do, make sure to gamify things. Have prizes or points or something to encourage people to participate. Be sure to post the winners on your intranet page to further recognize and reinforce participation.
The fact is that plenty of folks like the people they work with. You may find that, since there’s no overhead to consider (no space to rent, no drinks or food to buy, etc.), that you can have more of these sorts of social events online than you could otherwise. All people need to do is turn on their webcams and have fun enjoying one another’s company.
6. Leverage Your Intranet
An intranet or similar online portal like SharePoint is already a virtual gathering place, so make it more social. Talk to whoever runs it and see if it can become more interactive. Many platforms include various tools, like comments and polls, to make things more fun and encourage engagement. Sometimes it’s just a matter of turning on a feature or two.
Ask everyone to change their browser homepage to the intranet (or online LMS or whatever you are using), so it’s the first thing they see as they start their day. There should be a post at least once a day if not a couple of times a day. If people used to get their info from digital signage in your facility, embed those playlists in your webpage for a sense of continuity. It might even be a good idea to allow people to make their own posts (subject to approval, of course). These posts could be text, but also picture and videos.
Keeping people’s spirits up is as essential as keeping people connected in a widespread work-from-home culture. In addition to posts about business of the business (like, “Staff Meeting on Monday at 3pm”), fold in some WFH tips from time to time. This could be anything from suggestions on what equipment to use or how to organize a home workspace to advice on how to make the work-from-home experience less stressful and more productive.
All work and no play, as we know, blunts people’s enthusiasm. Post some fun stuff like music playlists, videos that may be relevant or interesting, amusing pictures, trivia questions or surveys. Personalize things by asking people their favorite food, or dream vacation, or what they’re watching or reading these days. You can even ask people to submit pictures of their home offices, families and pets – everyone loves seeing animal pictures. Ask people to contribute their own song lists, or movie or book recommendations. What about recipes? Everyone needs to eat.
Some folks are a little shyer than others, and in person they might not speak up and contribute as much as more outgoing people. But an online forum gives them emotional cover as well as time to develop their answers and contributions. The interesting thing is that by leveraging online portals properly, you can sometimes get more interaction among the team than would occur in a face to face environment.
7. Focus on the Future
Just because everyone is operating from home right now doesn’t mean they aren’t still part of the team. Modern technology allows us an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with different forms of interaction, and new tools to keep people connected are being developed every day. Who knows? You just might discover that some of the practices and methods you experiment with are valuable enough to keep, even when some people go back to the office.