But isolation and loneliness can be side effects of the digital workplace. So, what can you do to ensure everyone in your team feels valued and not forgotten?
A sense of belonging
SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read says humans are social creatures, hardwired to seek out a sense of belonging. With so much of our lives spent working, the value of relationships in the workplace shouldn’t be underestimated.
Good relationships with colleagues were a primary reason for staying in a job for 67% of employees, an AIM study found. Read says for many people, relationships rank higher than salary as the major motivator for coming to work.
“Staff who feel meaningfully connected to even a couple of colleagues are more likely to experience higher levels of wellbeing, physical and mental health, productivity, creativity, decision making, career progression, tenure, satisfaction and enjoyment,” Read says.
Loneliness is considered by many to be the significant public health concern of this century. Last year the British government appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness in recognition of the rising social condition reportedly costing UK employers $3.5 billion a year.
Quality not quantity
It’s the quality of relationships that counts, Read says. Feeling valued and respected can help mitigate that sense of social isolation, but reducing loneliness takes more than just initiating social opportunities and hoping people will magically connect.
“Frequency, proximity and shared interest are all important factors in helping to cultivate meaningful relationships,” Read says.
“Employers can help facilitate colleague connections by initiating and supporting regular opportunities to catch up at work over shared interests. A yearly off-site can have multiple benefits, but regular catch-ups are needed to build a deeper sense of connection and belonging.”
Be bold, be innovative – The Kantar example
Narelle Burke is the Global Head of Talent, Learning and Leadership Development at international market research, data and insights company, Kantar. She says it takes effort to be global, virtual, diverse and inclusive.
Burke has never had every member of her team together in the one location at the same time and shares some of her strategies for uniting a remote team.
Securing the right technology can be liberating, Burke says. Her team has found Workplace by Facebook effective in bringing together their different countries, cultures and time zones. It’s easy to use, has direct language translation and a variety of communication outlets – such as message boards and video posts. It’s also allowed them to make like-minded connections through shared interest groups. Whether you’re into book clubs, pets or business strategy, there’s a good chance someone else in the organisation is passionate about it too.
Other times Burke will have multiple channels on the go, with Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom and Whatsapp all providing input. Burke admits it’s not always perfect, but what does matter is everyone has a share of voice and a chance to shape the vision.
Technology is an enabler, but a change in people’s mindsets is what makes it effective, Burke says.
Work-life flexibility comes with a trade-off – employees may need to be available for late night meetings, or dawn discussion panels. If you respect their time, are reasonable about how often that is expected, don’t cancel meetings at the last minute and remain conscious of how what you’re asking works with their lifestyle, they’ll stay committed to the cause.
“Be aware of what you are asking people to do. People won’t always say no or turn down a request from a leader,” she says.
To keep her staff focused, Burke chooses ‘video on’ for phone calls and meetings. That’s meant establishing a no-apologies, no-judgment culture.
“If you want people to engage, and you want flexibility, then something has to give,” she says. “It takes a while for people to stop apologising about how they look but seeing ‘you’ is a huge part of it. It sounds simple but it is really important.”
She says when people feel safe to attend a meeting without their hair and make-up done, in their gym gear or while wrangling kids and pets, walls come down, people speak up and relationships are built.
Try different approaches to see what works best for your team. Burke’s advice is don’t be afraid to fail – and make sure your people feel the same.
“Take your filters off as to what you think a successful team looks like,” she says. “If you want people to feel included you have to give them the space to try things. You can’t drive engagement as a leader, you have to bring them on the ride with you.”
Virtual Christmas parties, a mid-year ball, online rock-paper-scissors battles, trivia nights, dress-up parties and a sing-along video clip have all taken place online with colleagues from around the globe. It’s an unusual, but effective, method of bringing people together.
“We have a high level of engagement and connection that’s come from the team working in a different way,” Burke says. “There isn’t a hierarchy. We all value and appreciate each other.”