As we wait for the widespread rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, the days of working from home will likely be staying with us for some time. Although we should be used to it by now—almost one year into the pandemic—many of us still struggle to feel connected to a job and co-workers that are still so, well, remote. As companies struggle to keep their workforce engaged, motivated, and supported, “it’s important for companies to make sure employees feel supported because—they are people,” says Emma Brudner, head of people at Reggora, a real-estate appraisal technology company based in Massachusetts.
Some employers have leaned into solutions like throwing Zoom socials, but while virtual events like trivia nights and tiki bar happy hours have their place, many human resources pros caution that the answer to reaching out to your staff “is not just a pizza party,” says Kimberly Prescott, founder and president of Prescott HR.
Helping to foster a sense of connection among remote workers requires deft handling. Sometimes, the move can be as small as scheduling meetings that take into account a person’s time zone, or asking what someone’s preferred mode of communication is—some may prefer the immediacy of Slack, while others find it intrusive to their workflow. And, sometimes, what's needed is a bigger reach throughout a company, with the same intent of letting employees know that they’re seen and considered even when they’re physically distant.
These six moves might help:
Make Intentions Official
Your company's mission statement is pretty fixed; but, the vision statement, which matches goals to philosophy, is flexible and can be tailored. For example, before the pandemic, the focus might have been on marketing and sales goals, notes Prescott. But, now, the document can say that for the time being, employee physical and mental well‑being is the top priority.
When it’s written down, it’s on record. People will take note and hold you accountable. You can still lay down clear metrics and expectations, but staffers will know that profits aren’t the driving force, so a stress is removed. “When there’s alignment, it relieves the day-to-day pressure,” she says. “Employees feel empowered to make decisions.”
Redefine Personal and Sick Time
This is another way to go on record with support. Often, any leave time is accrued in a use-it-or-lose-it system. Convert leave time into wellness time and make it unlimited. By encouraging employees to use this time as they wish, whether that’s taking an afternoon off to go hiking or starting later in the morning in order to read, it sends a strong signal that the overall health of the workforce is a priority. Like with most initiatives, it helps if bosses and managers take advantage of offerings and are obvious about it, so employees know that the policy isn’t just lip service but is officially backed, says Mike Brown, head of people at Meter, an industrial automation company based in Massachusetts.
Create Hang Out Spots
Slack is already a popular way to communicate at work. Customize it with theme-based channels, be it baseball, pet ownership, Indian cooking, or chess. They’re places to drop in during the day—and it needs to be allowed on company time. It’s a way for people who might not otherwise interact to bond over shared interests. If the channels are employee-inspired, even better, Brown says.
A few rules to keep in mind: These virtual spaces are made with open invitation and maintained with a relaxed atmosphere. No one should worry about anything filtering back to management. While any sharing there could lead to work-related ideas, connection, like what would happen in the office, is the main objective. “It gives people the chance to have water-cooler talk,” says Brown.
Give Your People a Voice
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are nothing new, but they can play a role in helping address specific issues, whether it’s being a single parent or living alone in a new city. These groups allow people to share experiences and advice. It’s not a complaint session, says Prescott, but a way to talk and bring ideas to management. Management, in turn, can provide a budget and resources, for example, to bring in speakers on a relevant topic. And because the intent is helping employees do their jobs, meetings are held during the day, not on off hours, which is another way to show support. “This is on work time, because it’s about solving work issues,” Prescott says.
Greet the New People
Even with the pandemic, some companies have been hiring, which has meant new employees have gone through the process from interviewing to first days at work without ever having met their supervisor, teammates, or a single co-worker in person. Brudner recommends holding virtual lunches to serve as a welcome and a way to meet other new employees. Maximize success by keeping the get-togethers to 10 people and having icebreakers at the ready. “What have you been binging on Netflix?” “How did you get your first name?” and “What’s the most important thing you keep on your desk?” all can get people talking, and, “What’s your favorite icebreaker?” serves as one while also giving you more ideas for the future.
Don’t Worry about Numbers
Company business might involve bottom-line calculations, but with activities to support your employees, don’t worry about attendance or usage numbers. You’re offering variety, and if something serves the people who take advantage, then it’s a win. It’s also easy to overthink and worry that a virtual event will be awkward or go over like a lead balloon. Stop that train of thought. While your virtual gathering might get off to a rocky start, remember that the same thing could happen at an in-person meet-up. As a manager, use the icebreakers. Smile. Bring people into the conversation. “It won’t be a horrible disaster,” Brudner says. “It’s most important to just do it.”
Originally published on Happify Daily