Most people don’t take long to come up with a list of benefits to working from home. But as many companies return to work, what about the things from office life we have been missing out on?
We all love that a commute-free life means saving a significant amount of money on public transport or parking and being able to snooze the alarm clock for that precious extra hour. Not to mention the ability to stay in your trackies all day and work from the comfort of the dining room table, sofa, or even your own backyard.
Some find working from home easier to manage their time, eliminate distractions, and to complete more thoughtful tasks. It’s easier to leverage flexible working, keep on top of household tasks, and make the most of lunch breaks by walking the dog, taking a yoga class in the living room, or spending an extra hour with the kids. Perhaps most importantly, there’s no need to share the office microwave with 20 other colleagues, and the snack-filled fridge is within arm’s reach at all times.
But what about the difficulties and drawbacks of working from home? Last year, many Australian businesses closed their office doors to help slow the spread of COVID-19, with no time to prepare their workforce for a sudden shift to remote working. Despite leaders working hard to quickly adapt and rally their teams under these difficult circumstances, employees have been forced to sacrifice some of the most fundamental aspects of working life.
As so many businesses are returning to work, we thought it would be interesting to look at some of the things most missed out on from the office and whether these experiences can be recreated in a virtual setting?
What are employees missing most from office life?
1. Water cooler moments
When employees are accustomed to spending every day in the office, it’s easy to lose sight of what a collaborative place it is to be.
The brief exchanges enjoyed while waiting for the kitchen kettle to boil or strolling down the road to grab a sandwich are much more significant than you think. Employees develop connections outside their immediate team and build meaningful relationships with their colleagues through informal and regular communication, which can boost cross-functional ideas and team morale.
A recent survey commissioned by Lucidspark found that 75% of employees had concerns about collaborating effectively when working from home. Almost a quarter of respondents reported that virtual meetings weren’t an adequate substitute for face-to-face interactions, and innovation and creativity had suffered as a result.
We know that collaborative working environments are key to driving innovation. But communicating via video conference presents several challenges. It’s much harder to interpret the context of a situation or someone’s tone or body language, and conversations flow less naturally, with attendees prone to speaking over one another and the fatigue of being in front of a screen all day likely to affect the mood of the meeting.
Cross-functional collaboration between different functional teams has been more difficult working remotely too, with teams often sharing a physical space or attending social events with each other to build ties beyond their immediate team. This can be especially difficult for new employees who haven’t had the opportunity to build relationships in person.
3. Mentoring and leadership
Employees learn a great deal by observing, and spending time with, their colleagues, mentors, and managers. The ability to ask for help from a colleague sitting nearby or provide advice to team members can be more difficult when working remotely. Being in physical proximity to people can help you pick up new skills, learn leadership techniques, navigate challenging situations, and receive guidance and advice as needed.
Remote workers can miss out on these organic development opportunities. They might also feel isolated or detached from their managers, which makes it harder to ask for support when things get difficult or overwhelming. Ultimately, this can impact employee wellbeing and result in a drop in output.
4. Culture and social connection
The social side of co-existing in a physical workplace together with a unique mix of people is an aspect of remote working that is difficult to reproduce online. The culture of an organisation is more difficult to experience when we are separated by screens. Establishing a remote culture to help employees experience shared values and conventions requires a different approach to traditional culture.
On the social side, most humans are social beings and the workplace can provide an extra dimension outside of your normal social circle. Employees often have work-based connections such as a work ‘husband/wife’ to talk to, or an after-work drinking buddy, a source of workplace gossip, or a wing-person to take to networking events.
Without these positive and affirming social interactions, employees are more prone to loneliness and a lack of motivation, which could make them unhappy in their role and impact retention rates.
It’s somewhat easier to fall off the radar when working remotely. Before you know it, your employees are working almost entirely independently and the only time they check in with anyone else is during the 20-minute Monday morning team meeting.
Self-starters are commendable and a great asset to any team, but they must be in tune with what their teammates are doing and how that fits in with their own objectives and workload. Your employees can’t work efficiently or effectively if they’re not all on the same page.
Visibility is particularly important when it comes to onboarding and integrating new employees. Getting up to speed in a new job is challenging at the best of times, but it’s even more laborious in a remote work setting. If everyone is working in silos it becomes nothing short of impossible to get to know the team, locate information, and ask for help.
How can you successfully engage your remote workers?
The spontaneous social interactions we take for granted in the workplace won’t naturally translate to a remote work setting. Employers and leaders will need harness their creativity to foster an environment where employees will connect, engage, collaborate, and socialise authentically.
To ensure your team is focussed and motivated, outline clear goals and expectations, check-in daily, and provide regular feedback. Hosting a 10-minute stand-up style meeting each morning is a great way to keep everyone connected and accountable. You should also encourage your team to engage consistently with each other and not rely solely on email communication.
For employees struggling with the isolation and loneliness of remote working, you may need to provide additional emotional support. During tumultuous times, employee wellbeing and mental health problems are huge concerns, and it’s important to be understanding and accommodating of their needs. Listen to their concerns, show your appreciation, and strive to be an encouraging and positive force. More on managing your mental health during COVID-19.
Finally, make sure you find the time to schedule in some virtual activities with teams. At Six Degrees, we tried out a few different ways to connect and socialise virtually as we worked remotely, including ‘coffee roulette’ with different people around the company, online cooking classes, online team celebrations (including some fun dress ups), and virtual happy hour. Even the simple act of blocking off some “catch-up time” at the beginning of a team meeting and throwing to multiple speakers will help to get conversations flowing and leave your team feeling a little less isolated.