How businesses can maintain human connections in an increasingly virtual world

Historically, business has been conducted face to face (handshakes, networking events, business dinners and so on) and run collectively, in offices

But this is changing. In recent weeks companies from Twitter and Fujitsu to Shopify and Slack have announced permanent work from home plans, while two thirds of IT executives questioned by 451 Research see their future as remote.

As business becomes increasingly virtual, the challenge for organisations is how to maintain cohesion, and how to nurture creativity and boost morale when staff are physically apart. Some will argue that in the digital age it has never been easier – the tools to conduct business are almost unlimited.

But are these tools enough to protect company culture and motivate and guide an increasingly remote workforce?

User first

There is no denying that digital tools are effective business enablers, allowing us to communicate, collaborate, manage projects and even brainstorm without being together in the same place. However, businesses that get too caught up in technology and lose sight of the human element will struggle to succeed.

Consider the example of a company that decided to introduce a new self-service model but couldn’t understand why its employees were doing everything they could to avoid using it. It transpired that the business hadn’t involved its employees in any aspect of the transition, simply presenting it as a ‘fait accompli’.

In much the same way, businesses that neglect the needs of their workforce in the new virtual world of work are likely to experience disengagement.

Strategic use of technology

There is a danger that companies overuse technology or don’t use it strategically. Often when employees are out of sight, the temptation is to over-communicate, with some people reporting that they are spending entire days in back-to-back video calls. As author and business coach Viv Groskop writes in The Financial Times, video calls can be a way of pretending that important things are still happening. But are businesses really achieving their goals, she asks, or are they holding a virtual meeting to “foster the appearance of industry and efficiency?”

Like any meeting, a video call should have a clear purpose and a clear agenda.

It is also easy to fall into the trap of applying collaboration technologies to old, offline processes in an attempt to adapt them to remote ways of working. Instead, businesses should be preparing for the virtual world by reinventing and reimagining how they do things, using technology as an enabler. For example, turning a traditional face-to-face brainstorm session into a video call might not be the best way to get people’s creative juices flowing. A more effective approach might be a period of asynchronous brainstorming using a digital whiteboard followed by a video call to refine ideas.

Clarity of purpose

In a virtual organisation, where people are more connected digitally than personally, there needs to be a clarity of purpose. It is important for employees to know what is expected of them and how they contribute to the company’s wider goals. This is a top engagement driver, says Brian Kopp, Distinguished Vice President, Research, Gartner, “Employees who feel confident about the importance of their job to the success of the organisation feel less anxious about their job security.”

This clarity of purpose, or an agreed view of success, is also the key to productive team work. If some people within the team think that delivering a new initiative quickly is the primary aim while others believe that the quality of the initiative is paramount, it will be difficult to succeed. Setting clear objectives is all the more important when the team is physically dispersed.

Authentic relationships

Remote working is the future, they say. The office is dead. This may well be true but it fails to consider the importance of the close relationships that colleagues build when they’re together, away from the pressures of work. Research from Gallup has consistently shown that when employees have a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, “they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business”.

People have an innate desire to connect with other people, to feel valued and understood. And according to countless studies over the years, it’s this lack of social interaction that people miss most when they work remotely.

So how can companies foster these human connections using technology? Hosting a virtual ‘Friday Happy Hour’ is one way to encourage employees to engage socially. Companies have also had success with activities such as virtual book clubs, virtual film nights, even pen pal systems so that staff can get to know their colleagues in other parts of the world. Simply building ‘chat time’ into the start of team catch ups can make a difference. It is all about offering ways for employees to experience some of the camaraderie of office life, wherever they are.

The right balance

As more and more businesses move to remote ways of working, they need to find new ways to build and bind teams and keep them productive. Having a clear purpose, using technology strategically and creating opportunities for employees to connect and build personal relationships is crucial. The key, as with everything in life, is to find the right balance – play is an important part of work and technology is there to enhance human interactions, not replace them.

About the author

Howard Dickel is CEO of Step5, a UK-based digital transformation consultancy. It specialises in delivering complex change programmes and in recovering programmes that are failing to meet their objectives.

Featured image: ©Aliaksandra