In my discussions with friends, colleagues, customers, staff, and even new people I meet, we seem to be agreeing on at least one thing, the future of work is entirely anyone's guess and how long this new normal is going to last is uncertain. I recently had dinner with a friend last night who said, "I've given up on 2020, but I came to the realization recently that 2021 might not be any better." As much as I want to disagree with her, I can't. Frankly, I don't know what to think. My staff and I are clearly in the Control What You Can camp. And, right now, we certainly can't control the business environment of tomorrow.
During this dinner conversation, we started to talk about something that has been on my mind for weeks, the impact of remote working on our staff. The time has come to start talking about "connectedness" and “engagement."
Employees Need Engagement
About two months ago, I surveyed my companies around remote working. Overwhelmingly my staff feels they are more productive and accountable working from home and appreciate the flexibility. Also, overwhelmingly, they were concerned about collaboration and camaraderie. Employees miss human interaction and face-to-face interactions.
About a month ago, I commissioned a more comprehensive market survey on the Covid-19 economic impact on the Information Technology sector. With almost 300 respondents from the Fortune 1000, two of the top four 2020 focus areas are Staff Collaboration and Employee Morale.
Working from home can be isolating, and Zoom calls can't fill in essential human needs gaps. We are a tribal species. Even introverts crave live social interaction from time-to-time. Most people like having alone time, as long as it is on our terms. But we are not operating on our terms right now. The virus, governments, and social pressures are dictating our terms.
These are not coincidences. Employees ask for help to be connected, and we as leaders recognize that employee morale is a problem, but how do we bridge the gap?
In times of crisis, focusing on every day blocking and tackling of running a business comes first. We tend to get very myopic in our daily tasks, which is understandable. Pre-COVID, face-to-face meetings and interactions happened organically, whether we had client dinners, coffee shop meetings, weekly staff meetings, or even ad-hoc lunches. When we focus on the daily aspects of the business, and those organic encounters disappear, we need to be intentional about replacing those opportunities for interaction with new ones. It takes planning and commitment.
- Reach out to intentionally to your staff and customers. Make a plan. List out all the important people to you, including staff, customers, and personal relationships. Every week, allocate time and be specific on whom you will contact every day. I have committed to calling one customer and one employee every day. I make a list every Sunday and schedule it on my calendar. And try to use video for every interaction. I rarely have traditional phone calls anymore.
- Just check-in, don't always have an agenda. Sometimes when I contact someone, I check in to say hello. See how they are doing. Ask what I can do to help them and then ALWAYS follow-up. You don't always have to have an agenda or even talk about work. Sometimes people want to speak and be heard. I also call new employees to welcome them to the company, thank them for joining us, and offer any assistance they need to transition into this new environment.
- If comfortable, start meeting in small groups. I realize that many people still are not comfortable meeting anymore, but we have started having small lunch meetings. I usually invite a few people to the office (4-6), order some delivery, and social distance while eating and catching up. Again, we may or may not talk about work, but that's not the point. It's to talk, laugh, and connect.
When the World Begins it Open Up
Remote working, in some capacity, is here to stay. Like Google, some companies have already said workers won't be going back to the office before July 2021. The longer we stay away from the office, the more likely most of us will not go back. At my companies, we have decided to continue remote working indefinitely.
Companies have the potential to save vast amounts of money in rent. I'm sure many executives see this as a boon to the bottom line, but this is short-sighted thinking. The average cost of a "desk" is about $4000 per year, perhaps even more due to inefficient office plans. The best companies will reallocate a substantial portion of the rent savings to programs connecting people.
I am not talking about using that money for "annual sales meetings." There are excellent online platforms available now, so we don't need to do live company training. Instead, reinvest your funds to enhance team-building, improve home-working environments, and deploy better online collaboration tools.
I doubt we will see many large company gatherings in 2021. As the world starts to open up, allocate funding to your front line teams to allow them to do smaller live team events, focusing more on connectedness than work. Get creative. Task your Human Resource teams to create programs, events ideas, and templates that smaller teams can execute. Encourage collaboration of socialization and promote the activities throughout your organization. One example that comes to mind is college university alumni groups. My alma mater creates alumni groups all over the country that gather for a variety of social events, watch partners, and charity events. The university also promotes many of these alumni groups. The university even sometimes creates fun competition between the groups.
Times are A-Changin'
Bob Dylan's classic song sums up Leadership in times of crisis:
Come gather 'round, people, Wherever you roam, And admit that the waters, Around you have grown
And accept it that soon, You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin', And you better start swimmin', Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'
The world is not the same. Everything is different, and as Leaders, we must adapt, be intentional, and create new ways to engage our most valuable resource, our people.