Although the COVID-19 crisis is still ongoing and causing disruption across the world, it’s already becoming clear that the world of work is changing drastically, and perhaps permanently.
Whilst remote working and virtual meetings have been possible and utilised by some, it’s hard to believe that anyone expected them to become the norm in the way they have done. Yet a brief look at the number of new subscribers to applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams over the last month shows just how much COVID-19 has changed our working landscape.
With so many people (all those who are able) working from home, the nature of office-based employment has fundamentally changed. Contact with colleagues has in most cases reduced to a video on a screen, and whilst many might be enjoying the extra sleep that comes from not commuting, the lack of face-to-face contact does impact the way people interact and could quickly alter the delicate office balance.
Given that social distancing in some form could easily be extended deep in the summer, and perhaps even beyond, we’ve taken a look at some of the ways to maintain the benefits of the office and face-to-face environment, even if colleagues can’t meet in-person for the time being.
Sparking creativity virtually
Although many are making good use of conference calling, this technology can certainly throw up some issues. We’ve all sat on calls with frequent interruptions as people ask, “Is everyone there”, don’t realise mics are off, or keep trying to speak over each other; hardly a suitable environment for engaging in a useful creative discussion.
At a simple level a good solution is to structure calls, making clear what the goal is and ceding control to individuals who can lead different discussions – many of the conference calling tools have a good system in place for this.
However, the current situation is perhaps a good opportunity to re-think how and why we conduct calls. How many calls do we all join which end up achieving very little, beyond showing that this hour was used “productively”? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how our days are planned out, and try to instil some good habits about how we decide which calls are necessary and which aren’t – after all, a smaller team focused on a goal is more likely to be successful than calls with a large team full of many disinterested or irrelevant individuals.
Also prioritise thinking about different ways for sharing ideas – writing a thought or idea in a shared document that other’s add to; pinging round emails with chains of thoughts added in; submitting pictures and images which respond to a particular problem, or inspire a thought process. These are all the kinds of things we’d have done in a creative meeting setting before, but moved virtually.
Breaking down siloes
Pre-COVID an office environment could be a lively place, providing the opportunity to meet with people from various teams and parts of a business, or even from other companies in shared offices like WeWork.
Working from home that opportunity is almost completely removed, with contact reduced primarily to our households and those colleagues with whom we directly work with every day. No matter how much one might like their colleagues, a bit of variation on conversations is surely something to be encouraged.
So, something like a company-wide “Secret Santa” style tool, could be a great way to break down silos and encourage interaction. Everyone is encouraged to have at least one conversation a week with someone they wouldn’t usually speak to over the course of a standard day – matched using a secret santa app. This may help employees who feel isolated working from home re-connect with more of their colleagues and bring back the feeling of working in a vibrant office-space and could just spark a positive idea for the business.
Replacing the office “water-cooler”
The water-cooler. Although a bit of a cliché, its undeniable that employees sometimes need to a place to chat, generally about non-work stuff, gripe and let off some steam. But without any face-to-face interaction, is it even possible for employees to share what’s bothering them?
It’s not quite the same, but one option is a virtual “suggestion box”, where employees can anonymously submit annoyances or issues – perhaps with suggestions about how things could be done differently. It would provide an outlet for the smaller gripes that would usually be casually shared by the water-cooler. If there’s someone within the organisation assigned to review these posts, any more serious issues of misinformation can be addressed.
Hopefully the disruption caused by COVID-19 will pass sooner rather than later, but the changes in how we work may well be here to stay. Implementing good and in some cases different working practices now could help set a positive working culture for years to come, benefiting not just employees but also clients, customers and business partners as well.