Staying connected while working from home

September 23, 2020

Business professors — and experts in workplace team management — share ways supervisors can create positive virtual office environments that bring remote employees together.

Office walls were once considered barriers to team collaboration and unity — so many companies followed the open office trend and knocked them down. But what happens when the “walls” between team members are miles of city infrastructure?

“Supervisors need to create new virtual spaces for connection,” says College of Business Strategic Management Associate Professor Janice Molloy. “These spaces will be crucial because the workplace has shifted and I don’t see it fully going back.”

Associate Professor Janice Molloy photo
Associate Professor Janice Molloy photo
Associate Professor Janice Molloy

During the pandemic, 42% of the U.S. labor force is working from home. And with the COVID-19 forced office exodus showing that productivity hasn’t waned, and employees liking the WFH flexibility, many employers are considering keeping it that way — nearly 20 percent of workers are projected to continue working from home at least two days a week when the pandemic is over. 

Molloy and COB colleague Associate Professor Junghyun “Jessie” Lee note that what’s missing in the virtual environment — from a team collaboration point of view — isn’t a trendy open concept office. It’s the spontaneous knowledge mixing.

Associate Professor Junghyun (Jessie) Lee
Associate Professor Junghyun (Jessie) Lee
Associate Professor Junghyun "Jessie" Lee

“That’s the information sharing and knowledge that comes from informal conversations around the water cooler or when passing someone in the hallway,” Molloy says. “Knowledge mixing is extremely important to productivity and innovation. It’s important to foster community and collaboration in virtual ways now that so many people aren’t physically at work.”

So Molloy and Lee, who are research experts in workplace organization and social exchange relationships, share ways that supervisors can make their teams gel when there’s more than an office wall causing a divide.

Make room for levity.

Keeping things light won’t take away from the business that needs handled — it will actually improve communication and efficiency because it helps foster community and creates connection, Molloy says. One idea is to start team meetings with personal and professional wins. She says it sets an uplifting tone for the meeting and reminds staff that progress is being made. “When living in a bit of a Groundhog Day loop, sharing progress and change is important.” 

Also look for interactive ways to bring “real life” into the virtual one. Molloy says her chihuahua Twizzle made a planned cameo on the first day of her College of Business course to help create a bond among the class. “I also invited them to show their pets. Anything we can do to open lines of communication can help people feel connected.”  

Be as open as possible to maintain trust. 

Share upcoming changes or any future plans that are being considered when possible. Lee says candor and transparency will go a long way, especially in an environment where people are remote and cannot see daily operations or read body language. 

“That way employees will be more aware of what the business is experiencing and the steps that are taken. Maybe there is input they can share that would help,” Lee says. “And if unavoidable things happen [like changes, cuts or closures],  your team will have time to process the information. Research shows that when people receive adequate information for the decision in a timely manner — even when the outcome is not satisfactory — they are more likely to perceive it as fair. “

An added plus? Once difficult times pass, research shows that employees — if they viewed their organization as honest and fair — have increased loyalty.

Do online social gatherings based on team interests.

Make a virtual space for something your team enjoys doing. If your team likes to cook, have members share recipes to try — and then schedule a lunch. With cold temps on the way, set up a coffee break (tea or hot chocolate allowed) and encourage people to use an interesting mug and share the story behind it. If a supervisor isn’t sure what kind of interaction their team would like to have, reach out and ask for ideas or find out if any team members are interested in organizing a virtual social event.

“We are all social beings. For some people, work presented the majority of human interaction they experienced. Forums like these are needed to get to know each other, foster positive interactions and keep people connected to each other,” Molloy says.

Tips for successful interaction? Don’t bring up the pandemic. And if business isn’t being discussed, make it optional.

Create one-on-one interaction opportunities for supervisors and team members.

With communication nuances like body language no longer a part of our work day, Lee says it is important for supervisors to demonstrate genuine and individualized concern for their employees.

This can be done through weekly meetings or regularly scheduled supervisor virtual office hours where employees can drop in. Lee says the format can be changed — maybe it’s sharing a work cell number to call during a set period of time  or mailing a congratulations card for small wins — to whatever works best in each unique team situation. “The important thing is letting your team members know that you are accessible. As a supervisor, it’s these simple things that show employees that you care — and caring about your team’s needs will go a long way.”

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