Almost two years into the pandemic and the once foisted upon working conditions of remote teams and virtual engagement are starting to become norm employees increasingly want.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than 47 million people walked away from their jobs last year. (link)
In the great reshuffle, job seekers have an advantage as companies are unable to fill openings. Last December out of the 10.9 million job openings, only 6.3 million people were hired leaving 4.6 million roles unfilled. (link)
As we head into this year, a Monster.com survey found that 57% of job seekers said they’re looking for remote work. (link)
Employers are responding to the change in worker preferences. A report found that New York nearly quadrupled in the amount of city jobs to be filled remotely. And those who haven’t responded are definitely under pressure – as a survey from Morning Consult found that 55% of respondents teleworking from home would consider quitting their job if forced to return to the office. (link)
Surveys from the end of 2021 showed that about 25% of full-time remote workers would quit their jobs if they couldn’t work remotely. In the same survey, 70% experienced less stress meeting virtually than in the office with colleagues. (link)
That being said, there are negative impacts of going virtual that are impacting everyone, most namely - social isolation. Midway through the pandemic, a Harvard study found that 36% of Americans said they’re experiencing serious loneliness. (link)
Regardless of where you fall on the debate between in-person or remote teams, virtual engagement will increasingly be part of our new ways of working.
At Axxum, we recognize and have embraced virtual engagement in this new world. Not only are all our teams operating remotely, but we also manage countless client engagements including meetings and trainings virtually as well. We have found that the success and levels of engagement has less to do with the medium and more with design.
So, what makes virtual engagement work? Making time for social connection.
In our office environment, these connections were informal, second nature for some and an awkward part of the job for others. Still these connections matter, whether hallway discussions after a big meeting, a casual chat over coffee or after hours, or run-ins at our desk, cubicle, and office events. We understood this in the office and the benefits are the same virtually. Informal, non-task related discussions facilitates relationship building on your teams as they discover shared interests over stories and hobbies or highlight hidden talents and strengths that the team can leverage. This is critical as teams across the globe navigate the ambiguity in managing unprecedented market disruption where business as usual may no longer cut it. Organizations must learn faster. This learning can range from adopting new tools and practices to enabling strategic collaborations that create competitive advantages and innovations to products and services. Behavioral researchers have long studied how social ties across an organization enables information exchange and knowledge sharing and can increase psychological safety and trust necessary to facilitate this learning.
In the virtual environment, social connection requires a bit more intentionality. There is no one size fits all for what this engagement should look like at different organizations, or even across different teams in the same organization. The general guidance for any leader to figure out is how they can treat team-time as more than just a task-related event:
This is also space you build culture and norms: This is space for leaders to set the tone with their reports, and even project managers with their stakeholders. For new hires, these interactions become one of the major touchpoints with your culture.
Be flexible in how you invest time: While it's easy to shrug off the need of social connection, but relationships are critical for high performing teams. As a leader, feel free to stay on a call for an extra ten minutes just to ‘shoot the breeze’ with anyone who is interested. Small talk over Zoom backgrounds, pet names, or even a life story can pay off in the long-term in building trusting relationships and as observed willingness for participants to contribute and engage in the meeting in the short term.
Remember that we are human: Getting work done is more than just inputs and outputs. For most roles, it involves motivation and buy-in. Create human-centered meetings that are more likely to keep people engaged. Consider moving update-like meetings to emails and memos, reserving shared time for actual discussions where opinions are shared, and decisions are made.
Try incorporating any of the following activities into your upcoming virtual meeting or training, and let us know if there’s any changes in how teams engage:
- Experience Sharing: Ahead of a meeting give people a discussion question to which they can share an answer back with the group. For example, to kick off a new working committee, have participants change their backgrounds to their favorite baked good or ideal vacation destination. Have your team volunteer stories behind chosen background.
- Virtual Whiteboarding: On a virtual whiteboard application, have people respond to prompts, and colleagues responses, to what’s shared in real time. Share back on ideas with high levels of interest across group. For example, during an all-hands company meeting, have employees anonymously respond in a Google doc real-time to updates and provide input into strategic or operational decisions.
- Gamification: Plan meetings to incorporate experiences like simulations, scavenger hunts, or interactive elements that contribute to the project or collective learning. For example, have marketing or customer service teams go through experiences that enable them to connect with the experiences of their audience segments.