How to Connect Remote Workforces
COVID-19 took a swipe at corporate culture and weakened the ties that bind employees. Here’s how to fix it. Corporate culture is the glue that holds businesses together. A strong cultural identity often correlates with satisfied employees and higher productivity. So when COVID-19 arrived and forced millions of workers into long-term work-from-home arrangements, many corporate leaders suddenly found themselves rethinking how they could instill a sense of belonging and connection among employees from afar.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretched the fabric of corporate culture outside traditional office walls and into employees’ personal spaces, leaders had to get creative to revive the lost connections that spontaneously occurred in conference and break rooms and around cubicles.
“For example, people truly miss water-cooler conversations,” says an employee experience director for a large financial services company. “That may start with something simple like asking ‘How are you?’ but individuals need these informal ways to talk, generate ideas, and resolve issues.”
The little things – small talk in the hallway or catching up with a colleague in the lunchroom – can mean a lot to employees when it comes to building connections. While they may not always be visible, these connections reinforce shared values and beliefs about how work gets done. But COVID-19’s imposition of physical distance and the resulting work-from-home policies have caused cracks in the corporate culture foundation:
- A majority (63%) of workers say their company culture has stagnated or worsened since the pandemic, according to research from Qualtrics.
- There is evidence of rising rates in depression and mental health issues among employees, according to a report by CNBC.
“I consult with a French financial services company where, prior to COVID-19, employees were used to going into their office every day,” says Arlene DeMita, partner, PwC. “The bank had rolled out video conferencing and a system for télétravail,” DeMita says, using the French word for remote work, “yet they worried about their employees’ mental well-being.”
“So they conducted surveys,” she continues, “and found that morale was low. Employees were worried about their jobs and they were worried about society amid the disruption of COVID-19. They had lost the sense of connection that had been pervasive when they worked at the office.”
Under the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, organizations must work harder to strengthen corporate culture amid the distributed workplace, where some individuals work remotely and others have returned to on-site facilities. They must nurture a sense of belonging and connection by creating space for work flexibility, streamlining communications to avoid stress and burnout, and using solutions that encourage social interactions and build deeper connections. The effort is difficult but worth it. According to the Deloitte 2020 Global Human Capital Trends, a sense of belonging in the workplace can lead to:
- 75% decrease in sick days
- 56% increase in job performance
- 50% reduction in turnover risk
The need to belong affects organizational performance
“Cultivating a sense of belonging was critical before COVID-19, and now it has become heightened,” says Michael Griffiths, partner and learning and leadership practice lead for North America, Deloitte Consulting LLP. “Only 13% of organizations we surveyed before the pandemic said they were prepared to do so. I believe that if we ask that question today, fewer companies would say they have what it takes to nurture belonging.”
Belonging means that individuals feel they have a connection to the organization’s economic and societal values. And they want to know their role in those values. “There is a link between an individual’s performance and the success of the organization,” Griffiths says. “Employees want to understand how they contribute to that.”
When employees are given flexibility and independence, they rise to the challenge
What is a distributed workforce?
When they don’t feel a sense of belonging, individuals become disengaged. And disengagement can result in employee turnover, decreased productivity, and reduced profitability.
“Even in the worst economic conditions, top talent is always mobile,” says Benjamin Granger, senior principal, Qualtrics. “They have higher expectations than others because they can. They get interviews and job offers and get to peek under the hoods of other companies, and those experiences can augment their expectations.”
A crisis like COVID-19 is when you most need top talent. Adverse markets are disruptive to business processes, forcing companies to work harder to compete amid challenges to the supply chain, customer demand, and physical distancing restrictions. And yet, many large organizations cannot meet these extra-effort demands and have filed for bankruptcy.
Working to ensure that people feel attached to the organization “is not only about doing what’s right for the employees at all times,” says DeMita. “It’s also about what’s right for your business and your company. If we are more collaborative, if we are providing workers with flexibility, their productivity improves, and our profitability improves.”
What organizations get wrong
Most companies were successful in the initial stages of the sudden transition to work-from-home practices, according to surveys conducted by Denison Consulting. When asked “What has your organization done well during the COVID-19 crisis?,” the majority of respondents cited effective communication, prioritization of their health and safety, and the ability to work from home.
Action items for organizations
Several focal areas can strengthen corporate culture for the hybrid workforce:
Reinforce core cultural values around trust, flexibility, and autonomy to support work-life balance. One aspect of this best practice is to challenge assumptions. There may be a knee-jerk reaction among business leaders that at-home workers are less productive and therefore must be micro-managed.
“That says to employees, ‘Clearly this company does not trust me to get my work done,’” Granger says. “That is not a recipe for long-term success.”
Alternatively, autonomy and flexibility with accountability increase productivity. Gartner reports that where organizations offer “radical flexibility” – such as a choice of where, when, and how they work – 55% of employees are high performers, compared with 36% in companies that have 40-hour, in-office work weeks.
There are multiple ways to do this. For example, Telenor, a Norwegian telecom company, has achieved a “huge spike” in productivity using the tight-loose-tight model to provide employees with flexibility in their work approach, with the right levels of accountability:
- Tight: Work or project objectives are tight. There are established end goals and desired outcomes.
- Loose: The methods or parameters of achieving those objectives are loose. Employees determine the best way of meeting the goals.
- Tight: Deadlines are tight, and there is follow-up from leaders to reinforce those deadlines.
Also, give workers options to manage their own schedules, but stress that they own this. “At the end of the day, there is still a need for personal responsibility and accountability,” says Joe Dettmann, principal, people advisory services, EY. “People are going to have to set boundaries themselves and manage those boundaries, even if it feels counterintuitive. The job of leaders is to model and support that.”