Working from home – friend or foe to our relationships at work?

The UK marks today one year since the first Covid-19 lockdown. 12 months since our living rooms and bedrooms have become our office. Has this affected our working relationships?

Do you remember the last time you had lunch and shared a few ideas with your colleagues while sitting next to each other in the office kitchen? What about being at the right time in the right place and giving someone a certain piece of information that helped them with the work challenge they were struggling with? Or the ad-hoc co-creation of a new process? The reality is that not many of us knew the importance of these conversations. At least, not until we all moved to work from our homes. 

An organisation would fail without social networking.

Good interpersonal connections and working relationships create communities and help us work together to reach a common goal. The measure of our success in building productive social networks comes down to our level of social capital. Building social capital at work takes time and effort, but it is vital to growth. A company culture in which expertise and ideas can easily be shared is crucial to fostering inventive and resourceful employees. And understanding and leveraging social capital is invaluable in creating it. We have been perfecting social capital building in an office environment for decades. Digital work has changed the rules, and we need to continue to adapt our ways to build social capital. Remember that social capital is not only about how many people we know in the workplace but also the quality of those working relationships. New joiners can be significantly affected by a lack of social capital, and the organisation should encourage activities that offer them opportunities to build their own networks. This will increase their productivity and wellbeing.

Less ad-hoc conversations have the potential to endanger innovation.

When working from home, we tend to work more in silos. Spontaneous idea-sharing has been driving innovation for decades, and it is less likely to happen when working remotely. 

For instance, collaboration trends in New Zealand reveal an interesting matter on how working from home due to lockdown restrictions has affected the workplace networks. The conclusion?

Team isolation — measured by a lack of communication with the employee’s distant network — spikes when lockdowns are issued.

When lockdowns are eased, there is increased communication with the employee’s distant network. We are far from understanding the full extent of the benefits and disadvantages of working from home on such a large scale, but it is clear that we need to protect innovation and look for better ways to nurture it. 

Working from home is not practical for all of us. It may be because our homes cannot accommodate this practice. It may be because we feel we need to be more visible online. We tend to work more to show our managers and colleagues that we are doing our job. 

Digital fatigue has become a real challenge in the workplace, and organisations need to address it sooner rather than later.

People spend about 9 hours per day in front of a screen, excluding weekends. That’s almost 100 days during the year! Excluding the time we spent in front of our screens during the weekend. It does not seem sustainable in the long-term without putting in place support.

What can be done

We were not ready to shift the way we work so dramatically overnight. However, many organisations have found solutions to keep thriving in these challenging circumstances. 

Recent research by the World Economic Forum shows that Covid-19 is pushing companies to scale remote work (83%), accelerate digitalisation (84%) and automatisation (50%). This gives us a clue about their key learnings.

What are their lessons?

Invest in technology. There is no way around this. The office is not dead, but hybrid working is here to stay. The quicker organisations understand and accept this new reality, the better. 

Offer employees tools to bridge the physical and digital worlds. 

If co-creation and innovation are important to the way you work, create an office space that helps employees work in collaboration while still offering them space to focus on individual work. 

Adapt to flexibility and create a clear plan. Change policies to ensure clarity and transparency. Start by answering key questions: What employees will be able to work remotely if they wish? What roles require office work? Is your current performance management system fit for purpose in this new world? How will you ensure smooth teamwork if some employees choose to work from home while others will be in the office? How are you going to nurture innovation and co-creation?

Deal with digital fatigue before it becomes an issue. Create a culture where breaks are respected and encouraged. Ask employees to have at least some meetings from the office to decrease digital exhaustion. Create wellbeing and mental health programmes to encourage employees to prioritise their health.

Rethink employee experience and adapt it to work well in the digital and physical world. Look at how you do recruitment and selection, onboarding, employee engagement, or offboarding. Does it work well for remote workers and office workers? Better employee experience will lead to increased employee engagement. Engaged employees who have positive experiences at work are 40% less likely to leave, and 12x more likely to advocate for the brand. They also deliver 3x more in revenue. Employee experience must become a priority for organisations.

Build trust and keep listening to your people. 

Always and tirelessly. 

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