We need to humanise the virtual work place

It has been an interesting time in the back-to-the-office debate about how we can humanise the virtual work place if it continues in the future. Whilst the UK government is keen to see the return of workers to major cities, a BBC Business survey reports the 50 largest UK organisations are not planning this for some time to come, with half of them indicating flexible-home-based-working will become the norm for their employees.

Many office-based workers have spent the last 6 months either embracing or trying to come to terms with working ‘virtually,’ whilst other organisations have been working in this way for years, with much success as well as some lessons for us to potentially learn from.

The term ‘virtual working’ was coined c15 years ago, to reflect our ability to recreate organisational collaboration, communication, engagement & teamwork through technology solutions.  More recently the term ‘hybrid’ or ‘home-working’ has taken over.  Perhaps this is understandable, as the literal definition of virtual is ‘not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so’ – which fits less well with our human psychological needs for belonging, identity and meaning.   

Whether we love it or loathe it, hybrid-working is here to stay, and as leaders and employees it’s important we find engaging and enjoyable ways to make this work for all of us at both a human and organisational level.   

So how we coping with this evolution in the ways of working for so called office workers?  To begin with, whilst we were reeling from the shock of the global pandemic and lockdown, many people expressed being pleasantly surprised by their ability to adapt to working from home, often enjoying it. 

People talked to us about: saving time by not commuting, feeling more grounded, having more time for exercise and health, and family-mealtimes.  And from a work- perspective: more engagement with senior-leaders, more authenticity & connection through seeing colleagues in their home-environment, more flexibility to work to suit own energy-rhythms, more time to learn, reflect or think. Many people still feel this way.

However it became clear from mid-June, and with the more recent realisations that local lockdowns and restricted group sizes are with us for quite some time to come,  the initial euphoria about being at home is wearing off for many; and of course for some home-working was never an enjoyable experience. 

virtual work place at home

The challenges we are hearing include feelings of:

  • disconnection
  • exhaustion
  • frustration
  • isolation and loneliness
  • stress (including more signs of potential for burnout than we would usually see)
  • swinging between different emotional states

Work frustrations we are hearing, include:

  • eroding respect between colleagues; unable to see each other’s pressures
  • informal interactions difficult to replicate; and more difficult to initiate
  • many paradoxes to grapple with in order to make holistic decisions 
  • more difficult to ‘read the room’ in relation to decisions being made
  • collaboration inadvertently limited to those ‘back in the office’ together, leaving others feeling unable to influence direction and decisions
  • more effort required to update people or make requests for support 
  • lack of context about projects or requirements 
  • overload or overlength of virtual meetings; and some too formal /task orientated
  • overwhelming numbers of emails about work tasks
  • stream of ‘transmit’ emails about wellbeing, missing the point about connection
  • tensions between colleagues; judgemental responses 
  • unable to progress projects due to lack of responses from peers 

Tensions within the home we are hearing include:

  • family tensions
  • shared accommodation or open-plan homes
  • working in the bedroom and/or without a desk, chair, etc
  • additional feelings related to Covid-19 including home-schooling, lack of job security, and frustrations with second-waves and restrictions  

Whilst more flexible ways of working have been ramping up over the last decade, the now burning-platform of Covid-19 has created a shift from evolution to revolution. We’ve written more about how our practices will change with the virtual future here.

So, what do we need to do to ensure we can enjoy and be productive when working in hybrid ways for the foreseeable future and years to come?  

Research confirms collaboration can be harder to achieve at a distance, relationships with colleagues we have not met can take much more effort and time to form, and we can be more judgemental of the lack or style of efforts from virtual colleagues because we cannot experience/see their context or the pressures they are under.  

Additionally, the collective knowledge, know-how and learning we require for organisations to grow and thrive can be harder to gather, generate and retain. There is also a risk of the influencing landscape of organisations ‘going undercover’ as senior leaders prioritise their return to the office, without necessarily ensuring the transparency or governance to allow those remaining home-based to be able to contribute to key decisions.

These challenges sit alongside the many, many benefits of flexible working if we can get our behaviours and culture right – including creating less hierarchical, more empowering, and inclusive ways of working within our organisations.

To achieve these cultural and life-style benefits, we need to understand common human responses to the challenges faced within ‘distanced-working.’ For example, there is a tendency to send even more email as we are less aware our colleagues’ availability for a quick catch up.  Or in a bid to keep the organisation updated we host Teams or Zoom calls with ever-larger gatherings, or transmit-style team briefs, both allowing little or no time for dialogue. When these are our main points of connection, they can exacerbate our sense of feeling dehumanised.   

working from home virtual work

We can feel uncomfortable picking up the phone to people we haven’t met or work with infrequently, therefore an email request can feel safer yet often adds our colleagues’ burdens or feelings of being ‘a-task-monkey,’ with little control over the timing or sizing of requests.  When conflicts start to bubble up these are less likely to be surfaced or resolved in constructive ways, and are often left to fester and resurface again, causing often unseen stress and tension. These tensions, and the others we experience, can undermine productivity and if unaddressed can ultimately create ‘toxic cultures.’

Therefore, in no particular order here are some of our ideas to help us humanise the virtual work place: 

  • Actively involve both office based and home workers in discussions and decisions about direction, dilemmas, and the future
  • Allocate regular time in our calendars for informal conversations with in-tact team members and those peers we collaborate with or provide us with services; add time within conference calls for personal check-ins & informal chats, encourage colleagues with family commitments to join with children as needed, etc 
  • When we need the contributions of internal (& external) colleagues, make a point of engaging with them verbally first – phone, Teams, Zoom, etc – to explain the context of the work, and therefore making it a more achievable meaningful experience, and to seek their buy in to our requirements, timeframes, etc 
  • When we are thinking about a colleague or missing face-to-face interactions with them pick up the phone for a chat; even if we have to leave a voicemail, they will appreciate us thinking of them
  • Remember to thank others for their work in helping us achieve our own objectives; ideally via non-regular communication tools so they know we have really taken the effort to acknowledge their contributions 
  • If we sense tensions in any of our relationships, or those between colleagues, sensitively find ways to surface and acknowledge feelings and issues, and enable a resolution and positive dynamics to be reset and built upon
  • When frustrated with others, remember they are likely to be doing their very best to fulfil their role in challenging circumstances.  How can we offer them empathy or support?  How can we have a dialogue to discuss the challenges we are all facing and find a way forwards which work for us all, with appropriate compromise by all parties
  • At a leadership or organisational level: host conversations with employees to understand their experiences, and the impact on the organisational culture, of hybrid working; and to seek to understand and subsequently act upon their ideas for minimising the tensions and maximising the joyfulness 
  • At a connection and context level: invest in facilitated peer-learning-groups to enable cohesion and relationships to develop at a deep level across the organisational matrix; and to improve both knowledge sharing and retention

How can we humanise the virtual work place?

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