During the current global circumstances, companies are facing unprecedented changes. Many knowledge-based businesses had already started enabling employees to work remotely, but remote work is now a daily reality for nearly all companies around the globe. Just as HR and L&D were getting to grips with forming virtual global teams with the right talent to drive innovation, these global circumstances we now face have accelerated this change beyond all imagining.
Now that many businesses have entirely remote workforces, maintaining team spirit while adjusting to new ways of working together from different locations has become a pressing issue.
At the same time, many global businesses are pivoting their customer service solutions. To ensure survival, most businesses are transforming rapidly, and often having to do this within days. With a relentless focus on meeting customers’ changing needs, companies are communicating with and serving their customers in new ways. They might be delivering products and services differently or using technology to improve communications, all while maintaining the human touch.
At this time of rapid change, HR professionals are in the spotlight. The task of managing remote workers and keeping them engaged, reassured and productive is more than simply a business challenge – it is about human wellbeing, supporting people and society. Indeed, a high level of soft skills is increasingly important in supporting and bonding a dispersed and stressed workforce. These include the collaboration, communication and even foreign language skills that are now the glue that binds the workforce, keeping it working and innovating cohesively.
Engaging virtual teams
Bonding virtual teams and engaging employees – who are suddenly faced with working from home full-time during a highly stressful period – calls for innovative ideas. Once the technology is in place, it is important at this time to focus on the human needs of employees for social interaction, collaboration and reassurance. Consider the following ways of bonding virtual teams through social interaction:
- Get the tech right. Most global businesses already use some video conferencing, instant messaging and project management and collaboration tools. But these are often used in silos, with different teams using different platforms. It is a good idea to tap into the knowledge of experienced users of useful technology, such as project management tools Trello, Wrike and Asana.
- Expert users can step in as informal trainers to get other teams up to speed quickly with new platforms. It is important to be realistic, as this may not be the right time to transfer long-time users of email communications on to new and unfamiliar collaboration platforms. Some employees may need extra help and attention when it comes to using new technology.
Bear in mind, too, that it may be less easy for home-based employees to use bandwidth-heavy video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Teams. To keep the global organization collaborating effectively, IT departments may need to stand ready to support newly remote workers with mobile hotspot technology and the right hardware, such as a laptop with webcam.
- Carry out regular check-ins for reassurance. Ensure leaders hold a check-in update at least weekly that focuses solely on employee wellbeing, offering reassurance and an open forum to ask and answer any questions. This can be an opportunity to praise employees publicly for doing a good job and to name-check new teams to support bonding. Authenticity is key here. Organizations that struggle with this might need to boost the communications skills of senior level employees.
- Offer learning opportunities during downtime. Employees in lockdown are looking for home-based activities. At this time, many workers will be uniquely receptive to the chance to learn a new skill. Consider offering the opportunity for employees to learn new language and communication skills to support both the business and employees’ self-development.
- Provide a forum for social, non-work interaction. Employees usually bond and decompress from work-related stress outside of their work environments. Now that social gatherings are temporarily on hold, how about offering an open mic session in the last hour of a working day, where employees can play musical instruments, sing or even show off their pets? Lockdown lunches might bring together colleagues from across different functions to share what they are working on and brainstorm how they could collaborate now and in the future. This is a good chance for employees to practice newly acquired language and communication skills.
- Schedule breaks. During these strange times, employees may be working far too long at unsuitable, unergonomic workplaces, from the kitchen table to the sofa. A regular team ‘get up and stretch’ session via web conferencing is fun as well as essential to physical wellbeing. Mental health is equally important and shared yoga or meditation sessions can help.
Times of crisis have historically also been opportunities for change. Indeed, the world will look very different on the other side of this situation. HR specialist Josh Bersin comments, “Regardless of how soon this is over, it’s clear to me we are in the middle of The Big Reset, a new way of thinking about work, life, business, and leadership.”1
This is a pause and rethink moment, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to review the way we work. HR and L&D will be front and central in the ‘new’ world, focusing on the human side of the business. This period of enforced virtual collaboration will herald a new dawn for many companies. It will speed up adoption of digital platforms for knowledge-sharing and learning support, including applications such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom which enable video collaboration.
In the new human-centred world, companies will listen and respond more to customers and adjust their business approaches to maximize customer and employee experience. It is a time to regroup, to reflect, learn and adapt – and that’s where learning can help. Soft skills focusing on building collaboration based on human empathy and trust will be vital, creating a future where virtual teams can work together and support each other productively.
Written for OEB 2020 by Armin Hopp, Founder and President of Speexx and organiser of the annual Speexx Exchange at OEB.