As many UK employees continue to work from home, Peter Davenport at Definition Agency discusses the communications headaches remote working causes and explains how to resolve them.
A recent YouGov survey revealed that two out of every five people (40%) currently working from home (WFH) say they will never go back to the office. Nearly three-quarters (71%) prefer working remotely and less than one in ten (9%) have returned to their desks permanently since the advice to WFH ended, in January 2022.
It demonstrates the massive scale of UK employees’ desire to, at the very least, continue to spend most of their professional hours away from traditional workplaces.
However, while negative impacts of the new models on city centre economies, office landlords and transport providers and hubs are discussed widely, they also pose less-publicised challenges of communications and culture for employers.
Companies large and small have long recognised the commercial importance of having shared values and a common mission in sustaining a productive workforce. Pre-pandemic, most communications took place in the office environment and the formal and informal social networks it nurtures. These networks provided easy and well-proven channels for conveying information and cultivating informed, engaged staff.
It is essential for any business to develop and communicate its values. Culture is the glue that binds successful organisations together. In an economy where labour and expertise are in ever-greater demand and where individuals want more from their employer – ‘a purpose beyond profit’ – the common mission can unify a disparate workforce.
But now employers must consider what happens when, for example, an organisation that once had a 1000-desk headquarters complex becomes a network of hundreds of geographically distant, one-person branch offices In remote employment, individuals may be hired, work for and leave a business, without ever actually entering the workplace.
Our own research found that the top concerns about hybrid working were: disengaged workforce (29%), employee communications (24%), creative thinking (23%), and team building (22%).
These can be distilled into a number of key issues for business leaders, as increasing numbers realise that they must offer remote working options.
Keeping remote workers informed, engaged and involved
Organisations that have successfully enthused and inspired scattered employees have done so by ensuring leaders are visible and communicate regularly. Their internal comms and HR teams have re-evaluated existing channels and brought in new communication routes.
Indeed, using Teams, Zoom, Slack, Workplace and other platforms, bosses may well have become more approachable and recognisable than before.
Barriers were broken down as staff saw leadership teams and CEOs in their own homes, casually dressed, with occasional interruptions by children or pets. Authentic reach outs earned the attention and respect of workforces.
Now, this visibility and approachability must be maintained – increased even – through regular, timely presentations and discussions.
Team meetings and town halls can be enhanced with TED-style video talks, animations and gamification that integrates interactive elements, such as Q&As, voting and comments/feedback.
Meanwhile, many firms have adopted Tik Tok video techniques and increased their staff vlogs. Crucially, these communication methods can address wider aspects of mixed model working – covering wellbeing, mutual support and mental resilience, countering feelings of isolation and promoting inclusion.
Managers should be equipped with training and tools that enable staff guidance and the signposting of sources of help for struggling colleagues.
Preserving company culture among distanced workers
A company’s culture is the set of shared values, goals, attitudes and practices that characterise it. Ideally, leaders will define and promote the culture and steward its evolution. Remember, though, that it occurs naturally, so if the business doesn’t establish one, employees will – whether intentionally or not.
As such, directors and mangers must ‘own’ the mission, the sense of purpose, the target destination, and ensure that everyone is onboard for the journey. Virtual, home-based working may well have increased productivity during the coronavirus interruption, but it is vital that companies keep their distinctive ethos alive long-term to inspire, unite and drive teams that remain physically apart.
Again, visible business leaders are essential for this, but inclusivity is key, too. It is one thing to have the innovative communication techniques and worthwhile aspirations, but culture is also instilled by how completely you convey messages and when you choose to do so.
Ensuring that all team members will be on hand for updates and messaging – wherever they happen to be – by trailing vital online information sessions well in advance and confirming attendance is non-negotiable.
Traditionally, remote workers, travelling employees and part-time staff complained of being left out. Now we’ve all had a taste of the isolation and dislocation remote working can bring, it should prompt fresh attitudes that ensure everyone is always kept in the loop and on the same page.
Maintaining team solidarity when members rarely meet
Just as they did in physical workplaces, managers must “take time to team”. Regularly checking in with individuals and “taking their temperature” in one-to-one chats is essential.
It is also crucial to maintain (or introduce) socials. While, even among a permanently scattered workforce, there is no reason why many of these can’t be physical get-togethers (declining Coronavirus rates and severity allowing), there are many online options for building those bonds.
Awards and recognition ceremonies (we have even created a virtual nightclub and after-show party to extend the celebrations), regular quizzes, team games with prizes, virtual bring-a-bottle parties, meet-the-starters, “coffee roulette” (scheduled online catch ups between different team members) and even virtual leaving parties are all fantastic ways to strengthen teams.
Meanwhile, weekly staff presentations can bridge social and commercial needs. Here, individuals or teams might talk through their backgrounds, what they do and how they can support colleagues.
Stimulating creativity in hybrid workers
There is a widening range of interactive tools that enable collaborative, on-screen working and virtual brainstorming sessions. Apart from specific projects, though, you can create a culture of innovation by sharing your ideas regularly and encouraging others to do so, either via online forums and suggestion boxes or in regular meetings.
General ideas for improvements, cost savings and efficiencies could be requested – or specific weekly tasks set as homework in team get-togethers.
Establishing digital groups to celebrate your creativity in all its forms will breed further ideas and invention. Creativity is a mindset and encouragement is key. And added incentivisation can be generated by holding votes on the ideas, with rewards given to those who devise the best ones. You can’t beat a good online show-and-tell, too.
Building in time for your people to be creative and giving them the freedom to explore ideas is important. And WFH is perfect for this. Staff don’t need to find a quiet place away from colleagues or justify what they are doing at any given moment, as they can usually access somewhere private in the house and manage their own time, free of rigid clock-on, clock-off work patterns.
In all these areas, a specialist communications partner can be an invaluable support. Great care must be taken on any appointment, though. It is important to seek the recommendations of respected industry colleagues before briefing.
Peter Davenport is senior strategic consultant at Definition Agency, where he heads up its insideout communications™ framework, which supports businesses’ communications in the new world of work. Definition’s Hybrid Working research involved 504 CEOs or board members at UK companies with more than 250 employees and with revenues ranging from £50m to over £500m. To access the report go to https://hubs.ly/Q013s-p_0
Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com