Maintaining friendships at work boosts happiness and productivity. Therefore, it is vital to preserve positive relationships when working remotely. Cultivating these close relationships is even more important now as lockdowns and isolation have caused workplace burnout across America and around the world to reach an all-time high.
[The World Health Organisation defines burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and which has three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or negative/cynical feelings related to one’s job, and
- reduced professional effectiveness.]
“The research is extremely clear that having friends at work has benefits,” says Marissa King of the Yale School of Management. “We get our sense of purpose and our intrinsic sense of motivation through relationships.”
One of the biggest keys to combatting isolation and increasing engagement is obvious but often overlooked: having close relationships at work. In fact, claiming to have a “best friend at work” is a powerful predictor of workplace engagement, which, in turn, is an antidote to feelings of isolation. Yet many organizations continue policies that dissuade or outright discourage people from socializing or becoming friends.
The Q12 engagement survey, which has been used by Gallup international management firm to gain feedback from 25 million employees for 20+ years, has consistently found that a strong relationship at work leads to improvements in customer engagement, profit, employee safety incidents and patient safety incidents:
The best employers recognize that people want to build meaningful friendships and further, that company loyalty is built on such relationships…Beyond any talk of business outcomes or scientific validity, though, is a very simple premise: To ignore friendships is to ignore human nature.
Developing strong remote-work relationships
Stanford University Professor of Economics Nicholas Bloom said “an incredible 42% of the US labor force was working from home full-time” in June 2020. Bloom added that “by sheer numbers, the US is a working-from-home economy. Almost twice as many employees are working from home as at work.”
Bloom observed that a number of corporations are developing plans for more work-from-home options beyond the pandemic. A recent separate survey of firms indicated that the share of working days spent at home is expected to increase fourfold from pre-COVID levels, from 5% to 20%. He said:
Of the dozens of firms I have talked to, the typical plan is that employees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.
Remote and hybrid work is here to stay
An Upwork survey in October-November 2020 supported Bloom’s data, finding that 41.8% of the American workforce were working remotely. And an estimated 22% of the workforce will be working remotely by 2025. This is a “staggering 87% increase from the number of remote workers prior to the pandemic,” according to Upwork’s Adam Ozimek. Also, a mid-2020 survey PwC survey of CEOs from 67 countries found that 78% predicted “remote collaboration” would be a permanent feature of work after the pandemic. Therefore, all workforce arrangements would need to consider remote/hybrid work as a major factor in their future planning.
Crucial for remote workers to maintain friendships
Gallup actively advocates friendships among remote workers – those working mostly from home. In fact, Gallup consultants believes such friendships “are crucial,” and they recommend how you can start to improve your team’s engagement. Even if you are not an actual team leader, you can speak with your boss and colleagues about introducing some of these team interactions because it is vital to preserve positive relationships when working remotely.
- Begin to study your remote workers’ patterns. When are they meeting via video conference or able to connect with peers to collaborate together?
- Look for opportunities to get remote employees together for events, even if this means using technology.
- Understand your remote workers’ strengths and their natural talents to appreciate who they are and how they work best.
- Spend time understanding what type of friendships your employees are looking to make. With their talents in mind, this gives you the clues and insights to match up complementary partnerships.
- Encourage your remote employees to share stories about themselves.
- Plan time to socialize with your remote employees when it will not disrupt their work or customers.
- Make an effort to hear your remote employees’ thoughts and opinions at the end of each milestone on a project or task, as if they were in the office.
- Ask yourself daily, “From what I learned and communicated today — of those working remotely, who needs to know those things or needs a check-in?”
Team leaders should actively seek to strengthen remote-work and hybrid relationships
As I noted in my article, “Employers need to communicate more during stressful times,” organizational and team leaders need to spend extra time and effort to make remote employees feel valued. Helpful suggestions about keeping it all together as head of a team are also made in Cropley’s Mental Health & Wellbeing Guide:
- Regularly phone and/or video conference with your friends, family and colleagues.
- At work, check-in on projects and ask people how they’re doing. Let them know that you’re genuinely interested and care about their wellbeing.
- Arrange a virtual coffee get together with a couple of questions you can throw out to the group. Make it fun and interactive.
- Send a frequent, even daily, email to contacts, which let people know you’re thinking about them. You can show empathy to them during this time, and share workplace insights or news updates.
- Arrange a conference call to your whole team every couple of weeks you can discuss the latest information, and do a round table so everyone’s voice is heard.
- Discuss the big picture, connecting what’s happening in the bigger scheme of things to your team, helping them stay on course with their work, and how they contribute to success. Connect their work to the organization’s success, discussing their relevance to the organizational vision, mission, and direction, to help keep everyone on the same page. This is important because it helps to preserve positive relationships when working remotely.
- Host a Q&A session, encouraging two-way conversation. You’d be surprised at what you might learn!Calm the stormy seas. After a while, people tend to get a little stir crazy especially if they socially-isolate for longer periods of time. Listen with compassion and act with kindness.
- When a team member delivers a great project, recognize them to their team mates and even more widely within the organization if they are comfortable with that. Share business information from within your work group and across the business unit, and organization. It costs nothing to be generous with your information and creates a feeling of belonging to something bigger.
- Take advantage of the opportunity to educate people about the differences between fake news and real news. Once they learn how to identify differences, they will be more confident in the future.
Help remote/hybrid teams break the ice
It can be challenging for remote teams to work together effectively, as distance makes it hard for people to build rapport with one another. You can use virtual ice breakers to help remote teams break down communication barriers. An ice breaker is simply an approach you can use to get conversations flowing, and to break down barriers or shyness between team members. You might use one to kick off a face-to-face training session, to get everyone “in the mood” for a meeting, or to energize a team event. Ensure you follow this up because it is vital to preserve positive relationships when working remotely.
What to communicate in advance
You will have to decide how much information you give participants in advance of the ice-breaker activity. You may want them to prepare beforehand, if the exercise would benefit from them spending time thinking about their responses. Alternatively, you may want to keep the ice breaker a surprise, if you want people to flex their creative muscles and be spontaneous! You can understand how these light-hearted activities help to preserve positive relationships when working remotely.
Mind Tools offers these suggestions for good virtual ice breakers:
The social question
The idea for this ice breaker comes from the online training service Guided Insights.
Ask each participant a “social” question. So, you could find out what someone enjoys doing outside of work, or ask if she has a funny story she can share about something that happened to her recently, and so on. Ask everyone the same question, or different ones if you want more variety in the responses.
Here are some more examples of what you might ask:
- Give an example of something you’ve done this week that you feel proud of.
- If you weren’t on this call, what would you likely to be doing?
- If you could eat any dish right now, what would it be?
- If money and time were no object, where would you most like to go on vacation?
The time machine
The idea for this ice breaker comes from the About Continuing Education website, which provides resources for students, teachers and parents.
Ask the following question, to one participant at a time: “If you were able to travel through time, either forward or backward… :
- Where would you go?
- If backward, to which time period?
- If there was a person you could go back in time and meet, who would it be, and why?
- Would you just want to visit and come back, or would you stay?”
Two lies and a truth
The idea for this ice breaker was developed by new-media consultant Joitske Hulsebosch.
Ask each team member to prepare a list of three interesting “facts” about themselves, two of which must be made up. These could comprise anything, from a pet they own or a hobby they love to a famous person they say they’ve met, and so on.
Then get other team members to decide on the facts they think are true. The team member who receives the most incorrect votes “wins.”
The lesson here is how important it is to preserve positive relationships when working remotely.