As people settle into long-term remote work, an expert says it’s important to cultivate a healthy virtual environment to ensure coworkers click and stay productive.
Even though states are starting to reopen, most experts are recommending continued social distancing practices and that organizations allow a portion of the workforce to still work remote. So, if employees will continue to work from home, it’s crucial that they work together well.
Blake Ashforth, a professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, coauthored a study on remote worker relationships and offered advice on how to ensure your association’s virtual workforce hums along as well as when they were collaborating in-person. A successful virtual working relationship has good cadence, Ashforth said.
“It had two major dimensions: a temporal rhythm—where you knew when you were going to interact, how long, that the person was there, and how to interact,” he said. “The second was knowing something about them as individuals.”
When employees had that rhythm and personal knowledge, they clicked as virtual coworkers and would work effectively. The good news for the current environment is that people who started together in person and transferred to virtual working environments are well-positioned to interact successfully online.
“It’s much easier if you’ve already had a relationship,” Ashforth said. “You have a strong sense of where you do and do not connect. That can be a strong bedrock for a virtual work relationship. But it still needs maintenance. You have to work at it. Nothing lasts forever.”
According to Ashforth, this means being deliberate, because there aren’t those chance meetings in the hallway, spontaneous drop-ins, or quick coffees or lunches that happen in offices.
“Working from home, you can’t take your work friends for granted,” Ashforth said. “You want to meet with them virtually. You might want to have a happy hour or weekly meeting.”
Managers can also play a role in helping people maintain those relationships. “It is a lot easier if managers are involved,” Ashforth said. “They can make sure before you have a team meeting, you have five minutes catching up.”
In addition to building in social catch-up time in meetings, managers should also be checking in with employees. Ashforth said there isn’t a rule of thumb as to how often to check-in: It will vary with employee needs, as those newer to the field may need more attention than more experienced team members.
“Generally, more is better than less,” Ashforth said. “That is, even if people find it a bit too much, they should appreciate the company is reaching out. That’s better than feeling abandoned.”
When working remote, it’s also important to ensure the office culture carries over. “At the end of the day, culture is based on how you are treated as an individual and as a group,” Ashforth said. “If you have a culture at work that feels collaborative and creative, in the virtual world, you want to have that same environment.”
In general, it’s important to remember to celebrate good remote work, just as you would in the office. “You applaud people who have collaborated. You keep those things alive by talking about them, marking milestones, acknowledging you have done these things,” Ashforth said. “You do it regularly. You publicize these things often and as needed.”
One good bit of news about the virtual environment: gossip tends to be less prevalent. “When you’re in a regular work environment, then you’ve got people in all their glory,” Ashforth said. “You have gossip, politics, rumors. In the virtual world, you don’t have the rich social context in which it flourishes.”
While many are working remotely today because of the pandemic, Ashforth says more organizations are likely to continue to allow it, even when social distancing eases.
“I think this might become more the norm going forward,” Ashforth said. “Companies are realizing that productivity does not tank. Well-being does tend to go up. I think they are going to discover they can save money and have productive employees.”
What are staff at your association doing to stay connected during this period of remote work? Share in the comments.