Apr 1st, 2020

Inspiring Humanity and Solidarity in a Virtual Work World

Working remotely from home does come with benefits. Without the need to commute or to dress up for work, many employees today — possibly not changing out of their PJs or sweatpants until lunch — have more time on their hands. A study from Stanford University found, surprisingly, that those who work at home are actually more productive than colleagues who go into the office. They produced a full day’s work more because they found it less distracting and easier to concentrate at home. However, another study found that 29 percent of remote workers struggle with work/life balance, and they end up working more hours from their home than the office. 

We, as a society, are reinventing how to stay motivated, inspired, creative and collaborative as we adjust to these dramatic changes.

At this point, it doesn’t matter what your personal preferences are, or how progressive a stance your employer takes on the WFH issue. Many of us are now forced to work from home due to the coronavirus crisis and the need to stave off its spread within our communities.

As many authorities in the United States have made the decision to keep more than 150 million Americans at home, in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of the disease, we, as a society, are reinventing how to stay motivated, inspired, creative and collaborative as we adjust to these dramatic changes. 

Isolation Is Not Healthy for Humans

Humans are social creatures, and living and working in isolation is not always good for our health. “We feel safest in groups, and as a result, we experience isolation as a physical state of emergency,” wrote Ezra Klein for VOX in a thoughtful piece on March 12 about social distancing and the “social recession” he predicted it will cause. 

While isolation is unhealthy, it’s also bad for business, according to a Harvard Business Review story on “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.” It cites a Gallup Poll that “found strong social connections at work make employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work, and less likely to fall sick or be injured. Without strong social connections, these gains become losses.”

Retaining Our Humanity and Solidarity 

Photo Credit: Perry Grone, via Unsplash

In a PlaceLab post on March 20, "Releasing Guilt in WFH," the CEO of EQ Office, Lisa Picard, addresses this “unprecedented time in our nation’s history, where the culture of work and home merge.” She also notes how quickly the expectations of the workday for many of us have morphed into something new. In the post, Picard offers some advice for bringing more humanity into our work every day, despite the forced isolation in our home offices.

In a timely “Livability” post by Melody Warnick, focused on supporting our communities, she reminds us of the power of the words “Thank you.” Warnick writes: “All of us are mega-stressed right now, but local business owners worried about their livelihood have a special level of anxiety. Send a thank-you note or an email to let them know that you see them and you’re thinking of them. A little compassion and connection right now goes a long way.” 

Read more, here, on what Warnick advises to help struggling local businesses during the pandemic.

Before the ‘March Madness’ 

Prior to this suddenly surreal world, today’s talent, especially millennials, who are now the majority of U.S. workers, had been increasing their expectations of a level of collaboration and flexibility at work. They crave to be part of a like-minded community, and they care about how workspaces make them feel. They are passionate about building community resources and networks that fast-track their professional and personal growth at work. Just as with the chat groups and social channels they’re connected to, millennials want to recreate them “in real life.” 

Now, many of us in this time of crisis are really missing those real-life connections: the after-work cocktails with colleagues, the ability just to stop in to chat, or to brainstorm in a huddle room with teams, and many other human interactions we used to take for granted.

Feeling connected to our co-workers, family and friends is a human necessity now, almost as important to us as water, food and other essentials.

All the Flexibility, but Less Serendipity

Photo Credit: Husna Miskandar, via Unsplash

While many employees today appreciate the flexibility of working from home, some executives are less enthusiastic. Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO of Apple, for example, did not believe in remote work. Instead, the Silicon Valley legend believed that “Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox.” “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “You run into someone, ask what they’re doing, you say, ‘Wow!’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” 

Serendipity, defined as the happy or beneficial development of events by chance (as in “a fortunate stroke of serendipity”), has been a guiding principle of Silicon Valley, long a global leader in innovation culture. “Socializing matters,” reports an article in Harvard Business Review about making serendipity work for you. “It is very unlikely that James Watson and Francis Crick would have been as efficient in elucidating the structure of DNA without the benefit of those they shared their offices and interest with.”

Advice for Forging Connections in a Virtual Work World

The path ahead of us is an uncertain one. Feeling connected to our co-workers, family and friends is a human necessity now, nearly as important to us as water, food and other essentials. 

Here is some tried-and-true advice to consider in this crisis:

1) The Power of Morning Huddles 

According to Verne Harnish in his bestselling book “Mastering the Rockefeller Habits,” regular daily meetings are crucial to workplace success. In a virtual work world, this type of consistency and the chance to share with others and plan on what to focus on first is now mission-critical. 

Holding virtual huddles on a regular basis will create a sense of unity and keep everyone on the same page. Beyond the basics, after all team members have shared important updates and their No. 1 priority of the day, huddles allow teams to share collective intelligence and new ideas. 

Ideally, team huddles should start and end at the same time every day, for instance, over coffee in the morning. While Harnish advises that they should be kept short, lasting no longer than 15 minutes, in our current circumstances, it may be best to build in extra time for more sharing. 

The benefits of team huddles include: 

  • Clarity: Frequent meetings help a team understand who is doing what and how it fits in with the vision of the organization. 

  • Cohesion: Huddles help to ensure accountability and superior results. 

  • Communication: Nothing beats live conversations. It is important to have all team members present for team huddles, and to leave time for each member to speak during the sessions. 

2) Daydreaming and Digital ‘Play at Work’  

In a physical workspace, it’s generally far easier to “daydream” and bounce ideas off co-workers — or just have a bit of fun to ease the stress that many of us experience at work. However, new digital ways of communicating can insert more “play at work” and boost the opportunities for serendipitous exchanges of creative ideas and inspiration from colleagues.

In a virtual work world, it’s important for leaders to cultivate a way to reduce stress in the workplace and to encourage employees to find expressions of a company’s culture online. Consider creating a “virtual water cooler” where employees can run into each other and play out personal and human issues as you promote the new digital company culture. Numerous platforms can be considered for this, including: Google Hangouts, Slack, Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom. 

In a Fast Company guest post earlier this year, Booz Allen Hamilton’s Susan Penfield, a strategist and chief innovation officer, encourages other business leaders to create space for employees to daydream and experiment more at work, and to turn those ideas into innovations. “Even without construction, companies can create idea-incubation hubs in existing spaces through a little creativity,” writes Hamilton. “New environments can stimulate the senses, invite discomfort, shift perspectives, and encourage dynamic teaming, all of which can spur new ways of thinking.” 

3) Measure Productivity, Not Hours

Photo Credit: Aaron Burden, via Unsplash

Flexibility is one great benefit of working from home. With so many parents living and working in a new age of home-schooling and ’round-the-clock kids, many employees now have another full-time job, as they adjust to a new world of virtual work. This means they need to work in the early morning hours or late at night, when they have more time and space to think and to focus. 

According to Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University, it’s important for leaders to “trust their team members and validate that trust by watching organizational productivity, not hours. If the work is getting done and the numbers are strong (or as strong as can be expected, in our current reality), they feel confident that their team is putting in the hours. This allows them to celebrate their team’s performance without micro-managing the time clock.” 

4) Reinforce a Culture of Caring and Community

Today’s workforce, especially millennials, care about doing good in the world. They also care about social issues and show a strong preference for employers who give back. According to a white paper titled “Unlocking Millennial Talent 2015,” 60 percent of millennials surveyed reported that the search for a sense of purpose helps to explain why they chose to work for their current employers. 

During the crisis that we are all living through together, a culture of caring matters more than ever. This offers companies a big opportunity to address this need and reinforce the importance of expressing kindness and empathy at a time of unprecedented social pain and anguish.  

While it’s probably best to engage your employees in this discussion and mutually decide on which organizations to support during the coronavirus crisis, here are some ideas to consider now: 

  • Purchase gift certificates to local restaurants and bars that your company and its employees frequently patronized before the mandatory shut-downs. With so many hospitality establishments suddenly closed, they’re in dire need of revenue.

  • “Shop local online,” writes Melody Warnick for MarketWatch. “Lots of local shops keep at least some inventory available to order online. That boutique bag you’ve been eyeing? That great piece of local art? Now’s the time to treat yourself. This is the perfect time to support indie bookstores, too.” 

  • “Skip the refund. If you missed a local show that you had tickets for, consider writing it off as a donation instead of asking for your money back. Now’s also a great time to sign up for that membership to your local nonprofit arts association or subscribe to the summer theater series,” Warnick suggests. 

As we figure out the best path forward in this crisis, and work together as a global community, it’s important to remember to be thoughtful and sensitive to those around us. As the Canadian writer Phil Callaway wrote: “When it comes right down to it, the only way to face a crisis that makes any sense at all — is together. And the only direction to face — is up.”