They say culture eats strategy for breakfast – but what happens to culture when your entire staff has to work from home through breakfast, lunch and dinner? In recent weeks, an unprecedented number of employees have been unceremoniously thrust into remote work. And these are the lucky ones – those whose jobs can be done without a physical presence. We’d be remiss to explore the challenges they face without first acknowledging the essential workers who must carry on ‘as usual’ in the midst of a global health crisis, as well as the many who find themselves without a job altogether. We are only just beginning to feel the first seismic waves of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ll all be feeling the aftershocks for a long time.
But even as some industries have been brought to their knees, others are experiencing unprecedented demand. A Washington Post article notes that, “the pandemic has been a relentless destroyer of brick-and-mortar businesses as public health officials warn against in-person interactions. But the coronavirus is boosting almost anything that can be done online or with minimal human contact — grocery deliveries, online learning, takeout food, streaming video, even real estate closings done with online notaries.”
“[asking employees to work from home] was a crucial move to help ‘flatten the curve’, but the learning curve is undeniably steep”
Still other types of businesses aren’t yet sure where the chips will fall and are simply trying to push through the immediate crisis with as much normalcy and efficiency as possible. This means that companies across many sectors, with varying degrees of comfort, preparedness and experience in such endeavours have sent millions of employees home, expecting them to work from home, remotely. This was a crucial move to help ‘flatten the curve’, but the learning curve is undeniably steep for neophytes. Besides logistical headaches, remote work also poses very real risks to engagement, energy, innovation, collaboration and company culture.
The reality of working from home
People who used to be able to absorb (and exude) energy, ideas and company culture by walking into a building and working near others now find themselves home alone—many for the first time. The physical separation from our usual working environment and our co-workers can make it difficult to maintain a strong company culture and easy for employees to feel isolated.
But remote working arrangements have been on the rise for quite some time. It was, in fact, another wide-reaching crisis – the recession of 2008 – that sparked a surge in remote work over a decade ago. As companies were forced to downsize their office space and the size of their in-house teams, many employees and contractors began working from home (WFH). Since then, both employees and employers have begun to realize the many benefits of WFH like lowered costs and increased productivity that extend beyond its necessity as a response to a global pandemic.
That’s not to say remote work and working from home doesn’t present challenges, especially if your organization is new to it. While a home environment can be less distracting (particularly in more ‘normal’ times when we aren’t home with our partners and children) there can also be less inspiration, communication and collaboration. Team members may feel less connected to each other, which brings a risk of reduced cohesion, teamwork and accountability. For individuals, there can also be a blurring of boundaries between professional time and personal time, and it can be tricky for some people to learn how to work and relax in the same physical space at different times of day.
How community can support working from home
It’s up to responsive leaders and managers to provide the resources and guidance to help employees overcome these challenges and build strong and inclusive cultures and workflows. We are fortunate to live in an era with a wide arsenal of tech tools at our disposal. Even in traditional offices, most of us already use a variety of virtual and digital tools including email, intranet, conference calls, video conferencing, chat or messaging, and task or project management platforms. When used effectively, these tools can keep business tasks ticking along, but it takes something more thoughtfully structured to keep employees feeling aligned, informed and – most importantly – included.
For many companies, this ‘something’ could take the shape of an online community platform. Unlike email or video calls, internal employee engagement communities allow organizations to communicate in a transparent way with everyone at one time. Allowing for both public and private comments, a community can support clear corporate communication and give employees one place to go to ask questions and stay informed. The usefulness and benefits of this to help navigate the complexities of our current near-universal WFH mandate are obvious.
A temporary community dedicated to supporting employees during this period is quick to set up and can provide fast relief for Coronavirus-induced organizational chaos. Content can be focused on navigating the changes, communicating updates, offering ‘Ask Me Anything’ live discussions and providing WFH resources and best practices. It can also serve as a place to share personal hacks and stories to help employees feel connected and supported emotionally, something that is much harder to do in typical work-related spaces like Microsoft Teams or Slack.
The physical workplace facilitates a unique combination of formal and casual professional and social interactions. By providing a virtual ‘destination’ and aggregating a range of communication tools, an online community can best mimic this setting and nurture the meaningful interactions and bonds that collectively comprise a company’s culture and sense of belonging.
Ask your employees what they need
When a community brings people together, it also unlocks the collective intelligence and ingenuity of that group. While you can harness this insight in the best of times to innovate and solve everyday businesses challenges, you can also tap into it now for ideas on how to handle the challenges posed by the pandemic. Especially during turbulent times, it’s critical for organizations to look internally for strength, feedback, and ideas. While your leadership team may be spending a great deal of time in closed conversations about strategy, layoffs and other cost-cutting measures, a community can allow you to open the forum to your employees and ask them what they think. This can be a scary proposition for leaders who aren’t used to crowdsourcing solutions to high-level problems, but according to The Harvard Business Review, leading with transparency and compassion can lead to better decisions and potentially fewer layoffs. “In our experience, it is critical that you ask your employees to voice their ideas. By showing them, not just saying, that you care about what they think, you will have stronger buy-in for the initiatives you eventually prioritize.”
While the human race has faced many dangerous outbreaks and even pandemics in the past, we are still in the midst of something totally unprecedented in our lifetime. We are all being asked to do something exceptional at this time. Finding ways to stay home as much as possible while keeping our economy afloat is no small ask. While nothing about the COVID-19 crisis is ideal, we are lucky to have a huge range of digital and virtual solutions to draw from.
None of us have dealt with large-scale lockdowns, physical distancing and extended business shutdowns before, and there is no blueprint for handling the crisis with absolute certainty. All we do know is that the only thing we can count on is each other. Community allows us to come together, communicate what is going on and support one another. Together, we can come up with ways to work through the hard times and perhaps even come out stronger on the other side.