I used to work for a high-frequency trading firm that developed technology for the trading industry. As with any complex project, collaboration was critical, so when we started planning our move to a new 68,000-square-foot office, creating a space that made communication easier was a top priority.

In our new office, we seated employees in small pods based on their roles and teams. We created areas for designated purposes, such as meeting spaces and quiet developer zones. When we moved in, the impact was immediate: Simply put, the space made it easier to do our jobs. The experience was an early lesson in how a workspace impacts the team using it — a lesson that’s even more relevant as companies navigate a changing work environment.

Only a year ago, businesses were focused on using office features like open-concept floorplans and ping-pong tables to lure talent and foster engagement. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company “headquarters” migrated to a screen. To be successful in 2021, business leaders will need to build their virtual workplaces with the same level of intention and focus they once gave their physical offices.

2020 was an extraordinary and challenging year that transformed how and where we work. While promising news of vaccines may bring an end to the pandemic this year, the shift to remote or hybrid teams is likely here to stay. The benefits of working virtually are too good for many businesses to pass up and include the ability to recruit employees who live anywhere, better quality of life, and substantial cost savings from reduced office and travel costs (one firm estimates an average of $11,000 in savings per year for every employee who works remotely at least half of the time).

As companies contemplate long-term remote work, a sustainable plan is key. Many businesses scrambled to adopt remote technologies when the pandemic hit and are now looking to replace Band-Aid solutions with a more effective setup. More than half of businesses say workers are struggling with “remote communication and fatigue,” and 32% of businesses report that their employees are having trouble “adapting to new technology and communications tools.”

Beyond these technical challenges, the underlying goals and priorities of remote work are shifting for some companies. PwC surveys have found that just “26% of leaders are concerned about losing productivity due to remote work now,” compared to 63% of leaders who cited productivity as a concern in March. Rather than focusing on worker efficiency, businesses are increasingly concerned about creating a virtual workplace where employees actually want to be. The same survey found that 49% of leaders are working to improve remote work experience for their employees. There’s a good reason why: Investing in a strong and connected work culture supports employee well-being, boosting productivity and retention in return.

Creating a successful virtual workplace requires rethinking how employees connect to information and to one another. While many legacy communication tools serve as a knowledge repository, connecting people with other people, rather than connecting them with information, must be the focus moving forward.

For learning and human resources (HR) professionals, these connections begin with the recruiting and onboarding process. How do your workers get to know their colleagues and managers? Where can they find the information they need? Where do they go if they’re stuck or need help? A successful virtual headquarters blends the right tools, processes and mindset to foster an environment where every remote worker is equipped to succeed. Here’s how to make it happen for your organization:

Create a Command Center

Just like employees once reported to an office, creating a virtual space where they can connect for working and socializing is the key. Businesses that cobbled together multiple point solutions early in the pandemic are now seeing the effects in lost productivity and engagement. One study found that 56% of employees are using at least three different tools to collaborate, creating a drag on productivity and worker frustration. Think about what your employees need to access on a daily basis to get their work done, and bring as much of it together as possible.

Communicate in a Variety of Ways

Daily stand-up meetings, weekly happy hours or even a quick chat celebrating a job well done create a sense of community that’s crucial for employee well-being. It’s important to choose the right medium for the moment: Does that video call need to be a call, or can it be an instant message? Be mindful of video fatigue, and make sure you’re communicating appropriately based on the context.

It’s also important to enable independent work as much as possible. Encourage team members to choose how they organize and communicate, and put training and learning resources in easy reach to enable self-service. Micromanaging communication structures or making too many assumptions about how people will want to work can create problems. The right tools help employees create sustainable workflows and build camaraderie, wherever they’re working.

Don’t Forget the Customer

Many platforms are designed for internal communication but stop at the office door, so to speak. Virtually fostering relationships with clients, vendors and other external parties is critical. Think about how employees are keeping up with clients: Are requests lost in email? Do they have shared spaces for projects or ongoing conversations? Your virtual workspace should help keep everyone in the loop — even when you don’t share an email domain.

Protect Your Data and Your People

The security pitfalls that can come with remote work have been well documented, and stringing together multiple collaboration solutions means a larger attack surface — and more opportunities for something to go awry. In addition to centralizing communications, consider the strengths and vulnerabilities of your tools, including any integrations.

Many businesses focus on security, but it’s also important to consider data privacy and user activity. Pay extra close attention if your company deals with sensitive data like trade secrets, client or company financial data, or patient health information.

Measure What Matters

Businesses should trust their employees to accomplish their mission rather than implementing intrusive monitoring or surveillance. Ultimately, the most important metric is employee performance, not details like time in front of the camera or active hours on a platform.

After a year where everything about work seems to have changed, some things still hold true. Teams still need a space to gather, talk and create — whether that collaboration takes place in an office building, in a home office or on a mobile device. Designing a virtual workplace that supports those needs can help your business transition successfully into the future of work.

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