A common fear people have about the hybrid workplace is a fear of the loss of connection.
That fear is well-founded. Connection, which enables us to get work done effectively and aids in our understanding of another’s situation or perspective, is key to almost every desirable business outcome. Connections drive innovation and productivity, stimulate a sense of engagement and belonging, and enable strategic thinking.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “connected” as “brought together or into contact so that a real or notional link is established.” The shift in our workplaces means we will lose, or have already lost, the opportunity to be physically together. And we can all recite what we miss in the absence of that contact: Casual conversation, the sense of energy, the opportunity to gauge each other’s body language, and the non-working shared time during coffee or lunch or while waiting for an elevator.
If connection is so important, leaders, teams and organizations need to get creative to structurally change how connection happens in remote work.
How can we be “brought together or into contact” in new ways in the new hybrid world? Here are five approaches to explore.
1.) Design Structured Intersections
Many companies are exploring schedules that will bring entire teams to the office on specific days. That experiment can be extended in all sorts of creative ways: co-working days for adjacent teams; co-working days for tribes with shared capabilities; working days for service organizations that mirror working days for customer teams. These structured interactions can be virtual or physical and are simply times to be synchronously co-working to enable the back-and-forth nature of the real-time conversations and dialogue that we lose in the asynchronous world.
2.) Shift Patterns of Work
Work patterns before the pandemic were already in flux. Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School wrote in 2012 that “organizations thrive, or fail to thrive, based on how well the small groups within those organizations work.” Given the gig economy, agile work structures and the evolution of project-based teams, companies were already exploring shifting patterns of who works with whom and on what. The hybrid workplace creates an opportunity to accelerate those practices — to more fluidly bring teams together to build connections and then disperse into new teams to strengthen the connected fabric of the organization. Take a look at what work could be done by teams and form and disband them as the work gets done.
3.) Create Intentional Random Engagement
This sounds like an oxymoron, but it can be a powerful practice. Leaders at all levels can be intentional about with whom they connect — and how — inside and outside their organizations as well as their function or industry. Senior leaders have always found value in skip-level conversations; now is the time for periodic skip-skip level conversations. Avoid an agenda; instead, be hyper-conscious of the connection possibilities. What can you learn? What surprises you? What makes you curious? These intentional random interactions are vital in a hybrid, asynchronous work environment to replace the off-hand intersections of the brick and mortar office.
4.) Enable Broader Visibility
Time to bring back the billboard, people! Organizations work best if teams have a sense of each other’s priorities, engagement and workload. In an office, you can read the energy in a group by walking past the cubicles and meeting rooms. That’s just not possible in the virtual world. Everyone needs to proactively communicate more than they did before. Each leader, team or business function needs to ensure that others know what they are up to, and they need to communicate that information as concisely as possible. The format will vary widely — it could be a critical metric, a spotlight on a project or a weekly blog post about the week’s events. The value is a snapshot of your work so that others stay connected, no matter where they’re signing on from.
5.) Put Your Body Language Into Words
Effective communication is an art form — and it’s one that is all the more challenged by the limited attention spans and communication overload of our virtual worlds. Having said that, employees and leaders need to recognize that the bandwidth of their communication has narrowed. It is more challenging to see body language during a web conference. We don’t sense uncertainty, confusion or anxiety as clearly as when we are in person. The new normal requirement is to verbalize those emotions. This might take practice and encouragement, but it will help create connection in powerful ways.
Pay attention to connection. It’s the secret sauce to make this new normal a great normal for our teams and organizations. Connection won’t happen by default, but it can happen by design.