Connecting in a Disconnected Workplace

After spending 15 years in busy work environments, I started working from home in 2013. Dream come true, right? The change took some adjustment, but once I got into a groove, I couldn’t help but notice how incredibly productive I was. Could it be possible that my coffee at home had magical powers? Sadly, no. As it turns out it was the focus that comes with uninterrupted work.

For my entire career, I was conditioned to tune out the noise and distractions around me. I spent ten years in a bustling newsroom in Chicago – it was distraction central. TV’s everywhere, each tuned to a different news channel. Reporters and producers working the phones. Breaking news interrupting any research or script I was working on without warning. While some might wonder how we got anything done, the reality was that it honed our skills of what warranted our attention and what didn’t. After leaving TV news I worked in a more traditional office setting where, although less chaotic, I still had constant interactions with co-workers, impromptu meetings, and friendly hallway conversations. Interestingly, what seemed like distractions back then actually had a positive impact on my work environment.

Once I started working remotely, there were significantly fewer in-person ‘meetings’, scheduled or otherwise. No one was dropping into my office for a quick chat. And my walk to the coffee machine had zero chance of a hallway conversation – that’s if you don’t count the discussions with our family dog. After a few weeks, I started to notice a void that I now realize was, in part, responsible for my productivity. A void that’s not uncommon for many remote workers. It’s the human interaction that sparks creativity and helps us freshen our mind by forcing it to multi-task. What these incidental conversations provide is a chance to learn what’s going on around us, within our department, across leadership. They provide an opportunity for collaboration and may trigger a lightbulb moment for something we’re working on. The topics of these conversations don’t typically warrant a memo, but the interactions with our colleagues and managers contribute to keeping us grounded, making us feel like we’re part of a team, and ultimately help us do our job better.  It’s an undercurrent of communication that gets lost when team members work remotely.

So how can companies and organizations inject those moments into their remote workforce as we head into 2021? There’s no magic bullet – no one-size-fits-all answer. Even before the pandemic, studies on remote workers showed they’re at a higher risk for loneliness, depression, and anxiety. When you add in the stress of job security and family well-being, the mental health strain on remote workers is greater than at any time in our history. So, companies have to change their approach to how they communicate with their teams. Scrap their previous internal communication strategy and start over. The goal is to change habits – not just through workflow and software tools, but in how we communicate and relate to one another.

One cornerstone of any communications plan is knowing your audience and that’s important for companies to recognize. Each environment and the needs and expectations of each worker is different. So every company must develop a strategy that ensures employees have what they need to be successful. The messaging has to be authentic, personal, and intentional. Instead of managers only reaching out with task-oriented emails or announcements, they should establish more informal check-ins with their team. Instead of group emails, reach out to individuals to see how they’re doing. Listen to the obstacles they’re encountering and start an ongoing conversation about whether there’s anything they’re struggling with within a remote setting. Be something more than a boss. Depending on the size of the team, an occasional phone call to do the same may also boost morale.

Positive workplace culture and communication go hand-in-hand. The key to continuing a positive culture will be how well companies adapt their communication approach to ensure they can connect with their employees whether it be remotely or in an office setting. Trust me, the change in your communication approach will impact everyone from leadership on down. That’s because none of us are robots who flourish in our own bubble. We are humans who thrive on connection, interaction and we benefit from collaboration. Without it, we all may end up spending too much time looking for inspiration from our pets!