November 10, 2021
Over the past several weeks, we’ve covered topics like The Great Resignation, the importance of employee experience and what employers can do to support the needs of their people. In alignment with these posts, another consistent theme of the Host blog has been the rise of hybrid work and the necessity of businesses to adapt to flexible working options going forward. As we now know, widespread working from home, while at first a necessity due to Covid quarantines, has now become standard practice for many businesses.

As a result of everything in the paragraph above, many of us now have new coworkers we’ve never met in person—we may never meet them. This is a significant shift in the way most of us interact with colleagues, requiring novel approaches to employee training and onboarding, integration with company culture and other aspects of starting a new role that have typically relied on face-to-face interactions.

The Effect on Social Capital

The informal office interactions we used to take for granted are a substantial driver of social capital—that is, reaping the benefits of knowing certain people. Most of us have worked jobs where we needed to seek out institutional information from a long-tenured colleague or track down data from a subject-matter expert. While sharing information hasn’t gone away, it can be difficult to cultivate serendipitous moments of collaboration or insight, especially without the ability to build face-to-face familiarity and friendliness.

According to the Harvard Business Reviewthe pandemic led to significant changes in the development of organizational social capital. Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index analyzed employee productivity across Microsoft and LinkedIn’s user base, as well as conducting a survey taken by 30,000 professionals across the globe. The analysis found that a year of almost exclusively at-home work impacted workplace connections, with people reporting feelings of disconnect and a reduction in the size of their professional network. People continued seeing the colleagues they work with day-to-day thanks to Zoom and other similar conferencing technologies, but less formalized relationships with coworkers plummeted. Teams became siloed, more reactive and less driven by the social interactions that reinforce and grow workplace culture.

Growing Virtual Connections

One of the most substantial difficulties for companies throughout the pandemic has been employee training. Historically, training has been done in person to boost engagement and interaction. However, Covid forced companies to shift their approach to learning and development, leading to an uptick in virtual opportunities to educate and inform.

“We have to remember that virtual experiences are still training,” said Maureen Flaherty, Host’s Director of Global Education. “My vision for learning is very hands-on and learner-led, which can be difficult to maintain in a virtual context, especially keeping people engaged and participating. Before the pandemic, we were already working on a new approach to remote learning. Covid forced us to pivot and figure out how to support people virtually while continuing to provide a positive, mindful experience.”

Ash Caywood, Program Manager for Learning and Development at Host, said the pandemic led she and her L&D colleagues to reconsider how to teach things without the benefits of in-person instruction, like body language or eye contact. A major goal was to avoid the drudgery and sense of obligation that can come from standard learning portals or compliance training.

“We’re now seeing people start new jobs without a specific place to report to,” she said. “What are we doing to ensure they have a great experience that makes them excited for their future with the company? How can we help them feel connected to their coworkers and the Host brand? We’ve had to do a lot in a short time, but we’re still able to tell our company story effectively and communicate with our partners.”

Communication and personal engagement are crucial to keep people content in their roles, especially since workers experienced a rise in mental health issues as Covid stymied the development of fruitful workplace relationshipsWith this in mind, how can companies build better professional relationships despite the challenges of a distributed or largely remote workforce?

Strengthen Your Virtual Team

Without consistent face-to-face interactions with colleagues, it’s difficult to forge the friendships typically found in tight-knit teams. Keeping communication open and consistent is keywhether that’s through regular catch-up video calls, chatting throughout the day via Slack or Teams or having a daily virtual huddle. Making efforts to use your camera on calls, practicing active listening and exploring ongoing options for social connection are also important. Activities like virtual team building, Zoom happy hours or employee-led classes on hobbies and interests are excellent opportunities to keep social cohesion alive, regardless of where everyone is located.

However, when considering the above strategies, it’s important to remember the difference between mere connection and actual human interaction. It’s not enough to provide abstract, impersonal opportunities—organizations must ensure people are seen, heard, appreciated and acknowledgedThis means your team should not only seek opportunities to talk and interact, but also create a culture that regularly recognizes and rewards employee contributions. As part of a comprehensive workplace experience strategy, highlighting the excellent work of your colleagues and providing the necessary flexibility, opportunity and compensation to nurture success is vital for long-term growth, particularly as businesses settle into hybrid work post-pandemic and beyond.

Strong relationships between colleagues are the foundation of effective collaborative work. Despite the uncertainty inherent in the pandemic, companies have an exciting opportunity to create better, more effective ways of doing business by emphasizing employee wellbeing, team cohesion and collaboration for in-person and remote teams alike.


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