Increased flexible or agile working means more and more people are in danger of experiencing isolation. Colin Stuart, managing director of Baker Stuart, explains what needs to be done to keep remote workers connected.
Despite the unquestionable advantages associated with flexible and agile working, long periods away from the office can cause staff to become isolated. This isolation, created by the prolonged lack of human interaction, has been proven to be detrimental to productivity, morale and most recently has been linked with ill health.
The number of organisations employing staff that work remotely is increasing and therefore more must be done to maintain interaction and communication. Without the right environment, tools, training and management, staff working distantly can easily find themselves disconnected from their organisation, negatively impacting team cohesion, health, well-being and morale.
The company connection
The first step in preventing isolation is to assess how well remote staff are already maintaining communication. It is a good idea for all flexibly working staff to be trained in how to stay connected, supported by their team and colleagues. This training should involve the use of the vast number of tools available that can enable teams to maintain good levels of contact and interaction, such as instant messaging, video conferencing, team intranet pages and social media applications. Considering online collaboration platforms such as Huddle and Yammer will also facilitate a form of workplace interaction and collaboration that is lost when working alone.
Seeing a familiar face
Face-to-face contact is a wonderful thing and most devices, such as laptops, tablets, PCs and smart phones, allow you to access video conferencing tools. There are a vast range of these available, such as Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Zoom, to mention just a few. Home or remote workers should be encouraged to regularly check in, and connect with a familiar face (or faces), even if it’s just to say ‘good morning’ before the day starts.
It is important that video interactions aren’t always formal (and sometimes not work-related at all!) You could try encouraging staff to link up and have a virtual lunch or coffee break, or simply have the routine personal chats that would usually occur at the water-cooler or photocopier. Such communication makes staff feel connected and a key part of their team and the wider organisation.
Often workers will feel under pressure to work harder when working remotely and may therefore miss critical breaks. Encouraging staff to connect at a specific time will reinforce the necessity to stop. Speaking using video also eliminates those awkward misunderstandings of tone in emails and messages, which can often occur when working alone. Connecting via camera will mean staff are also more likely to engage in incidental conversations, allowing them to express themselves and let off steam. This means they will be less likely to feel the stress commonly experienced when working in isolation.
While there are a number of tools to keep staff well connected, maintaining an element of real face-to-face interaction is still critical in achieving a productive balance. Holding regular team meetings in the office is a very good way to encourage routine gatherings. Arranging fortnightly or monthly social events also increases the interaction that is lost when only communicating via screens. This increases humorous interaction, banter, incidental conversation, and the informal, spontaneous chat that is less likely to occur over instant messages. As well as social occasions, flexible staff should be encouraged to attend work-related events such as conferences, training and networking activities.
Luring the workers back
As well as making sure staff stay connected outside of the office, it is also very important that your central office environment is designed in a way that attracts remote workers. This can be done by providing a workspace that caters well for the flexible worker, who will need to use the office on an ad hoc basis. This can be achieved by providing open desk policies and activity-based environments.
The office should facilitate all forms of interaction that the remote worker lacks, with improved meeting zones that fit the mood and style of the attendees – be that open plan, stand up, bar-style, formal or informal settings – available at all times, and within easy reach.
Collaboration spaces or café-style hubs also encourage agile workers to easily enter the office, congregate, and use the space. This may be for collaboration, impromptu meetings, or working alone in more quiet environments. Installing lockers for personal items also supports agile working. Alternatively, portable boxes such as ‘HotBoxes’ can be distributed to easily move files and items, making the office a more agile space. A space that caters well for the transient worker will certainly encourage their presence on a more regular basis, helping to avoid long spells of isolation.
In addition to facilitating these interactions, the office must also offer a host of other reasons for workers to leave their homes. Work is an increasingly large part of our lives and therefore it is important that we enjoy being there.
Access to a space that offers quality social environments, with good coffee and even added extras (like an office gymnasium or even a crèche), will create an almost seamless blend between work and the outside world. This will perfectly suit agile or flexible workers, whilst allowing them to regularly interact with colleagues and friends.
Colin Stuart is the Managing Director and founder of workplace consultancy, Baker Stuart
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