Over the last year, the world received a firm push into the realm of virtual working, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This global lockdown meant that companies everywhere, no matter their industry or their circumstances, had to look at alternatives to their usual co-located ways of working.
For those of us working from home, on furlough or self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, our home’s four walls may be starting to feel like both a haven and a personal prison all at once.
Not that we want to be dramatic, but while staying home is the right and preferable thing to do currently, it doesn’t mean that it is always easy.
With most of us being under strict instructions not to leave the house, with the exception of going shopping for essentials, key work, or daily exercise, many of us may be starting to experience repercussions on our productivity.
So, how can we stay connected and positive when working virtually during lockdown?
The Challenges of Virtual Working and How to Fix Them
Virtual working offers a load of benefits, such as working more flexible hours, the ability for a healthier lunch break and even working in your pajamas.
But working remotely can come with its own set of challenges too; ones that typically aren’t associated with a traditional office space. Your employees might not have been prepared for the sudden shift to the home environment.
Here are a few of the common challenges and how to tackle them.
Challenge - Motivation
For some employees, if they have never had to set their own hours and be entirely responsible for their own motivation, they can sometimes find this transition to full self-control a little daunting.The structure that a traditional office setting provides is welcome for helping to maintain a stable level of focus.
But at home, on a personal computer or in a house full of things demanding their attention, employees can suffer from distractions that throw off their schedule and routine for great lengths of time.
Atop of all this, working from a home environment can blur the lines between work and personal life so much that colleagues have trouble getting into, or out of, the work mindset.
How to fix it -
There is a lot to be said for the structure and distraction-free set up of an office. So, if your employees are struggling to feel productive while working at home, encourage them to emulate this environment.
It can be as strict or casual as is suitable for them, but choosing the aspects of what makes a traditional office so effective can really help create that divide.
Creating a designated workspace away from the rest of the home can help compartmentalise that when they are there, they are in their office and ready to work.
Challenge - Time Management
When the aforementioned distractions appear, time management problems often soon follow. If colleagues are fighting against a disruptive environment, they are more likely to overestimate their available time.
On the other hand, overexerting themselves is another huge issue when we work from home. Without a clear finishing time in a building that will eventually close, and with a long to-do list, many people will push themselves into burnout. This is as harmful to productivity as lack of motivation.
How to fix it -
Encouraging employees to create a structured environment at home will do wonders for their productivity, but only if it has a set schedule to accompany it. Part of the enjoyment of remote work is the flexibility it offers, but too much of this can lead to inconsistency.
Invite colleagues to start and stop work at consistent times. Help them to avoid the temptations of starting late, or pushing themselves deep into their evenings.
Encourage them to schedule plenty of breaks and allow themselves just a few minutes to step away from their screens. The idea that everyone works, heads down, every minute of every day is ridiculous; such behaviour would never happen in the office, so why should we expect it when working at home?
For more time management tips, watch our video - 3 Top Tips for Managing Your Time
Challenge - Communication
Communication can be hard, and when working in a remote setting, it can be even more frustrating. Everyone by now has no doubt experienced the hair-tearing frustration when colleagues aren’t clear about what they want.
Communicating online can be tricky; emails and text messages convey no tone, there is no body language to rely on and multitasking colleagues may only hear half of the conversation. Don’t get us started on tech issues on top of all of this.
But with a few adjustments and some changes to the way we work, communication can be just as flawless online as it is in a physical office.
How to fix it -
The best thing you can encourage, wherever possible, is to schedule face-to-face video chats. There are a myriad of virtual meeting platforms available to you to facilitate this.
It is much easier to jump on a call with a colleague than it is to try to explain through multiple emails. And getting in contact in this way can help to ease the next challenge on our list.
Challenge - Loneliness
With the world suddenly plunged into the world of remote work, employees might start to feel isolated and lonely once the initial excitement about working from home wears off.
Enough time has passed now since the initial lockdowns that colleagues might now be feeling the consequences of this social isolation. We as humans are social creatures, and so by staying in our houses; working, eating, sleeping in the same four walls, this can start to cause detrimental effects on our psyche.
How to fix it -
As mentioned above, while social restrictions are in place, use the tools available. Virtual meetings, video calls and on-camera interaction can help remote workers to still feel connected to their team, no matter where they are located.
Additionally to this, ensure that your colleagues know that not every interaction has to be a work related one. How often would they casually catch up in the office, in the communal kitchen or over desks on a five-minute break? There is no reason why these little interactions should stop.
Further to this, get everyone using the chat function. Here at VTT, we regularly make use of the MS Teams chat feature, sharing highlights of our days, rants, GIFs and updates throughout the day.
Virtual Teams: Four Basic Principles to Stay Connected
How do we create social opportunities like we used to have in the physical office with virtual colleagues?
As highlighted above, meaningful or at least non-work related communication between remote workers can be challenging to achieve.
Small things can make a huge difference. How about an instant message in chat every morning to say ‘hello’ and ‘how was your evening?’
How about encouraging colleagues to catch up over a virtual coffee with a different team member every day? Get them to keep it informal, so no work talk allowed!
Before we get started with our list, did you know that we have a suite of virtual workshops covering a host of topics, including some best practice ways of working in a virtual team? You can find out more about our virtual workshop here
Care about your virtual colleagues
As well as doing the small things above, little gestures can help colleagues feel remembered and important to each other. It is easy to feel forgotten and ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when working remotely, especially for those whose tasks don’t require much collaboration.
If your teammates have been a little quiet in their communications of late, get in touch and express your concern, checking that everything is okay. Especially in this day and age, they will no doubt appreciate it. Sometimes it can be difficult to reach out when you are in the pit of isolation, so encourage the team to look out for one another and check in regularly.
Schedule social time in meetings
We are often baffled when people don’t speak to each other when they are logged in to a video conference, or virtual meeting, whilst they wait for everyone else to join.
People are usually busy checking emails, rather than engaging with each other. This is less likely to happen in a face-to-face setting; we catch up as we pour coffee, check out the pastries and settle into the room. Those days are over for now, so we have to encourage others to make more effort virtually for the foreseeable.
So make time before virtual meetings more socially productive as people log in, by encouraging your colleagues to just start chatting and catching up informally. Sometimes, perhaps try logging in a little earlier on purpose, for that very reason and help get people going.
Be virtually present and visible
It can be very tempting to hide behind a ‘bad hair day’ or ‘technical failure’ excuse to not turn on your webcam, but the benefits far outweigh any discomfort you might feel being on camera. Even our resident introvert Abi has crept onto camera in the last few months and we can see the difference.
Being able to see each other (whether in a 2-person Skype call or a 10-person team meeting) creates a more authentic feeling of being in a room together and helps to banish those pesky feelings of isolation and loneliness.
We can see how our colleagues are looking, (from a wellbeing point of view) as well as being able to judge reactions much better.
Make the effort to use your webcam more and encourage others to do the same. The benefits will follow. We promise!
Be playful and spontaneous
Much of the communication we have with remote colleagues tends to be around our work. Fine; productive, but boring. Do you only talk about work in the office? No. Of course not.
Using an instant messenger or WhatsApp through the day allows colleagues to have more ‘in the moment’ comments and banter to occur across virtual teams.
Having this platform encourages them to share funny observations, or the autocorrect typo that nearly got you in trouble, or how delicious your lunch is. It creates a conversation with more immediacy, currency and helps your colleagues to feel more connected.
When we put in the effort to speak and message regularly, we are more likely to focus on the small, sometimes irrelevant and funny things that can happen in our day to day lives. This allows for a much better relationship building across teams and between colleagues.
Imagine how your communication would be with your other virtual colleagues if they were really sitting at the desk next to you.
Re-creating this in a virtual way will bring you closer and help you work even better together.
Essentia, a global producer of animal protein solutions for the food and beverage industry planned to hold a 3-day face-to-face event. Until the pandemic hit and face-to-face was no longer an option…
Transitioning to a Virtual Workforce
Due to the new lack of shared physical space and regular face-to-face interactions, it can be perceived as being harder to create a positive team culture in a virtual workforce.
This isn’t true.
While admittedly, it must be tackled in a different way, there are loads of positive approaches that can help to foster great team relationships while working virtually.
So, here are 5 tips we use at VTT to help your team pull together as a team during these challenging times.
Check-in first thing
Scheduling a team meeting first thing, before beginning the onslaught of crazy busy days, can be really beneficial for building a stronger virtual workforce.
Not only does it give your team all a chance to catch up on a personal level; ask about evenings, weekends and life stuff, but also it allows everyone to have sight of colleagues’ workloads.
We see it as the virtual equivalent of walking into your office and going to the kitchen together to make a coffee. Moments like this are important for team bonding and provide key update opportunities, so it becomes even more important now with teams being physically separated.
Want more tips for managing Virtual Teams?
Chat about everything
Having open and honest conversations about any topic is vital. Just because you are communicating online, doesn’t mean all chatter needs to be work related.
Back in the ‘good ol’ days of being in an office together, commonly, colleagues would talk about everything; from what they did on their weekends, to how their children/spouses are, world affairs (a hot topic of late) and even what they had for dinner/lunch.
Online, we recommend you keep this same habit with your teams.
When catching up virtually, via a Teams chat box or in team meetings, it can be tempting to focus on work only. Keeping the open nature of chat, allowing all topics to flow can help to bring virtual workforces together and create closer work bonds.
A sense of humour is key during times such as these and here at VTT, we haven’t let being apart diminish our opportunity for laughter, (usually at the begrudgingly accepted expense of one another).
Humour and fun are important when working virtually. Laughing and sharing amusement can be instrumental in keeping team morale high and bringing people together.
So the VTT lesson here is to make time for fun and laughter, even if it is in the first or last five minutes of a meeting; keep that office banter that keeps relationships strong going in a virtual workspace.
Be visible with your signing on and off hours (incl. lunch)
Communication is paramount when you are working virtually, especially when it comes to announcing your working hours and lunch break.
In the office, you can clearly see when people are away from their desks, and when they decide to take their breaks.
But virtually, that visibility can be diminished, so we recommend encouraging your team to keep everyone up to speed with their movements. This way, everyone knows when colleagues are working, or when they are away from their laptops.
This includes keeping diaries up to date and being transparent in your team’s chat as much as possible, whatever platform you are using.
Great coaching conversations are always welcome, and managers have a key role to play. Here’s how VTT helped a global engineering organisation take their coaching conversations to the next level…
Like with the other tips on this list, this one falls under the umbrella of communication, which by now you no doubt know is a huge factor in having a successful virtual workforce.
When co-located, you can physically see how people are doing, whether they may be struggling workwise, or need a little extra support, but when working remotely, this can be more of a challenge.
We recommend you foster an environment of being 100% honest with one another; encouraging your colleagues to ask for help where they need it and employees offering support to each other where applicable and feasible.
It’s a crazy time we are all living through, but there will be a time when the uncertainty settles. Learning is key, learning is how we adapt and evolve as individuals and as an organization. As L&D professionals, it is down to us to ensure that everyone has the ongoing opportunity to learn.
If your teams need help transitioning to the virtual training world, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us.
We would be very happy to assist you with our range of Virtual Workshops.