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How to maintain employee social wellbeing while working remotely

In recent months a raft of mental health and wellbeing issues have arisen as employees get to grips with working remotely, sometimes without support from peers. How can HR support employees with sustaining workplace friendships, social interaction and a sense of belonging?

13th Jul 2020
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Young modern woman having Video Conference at home
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The primary focus of transitioning to remote work has been related to tools that improve collaboration and productivity. Companies and their employees have adopted new technologies and have creatively rethought the workday. In-person meetings have become video conferences, while email and messaging services have replaced office visits.

This influx of new collaborative technology has kept people working, but maintaining high performance requires a more nuanced approach to human resources. While these new processes facilitate the workday in its most basic form, a fundamental piece of office life has gone missing – the watercooler. Co-workers have lost precious moments of togetherness that form the cornerstone of their work relationships. These are not only essential for team coherence regarding work tasks, but even more so for creating that sense of belonging and investment in the workplace.

Companies have existed in survival mode, making sure that their employees are digitally connected to their workplace. Now it’s time to raise the bar.

Workers around the world have been burdened with unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation and stress. Add to the mix a global pandemic and rising levels of uncertainty, and these three mental health issues associated with modern work life have increased to dramatic new heights.

HR leaders are rightfully concerned. Friendship, social interaction and a sense of belonging are basic ingredients for a positive sense of wellbeing. Lonely employees are perceived by their co-workers to be less approachable and less committed to the organisation. It therefore not only influences job performance, but has a tendency to influence colleagues and their performance as well. It is critical to be able to foster positive connections and friendships at work to gain a better sense of belonging, satisfaction and happiness at work.  

We know that in the best of times, employee engagement is still low. In current times, with an increase in loneliness, isolation and stress, plus record numbers of employees working remotely, it is even harder for human resource managers and business leaders to engage their workforce. Modernising current employee engagement initiatives and programmes to support social relationships can yield greater employee productivity.

How are relationships built in the absence of physical togetherness?

Socialisation amongst employees should not be considered a superfluous activity, a ‘nice-to-have’, or even an added bonus of work culture. Encouraging employees to have informal conversations and providing them with both the time and tools to do so is essential for their sense of belonging, socialisation, and self-actualisation. These three human needs are the upper most desires of all human beings (after the basics of food, warmth, and income are met), according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When employers and organisations meet their workers’ needs for these, they can note higher levels of engagement and thus performance.

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In fact, greater connectivity is recommended to battle the chronic stress caused by higher levels of uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic. Exercise, keeping a normal routine, and communication are listed as the three go-to remedies for lowering stress levels, especially for those in pandemic-fuelled lockdown or general isolation from working away from the office.

Companies have existed in survival mode, making sure that their employees are digitally connected to their workplace. Now it’s time to raise the bar and go beyond the bare necessities of online training, Zoom meetings, and Slack chat threads to focus on social wellbeing. While these tools are a great start, human resource managers and business leaders should really be thinking about ways to incorporate more fun and authentic experiences into employee engagement programmes and initiatives.

Create a sense of belonging

So, what can concerned human resource managers and business leaders do to nurture their employees’ mental health and establish ‘Corona-proof’ workplace conditions that enhance productivity and increase the chance that the business will survive? It’s simple – enable workers to informally connect with each other digitally. Building sustainable, virtual communities for employees by employees is an easy way to improve wellbeing and engagement.

With digital technology, employees can digitally connect through common interests and find activity partners within their workplace, which increases cohesiveness and strengthens bonds both within formal teams and one-on-one relationships. Giving employees a platform for informal interactions can improve the integration of new employees, modernise work culture and reinforce diversity and inclusion in a company.

A sense of belonging and community in the workplace benefits both the employee and the company for a variety of reasons. A digital platform that brings everyone together levels the playing field to help integrate newcomers, reduce hierarchical strain, and build trust. Inclusive community events facilitate unlikely connections that break down silos and facilitate cross-departmental communication.

Creating ‘moments of togetherness’

While new technologies can transform engagement and collaboration, they are not a panacea for the challenges that remote workers face. HR and company leaders will have to exercise empathy and patience with workers who have had their mental health put to the test. Apart from providing workers with a digital platform for community, there are a variety of strategies that support remote work.

  • Use daily check-ins via video, messaging services or email to ask employees about their wellbeing, aside from work-related tasks.
  • Office hours with top leaders: open up to employees. Give them the sense that they have a voice in the future of the company by keeping the door open for feedback and questions.
  • Competitions: try online quiz games, exercise goals, or crafting challenges. Show your workforce that you support their work/life balance and value their individuality.

Today, employee engagement is low – hovering around 30% globally, which is why smart human resource managers and business leaders are finding modern ways to meet the needs and wants of their employees. The office watercooler has disappeared and it is sorely missed. Fortunately, it can be replaced with new community-building digital technology and human-centered strategies that recapture the spontaneous and crucial moments of togetherness.

Interested in this topic? Read Virtual inclusivity: how to establish an inclusive culture while remote working.

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