Building Relationships in the Virtual Workplace

The ability to build relationships appears on most job specifications and is considered a much sought-after attribute in employees. It is, however, such an obviously attractive attribute, that we do not often think about why it is valued. Is it still important if the majority of your workforce are now working remotely? In this new working from home era, how much opportunity does a remote worker have to display their ability to build their relationships? Is it as important if they are no longer engaging with their colleagues? Some employers may feel that as employees are not distracted from their work by informal interactions with their colleagues, there will be an increase in productivity. There is, however a hidden cost to the loss of workplace interactions and that is the potentially negative impact on employee levels of engagement – with their role, their colleagues and with the organisation as a whole.

In a traditional onsite working environment, there is often a main function to a business, with a large number of support staff. There is typically a degree of interaction and at least a sense of what other teams are onsite, where they are located and what they do. The main function of the business often takes place in the same place as the support side of the business. The employee has a tangible picture in their head of the different areas and functions of the organisation which gives meaning to what they are doing and a sense of collaboration. They understand their place in the organisation and how it physically relates to the other parts of the organisation. The lack of this organisational presence in the virtual workplace means that the employee is at risk of becoming increasingly isolated from what the business does, which in time, can have a negative impact on both engagement and productivity.

Informal networks facilitate collaboration and going the extra mile.  Consider this scenario –  If Susan needs to get a form signed by finance but the finance team are overwhelmed with a tax deadline then she may need to simply wait for the form to be returned, possibly missing out on a business opportunity. However, if Susan  knows a colleague who works in finance, who she meets regularly for coffee in the work canteen, she may be able to use this connection to expedite the paperwork required and meet her deadline. This is the sort of effectiveness that businesses risk missing out on in this new working environment.

How can we resolve this threat to organisational effectiveness? Companies might consider dedicating work time to solutions such as virtual team building events and not simply within teams. It is important to find a way of connecting employees with those in different departments of the organisation in an informal manner, such as through the use of quality circles, remote interdepartmental coffee mornings or online quizzes.  This allows people to connect with the bigger organisational picture and those who they no longer see on a daily or weekly basis. If your business is operating in the “real world” workplace, perhaps with employees coming in to work at alternating times in order to allow for social distancing – find a way to enable employees to engage with one another, in a socially distanced way of course. It is important to recognise that this is not a social event or a perk of the job, as workplace social events might once have been perceived. This is something which benefits the organisation and it is work. It benefits the organisation in that it facilitates the humans who work there to engage effectively with each other and therefore it benefits the company by way of increasing engagement and therefore productivity. Bear in mind however, it is important that any such team building events, be they virtual or otherwise, take place within working hours and not infringe on the now increasingly blurred boundaries between home and work.