For many companies, remote or hybrid work arrangements are the de facto new normal. Collectively, 58% of the US workforce now has the opportunity to work from home at least part-time, meaning 92 million employees are rarely, if ever, in the office. Despite the lack of coworker connections, surveys keep showing the same thing.
A January 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 59% of workers want to work from home when possible. Several months later, it’s more popular than ever. McKinsey & Co.’s most recent American Opportunity Survey discovered that 87% of respondents jump at the opportunity for more workplace flexibility when offered.
What’s more, people are pretty good at working remotely and are getting better with time. A Stanford University analysis notes that employees’ perceived productivity improvements reached 9% in 2022, up from 5% in 2020.
The downsides of remote work
Despite its numerous benefits, remote or hybrid work arrangements have some drawbacks. One of the biggest is building connections with virtual coworkers. One study showed that 65% of employees who switched to remote work felt less connected to their colleagues. This is especially true for new hires.
The who started a new job during the pandemic still likely haven’t met most of their coworkers. Many feel less invested in the position and feel they can leave for a better opportunity on a whim due to the lack of connections built.
As a New York Times headline glibly asks, “If you never met your co-workers in person, did you even work there?”
Improving coworker connections
How do we change this? How can leaders build trust and empathy and create coworker relationships and a connection with the organization’s mission? How can they build a culture of retention without a physical presence?
The answer is, in part, to lead with purpose and empathy, engaging the on-site, remote and hybrid employees with strategies that work to build better ties. Here are four that any leader can begin using today — and sharing with employees — to foster coworker connections and community.
1. Declare your intentions
The pandemic prompted many people to reconsider purpose and value in their lives, including at work. “Employees seek personal value and purpose and work. Be prepared to deliver,” a Gartner Human Resources analysis admonishes. McKinsey & Co. put it more bluntly: “Help your employees find purpose — or watch them leave.”
Unfortunately, less than 20% of business leaders in one study report a strong sense of individual purpose. Reasons include:
- Focusing on bottom-line results.
- Avoiding anxiety related to purpose-oriented conversations.
- Considering themselves insignificant.
- Comparing themselves to others.
This moment demands a different approach. Being guided by a meaningful purpose and expressing your purpose in the form of an intention builds resilience, flexibility and stability.
A declaration of intention sets in motion forces that have the power to change our own and others’ lives. Declare your intention in a way that inspires people to help others connect with purpose and engage with teams on-site or online.
2. Lean toward inclusion
In an inclusive work setting, all individuals are treated respectfully with equal access to opportunities and resources so they can contribute fully to the organization’s success. However, several factors often get in the way of inclusion, including conscious and unconscious bias.
A team member inclusion scan is a technique for helping decide whether and how to include people when addressing an issue of opportunity. This strategy asks leaders to identify a hesitancy or bias toward inclusion while also exploring what a person’s background, point of view or experience might offer the team or organization.
In a hybrid or remote working setting, it’s critical to consider these elements as they relate to an employee’s physical location, ensuring that companies intentionally lean towards inclusion in any environment. Inclusion builds coworker connections.
3. Listen as an ally
Listening can be difficult, especially when communicating via Zoom calls and Slack channels. However, the challenge runs deeper than just technical limitations. We often see and hear what we set out to see and hear, a reality that undercuts our ability to listen in-person or online.
To be sure, listening from a distance is more difficult because proximity increases familiarity while distance increases uncertainty. It’s also more challenging to read body language or facial expressions, so people often struggle to listen well.
Instead, we fall into three unhelpful categories:
- Skeptic. This person works to identify flaws and protect their own beliefs instead of listening well.
- Judge. This person evaluates, assesses or criticizes instead of listening well.
- Adversary. This person is actively resistant and contentious, embracing a me-vs.-you mentality instead of listening well.
In contrast, several proactive listening techniques allow leaders to listen as an ally, including:
- Scanning for main messages.
- Deferring judgment.
- Reflecting what you hear.
- Paraphrasing the speaker’s message.
- Asking open-ended questions.
- Checking your perceptions.
By listening as an ally — someone who wants to hear from and connect with others — we build trust and purpose into our workplace communications, supporting people regardless of location.
4. Express appreciation
Nearly 60% of people in one survey say they have never worked for a boss who truly appreciates their work, making appreciation and gratitude a powerful currency for leaders looking to support their virtual workforce.
The process can be simple and straightforward:
- Say thank you.
- Describe what the person did, and be specific.
- Share how it made a difference for you.
- Thank them again.
As leaders bolster their ability to lead with purpose, lean towards inclusion and listen as an ally, they enhance communication, collaboration and buy-in from their hybrid teams. When these efforts are met with gratitude and appreciation, teams are positioned to flourish and grow through trust and mutual connection, even in a virtual setting.
For many teams, these steps will be critical to ensuring that remote employees aren’t just productive but are thriving, connected coworkers as well.
Chris Williams is the chief operating officer for Interaction Associates, which introduced the concept and practice of group facilitation to the business world in the early 1970s. Connect with Williams on LinkedIn.