The Office Vibe Is No More
What does the office represent? It is so much more than a building with computer screens and chairs. Before we accepted the job offer, we sampled the culture of our company by observing the comings and goings from reception as we waited to be called into that first face-to-face interview. Remember the desk next to yours – the photos of last year’s Christmas party, the silly hat from the team building exercise, the numerous pairs of shoes jumbled under the desk. The office captures and conveys the culture of the company – this is the vibe we are all missing.
The effects are significant – we have lost access to the place we spent the majority of our waking hours. We miss the noise, the banter, the impromptu meetings. Some are even missing their morning commute. Our well-established company culture is built in part on the experience of having a centralized office. One of the questions we have been exploring is how do we transmit the familiar sights and sounds of the office through our screens and into our dining rooms and living rooms? What happens to culture when more employees join the company without having ever met with us face-to-face or physically been in our office?
One of the ways we have found to try and fill that void is to focus on onboarding. We reach out to our new employee a week before they start and send them the usual equipment. However, what we also do is get them to focus on how their strengths and capabilities will fit into our work environment. This is done through a book. We also send them a plant to brighter their desk/kitchen table.
Part of our remote induction program includes a discussion about the importance of self-awareness and the new hires’ top 5 strengths. This is because it has become critical for them to gain insight into their own behaviours to counterbalance the loss of non-verbal cues and instant feedback which they would gain in the office. Self-knowledge is a competency that will become fundamental for navigating this virtual world.
The Water Cooler Moment is Dead
We’ve all experienced it. You are rushing to your next meeting but take the time to grab a coffee in the kitchen. Then you are enticed into a conversation with three of your colleagues from the 3rd floor. You learn about a cool new project; share the latest gossip and they help you resolve a particularly prickly problem. This doesn’t happen when you are working from home. What does happen is we welcome our colleagues into our homes via Teams – we are still sitting at our kitchen tables even if they are “hidden” by virtual tropical beaches. We are suddenly sharing our private space, and this creates ambiguity. How do I maintain professional distance when my kids (or worse yet my partner) runs past my team meeting in a towel?
One approach we have taken is to increase the cadence of one-to-one and team meetings with the strong recommendation that video be used rather than just audio. Another is to encourage the use of informal Teams channels to capture a bit of the banter of course the customary (though somewhat overused) happy hour pub quizzes. When is the last time you made an impromptu call to a colleague in another department just to say, “How’s it going?”. This is one habit we should all acquire.
Creating a New Way to Improve Employee Sentiment When Ambiguity Reigns
Everyone talks about the new “norm” of working from anywhere. After spending 5-10-20 years working in an office environment this is not the new norm, this is tremendous change and we are not embracing it we are grappling with it day by day. It isn’t just the office that has changed – real life is different too. Every aspect of our lives has metamorphized; kids schooling, holidays, family relationships, social gatherings, dating. We bring these pressures to work – especially when work is done at the kitchen table. If managers assume it is business as usual, they will be doing a disservice to their teams. It is much more accurate to describe this as a transition which will last for quite some time, most probably years.
Given all the changes and transitions particular attention needs to be given to communication as any OD consultant or executive coach will tell you. One of the most under-utilised resources for feedback from employees is the manager.
Now is the time for managers to develop a bias toward communication and increase their one-to-one meetings. Pre-covid these meetings often focused on productivity and performance guidance, there is now a need to expand the scope of these conversations to include sharing of personal stories and checking on mental health. Managers have a role to play in identifying and amplifying the employee voice. Taking the time to ask “How are you coping with home schooling?” or “How is your family doing?” makes us all feel more connected and listened to. One manager I know who has team members in different countries begins each team call by asking for an update on how each country is dealing with Covid. This same manager also shares details of his family life. It takes a few extra minutes but leads to a more personal exchange that builds trust and connection. HR should also play a role by listening to the managers and helping them cope with their team members expressing emotions that are more prevalent in times of change and uncertainty. Reaching out and initiating a conversation about how they handled a tense feedback session or a frustrated team member who needed to vent about unrealistic deadlines. These are the things that employees will remember when they are asked how their company did in the pandemic.