At the outset, few of us could have imagined COVID-19’s impact on work as we know it. The rise of remote work is creating a new kind of office culture that prioritizes seamless connectivity over traditional routines. And while these new arrangements have some benefits, it is imperative to address the potentially negative consequences of WFH on company culture.
Fortunately, the warning signs of an ineffective remote culture are easy to spot. Business leaders should pay special attention to three red flags: low meeting engagement, disconnected departments and poor employee communication. Here’s what to look for:
Warning Sign 1: Low meeting engagement
As online meetings become standard, employee engagement appears to be falling. In an in-person, office environment, it is fairly straightforward to see which employees are actively contributing versus employees who are less than enthusiastic about their roles. Online, it is a lot harder to assess employee engagement. There is no digital substitute for a quick walk through the office.
One tell-tale sign of poor participation is how employees interact during video meetings. Engaged employees typically participate with cameras on, nod along and exhibit engaged body language while using the meeting chat to ask questions. More absent employees tend to leave cameras off or respond to questions and key conversation points with blank stares. If leaders find they are consistently calling out names at random just to get a response, there may be a problem.
Yet, mandating cameras on for every meeting is not the solution. Many workers already spend their days on back-to-back Zoom calls, and studies show that sitting through virtual meetings is more physically and mentally taxing than in-person ones. Here are some ways to mitigate the stress of online meetings while making them more inclusive:
- Create clear team expectations for on-camera participation. Consider conference calls or written updates for meetings that don’t require active discussion.
- Keep meetings focused, and stick to the time allotted.
- Encourage interaction by utilizing polls and live questions.
- Incorporate team input into agendas in advance so that employees know what to expect and feel empowered to take a more hands-on approach.
Warning Sign 2: Siloed departments
Information barriers between departments are a major red flag and one that is becoming more common. For example, a study of over 61,000 employees at Microsoft conducted during WFH revealed that employees were slower to make new connections and communicated less with outside team members than before remote work. Those worried about silos should watch email and other digital traffic: Is most communication directed to internal teams and priorities, or are conversations engaging multiple segments of the company? Leaders cannot assume that such insular communication will dissipate with the return to in-person working, given that, according to research by McKinsey, 9 out of 10 organizations are now planning to go hybrid.
To make the transition back to in-person or hybrid work seamless, HR needs to bridge divides that may have sprung up during WFH. Ensuring cross-departmental representation in major projects is essential, but even small gestures have an impact. The same McKinsey study also found that organizations with the largest productivity increases during the pandemic encouraged moments of engagement among employees for ideation or mentorship. Such “microtransactions” of social capital, which previously occurred through informal brainstorms or hallway chatter, are essential to strengthening ties between departments.
The intrinsic value of in-person ideation is clear as teams try to move forward without the casual but essential face-to-face interactions that are an underestimated asset to corporate innovation. Those tasked with overhauling processes or rethinking organizational structures should focus on finding ways to formalize these small learning moments for today’s hybrid environments.
Warning Sign 3: Poor employee communication
Inconsistent and unreliable communication at the individual level is equally troubling but more difficult to discern. Remote work can create an environment where employees are increasingly less accessible in real-time, since their communication arrives via emails and direct messages rather than face-to-face communication. One way to replicate in-person office dynamics is to monitor for long or irregular gaps between replies. Of course, digital notifications can get lost in the shuffle, but a consistent pattern of missed calls and late responses merits concern.
Employees value the increased flexibility that remote work offers, but few organizations can thrive without accountability standards. Whether your office is in-person or remote, expectations around availability need to be firm to avoid confusion from the employee’s perspective. The employee handbook is a critical asset when addressing this issue. HR teams should update this document with clear guidelines on work hours and response times while also providing opportunities for feedback as policies change.
Remote and hybrid work are here to stay. It is crucial to set the right policies and actions early on to ensure sustainable success in this disrupted and rapidly changing world of work.