With all the office buildings and school closures resulting from COVID-19, many businesses are transitioning from traditional to distributed office spaces. Workflows, and more importantly, relationships, may need to be managed differently to maintain productivity and exemplary customer service.
The symbiotic link between employee engagement and customer experience is not new or questioned. Extensive research into the area has proven conclusively time and again that you need to maintain engagement in order to satisfy customers. That makes this transitional period as we pivot to work-from-home office spaces extremely important. We need to be aware of a potential drop in engagement. But if we can manage the transition properly then we can avoid the drop and possibly even raise our service level.
Businesses that have direct experience managing distributed workspaces will know that relationships work a bit differently than they do when employees have a familiar environment to tie them together. But even experience with partial work-from-home might not be adequate preparation for a sudden transition to full-time separateness.
The data shows with perfect clarity that when working remotely employees perceive their relationships differently. An 18-month study published in late 2019 concluded that employees who worked remotely at least half the time “…found virtuality ‘a barrier’ to forming friendships with their colleagues.” (Harvard Business Review, “How Remote Workers Make Friends”). Remote workers have reported feeling lonely, isolated, distracted, and discounted. They have felt that communication was made more difficult by tech issues. While these issues are reported in offices as well, they are not nearly as common.
I do not mean to call into question the potential of distributed companies. My own business, Customer Experience University, ties together talented individuals across the globe, and I am quite proud to say we do a good job of it. There are however some practices that become incredibly important when your coworkers are more than fifty feet away, without a common lunchroom.
2 Principles to keep distributed workspaces chugging along happily
One of the largest issues with work-from-home is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Whereas it becomes quickly apparent in a shared workspace when someone is feeling disconnected, no one can tell in a distributed workspace. So it becomes necessary to put systems in place that “check the pulse” of workers and teams.
The study cited above also concluded that virtual barriers could be overcome by “relational cadence.” That is, “perceived convergence in the patterns of interaction between oneself and a particular coworker.” If you can think back to the last friendship you gained, you can probably remember making changes so that you could see your new friend. And you probably also appreciated it when you saw your friend making changes for the same reason. Now we know that this “magic” is actually quite necessary. Without it, friendships fail to form.
This is not rocket science. In face-to-face environments, you could even call it, dare I say, natural! But many of us have yet to develop the same instincts in virtual environments. How do you go to lunch 15 minutes early because your friend is hungry if there is no cafeteria? What do you do instead? It is incredibly important to show we care.
As Anthony Robbins says, “A relationship is either growing or it is dying.” If we fail to communicate caring, the relationship starts moving in the opposite direction. And it is rather amazing how quickly this can occur! So make no mistake: the transition to work-from-home does pose a threat to relationships because a source of consistent growth is taken away, creating a source of relationship decay.
We can counteract this impact. It’s a mere matter of ensuring everyone feels respected, appreciated, and part of the team, at all times. Sounds easy, right? Fortunately, these habits are almost natural in distributed workspaces. But we find that people need tiny pushes to apply their worldly intuition to the virtual world. It only feels unnatural until the right habits reform.
One or two years ago Customer Experience University actually developed two learning modules to give these pushes in the right places. We call them Empathy and Trust micro-learning modules, and they have proven to be highly effective. We have made them available to help any business stand up on its virtual feet.
But it’s my hope that this article gives you that little push in the right direction. As a manager, you might schedule some extra time with team members. Or just be sure to include rapport building into your workplace interactions. The solutions you develop will be contextual — based on your environment and each relationship. Only you can come up with specific actions to show empathy and build trust. It is just extra important to be proactive as you take work relationships into a distributed work environment.
And maybe there is a lesson here to apply to our traditional office spaces as well? I will leave it to you.
Schinoff, Beth, et al. “How Remote Workers Make Work Friends.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, 23 Nov. 2019, hbr.org/2019/11/how-remote-workers-make-work-friends.
Schinoff, Beth S, et al. “Virtually (In)Separable: The Centrality of Relational Cadence in the Formation of Virtual Multiplex Relationships.” Academy of Management Journal, Arizona State University, 17 Sept. 2019, journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/amj.2018.0466.