Let me get this out of the way up front: I am a fan of remote work. As a freelance writer, and now as a digital strategist here at StitchDX, I am often working from home, a local café, or the road even before the pandemic. I find I am more productive and engaged when working remotely.
As a digital strategist, I often take for granted the assumption that working remotely, or at least hybrid, was ideal. And study after study conducted in the last 18 months seemed to confirm that I was right.
Remote workers may be less interconnected.
However, not all is as rosy as I might imagine. In reading about the latest slate of updates to Microsoft Teams, I came across this quote about a recent study Microsoft had conducted:
Overall, [the study] found the shift to remote work caused formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed. In fact, it showed that remote work caused the share of collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% from the pre-pandemic level.
For businesses that rely on cross-group collaboration and innovation, this lack of connectedness stemming from remote work is a huge problem. And the effects ripple out even further:
- Siloed organizations are less efficient at sharing important information.
- Groups that only work internally can become insular and territorial, holding their goals above the mission of the company.
- Retaining good talent and grooming leadership is more difficult in a siloed organization.
Solving remote work silos for connection and collaboration
Disconnectedness is the problem – what’s the solution? We can actually use some of the same digital tools that are making us more isolated to break down the trends reinforcing that isolation. From StitchDX’s experiences designing and developing digital workplaces, I see several key areas to explore.
One of the most wonderful parts of running our proprietary digital workplace discovery workshops is watching silos fall away as employees learn about what their colleagues do in real time. These discovery sessions are intentionally cross-departmental due to the nature of the project, but the effect is powerful.
We have witnessed new unrelated collaborative projects arise from our discovery teams, new employees accelerate their onboarding, or even that knowing look on colleagues’ faces when one of their peers is describing a challenge or struggle. As Kaya Ismail of Wordify writes, “by collaborating and striving towards the same goals, team members can also build purpose and belonging.”
The most successful organizations I’ve worked with incorporate this type of group interaction into as many facets of work as they can. Of course, there are obvious limits to the types collaborative work, but intentionally building diverse groups is one of the strongest ways to break down the silos that arise from remote work.
For example, Cooper Nelson, Brand Strategy Senior Consultant at Kantar, a data, insights and consulting company, told me that after COVID hit, office social groups
were spread across the offices, meaning you would have team members from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York City, all in one cluster. Events and just chats were organized within these new clusters and helped provide some nice human interaction outside of project work. Additionally, you had the opportunity to get to know co-workers from different offices, something that rarely happened prior to COVID.
Powell Software, one of our intranet software solutions, facilitates and supports silo-busting groupings through offerings like their “water fountain” “Coffee Maching,” and ideation templates. These templates allow for the easy creation of both topic-based and random groups of people for discussions.
This is a tough one for me, personally. My inclination was to only include the “need to know” people on any project-based communications. I didn’t want to overburden my colleague’s inboxes. However, I have come to realize during the pandemic that sharing project updates and important information can help employees from across the organization feel connected and up to date.
I recommend you establish a central location, like an internal news feed on the company intranet or a Teams channel, to share important tidbits. It doesn’t have to cover every detail, but a short snippet can keep your colleagues feeling in the loop and connected, no matter how isolated their actual work is. One example is our Digital Workplace customer ApiJect, whose intranet enables short “shout outs” employees can use to recognize colleagues who have gone above and beyond.
Curiosity about humans
With so much to get done, it is easy to remain focused on the work itself and forget the humans doing the work. We as managers ask for project updates and details. What needs to be done? How will it get done? Who will own it? Who will report out?
Being curious about the actual people who are responsible for the work, not just their roles and titles, is a powerful way to fight the isolation that can creep in with remote work. In addition, my colleague Kelsey Flannery has written powerfully about the ways she’s structured her work to feel better connected and engaged while working from home.
Sharing the details of our daily lives can be as informal as chatting before business calls start or as structured as standard agenda items. For example, some organizations start meetings with informal check-in or simple fun poll (“What do you put on your popcorn?”) to help employees connect on a human level. Powell Software uses a “coffee machine” tab in Teams to help spur topic-based informal conversations among colleagues.
Be willing to try.
Let’s be real: Digital connection is not a replacement for the warmth and energy of in-person, face-to-face interactions.
But for better or worse, we have entered an era where “work” will take on as many different looks as there are workers. (Just as one example, check out the group blog post we at StitchDX wrote on the 1-year anniversary of shutting down our office.)
With so many different situations, no single solution will work for everyone. As digital leaders, we need to be willing to try different tools to see what works for us, our colleagues, and our businesses. For example, I’ve written on using Microsoft Lists, Powell Software, and other tools to get work done.
The goal is to improve and evolve. Not everything will work flawlessly every time, but even road testing a beta release of a new intranet or Microsoft Teams feature can help build community across silos.
There is no single “new normal.”
Remote and hybrid work did not create organizational silos. As John Bwarie of Stratiscope points out, “Silos arise because we like being comfortable. All of us. We get a faster sense of accomplishment when we do the easy thing. Knocking down our silos takes an investment of time and resources. We can always find another, easier place to direct that energy.”
Nor will the ideal digital workplace guarantee a sense of connection and collaboration for every employee all the time. As some have noted, the “hybrid” model most organizations seem destined to adopt may be the most tricky option. The hybrid model tests issues of equity, trust, and communication that even the most well-intention organization may not be able to handle.
As our State of the Digital Workplace report made clear, business leaders are convinced of two things:
- Most companies will be working at least partly remotely (78%).
- The digital workplace is worthy of investment (nearly 80% of leaders say the digital workplace will be very or extremely important).
The path forward
Whether your colleagues are across the room or across the country, the path forward is likely going to have many twists and turns. But the rules of the road are clear: be intentional about building community and trust across your organization. With those, navigating your way back to or away from the office will be smooth sailing.
If you want to navigate the choppy waters of “back to work” as smoothly as possible within Microsoft Teams, join our Digital Workplace Summit on October 21. Register here.
Do these 3 things right now to start creating a better employee experience for ALL your workers:
- Download our exclusive research report: Back to the Office – The State of the Digital Workplace, Fall 2021.
- Watch our popular, on-demand webinar, Beyond “MVP”: Secrets of a Lovable Intranet.
- Reach out to our Digital Workplace Strategy Team. Contact us here or click the orange chat button in the lower right corner.