Worldwide, organizations and employees together underwent a major upheaval of routines, management processes and collaboration methods when remote work became the prevailing business model at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly five months in, new routines have taken root and each day at home is now business as usual. But without the critical touchstones of in-person collaboration and celebratory milestones ubiquitous to the workplace, and a daily routine that lacks important structural components such as commutes and lunch breaks and even post-workday beers, many remote employees are feeling the drudge of Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting (or similar online platforms) without social outlets to offset the mundanity.
We’ve culled through the best resources so you don’t have to – use this quick reference guide as you manage your remote and hybrid workplace.
All this time spent on video calls has its problems. We rely on it to connect with people, yet it can leave us feeling tired and empty. It has given us some semblance of normal life during lockdown, but it can make relationships seem unreal. This feeling has spurred talk of a new psychological affliction: ‘Zoom fatigue.’
Employee engagement and strong leadership are inarguably the most critical elements of productivity in business. But how do you keep employees engaged from afar? How do you create equilibrium in the work/life balance if the two are now enmeshed?
HOW SOME COMPANIES ARE KEEPING EMPLOYEES ENGAGED
Characteristic of the time we’re living in, resourcefulness and creativity are frequently employed to tackle these issues and others that organizations never previously anticipated nor needed to address. Many of the tools employed for remote work collaboration can be adapted to reduce the need for video conferences while also being utilized to check in with coworkers on social visits.
Edward Jones, the global financial services firm, found ways to connect with its 49,000 employees on a personal level by encouraging managers to begin each virtual meeting with an ice breaker—such as talking about employee pets—to allow employees to get to know each other better, which was not typical of in-person meetings prior to the pandemic. On a company-wide scale, two partners host a virtual “coffee chat” twice a week that typically features guest speakers speaking about different topics and photos from employees who have submitted them in response to a theme request, such as “favorite coffee mug.”
On the smaller scale, Foley & Lardner LLP, a close-knit, 200-person law firm in Dallas, established a “Virtual Engagement Task Force” and appointed the firm’s event manager to lead the charge. To keep employees energized and in touch in fun ways, the Task Force organized weekly meditation and fitness sessions, with team competition and participation prizes to boost incentive. Other Task Force creations include an employee baby photo lineup, Jeopardy-style trivia, Pictionary and a virtual scavenger hunt, each one followed by a virtual “happiness hour.” In addition, the firm produces a weekly newsletter featuring personal photos and anecdotes from employees working from home.
GitLab, a software development firm with more than 1,000 employees, was founded as an all-remote company. They have developed a variety of methods for employees to get to know each other from a distance, such as scheduled social calls with groups and one-on-one, and “Juicebox Chats” wherein children of employees to play and converse through Zoom from homes around the world. Their 130-person marketing team once held a department talent show replete with judges and prizes. “This is an example of teams being able to bond even more authentically than what would be possible in an office.”
Yotpo, a tech firm specializing in ecommerce marketing with approximately 500 employees, facilitates virtual happy hours that have evolved into opportunities for employees to showcase unique skills and talents. The company has also arranged virtual yoga sessions and evening story time for employee children, and has a dedicated Slack channel for puppy pics.
For examples of how to conquer “Zoom fatigue,” break the monotony, increase opportunities for collaboration, and facilitate social interactions between team members, read on.
Ways to stay engaged when working from home. Given that Zoom fatigue is a very real concern, and yet video conferencing is an unavoidable necessity in the work-from-home landscape, it is important that employees spend ample time each day focused on work-related tasks outside of virtual meetings. But since they are unavoidable, try to schedule meetings with plenty of time in between, and encourage employees to follow the suggestions outlined below.
- Reduce the number of virtual meetings if possible. When video conferencing replaces all other modes of communicating in real time, it becomes—put simply—exhausting. In-person interactions not only accomplish conversational objectives, but body language also imparts additional meaning and messages. When those conversations are distilled into pixelated squares on a video screen, participants must sustain intense focus on the speaker without the benefit of visual cues. “The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.”
- Combine meeting prompts with ideation followups. It’s often hard for all voices to be heard in group conference calls, particularly if the topic changes before someone has a chance to jump in or they are an introvert with great ideas but struggle to speak up. Instead of dedicating extensive time brainstorming during a video session, utilize a followup system to develop ideas that everyone can contribute to, such as Google Docs or Slack.
- Incorporate physical activity during phone calls. For one-on-one meetings, encourage employees to skip the video call and schedule a phone conversation. During the call, take a walk. Studies have shown that exercise stimulates the brain and reduces stress.
- Be flexible. Employees may be under extraordinary stress if they have children or are caring for family members and are trying to work from home. Sometimes it may be easier for them to change their schedule around a bit.
- Avoid multi-tasking. While on a video call, put phones away, close other browser tabs, don’t answer email. Keeping the focus on one task at a time ensures employees will maximize their productivity and retain information better.
- Improve your virtual presence during video calls. Ensure backgrounds are clean, uncluttered and well lit. Or, use a background graphic. If others are in the home, close the door to the workspace to mitigate disruption. Use a headphone microphone instead of the computer’s built-in setup to isolate employee input from background noise. Nod or use other non-verbal cues instead of saying “yeah,” “mmmhmmm,” etc. to avoid interrupting the flow of conversation. Better yet—engage the ‘mute’ button when not actively participating in the presentation. All of these tactics will help keep the conversation on track and reduce chaotic distractions.
- Create a schedule, and stick to it. A routine will make it easier to separate working hours from time to relax. Sure, it’s easy to do a load of laundry in between phone calls but that can also blur the line between “at work” and “at home.” Build in break times for scrolling the internet, getting the mail, or taking a walk. Keeping to a schedule also ensures the right amount of hours is devoted to the job—not too many, not too few. “With the commute gone, people start working sooner and are less likely to stop work at a specific time because they don’t have to think about traffic or how soon they’ll be arriving home to family. Unfortunately, this can lead to burnout, and it’s something employers should consider taking proactive steps to manage.”
- Create a dedicated workspace. Whether employees have the benefit of a home office or not, establishing a space where they conduct business is an important method for separating work and home life subconsciously.
- Keep the workspace organized. Keep devices charged and cords bundled. Clean the keyboard. A cluttered space can be distracting, which leads to mental fatigue.
- Stay healthy. Get a full night of sleep. Get dressed every morning. Exercise. Eat healthy foods.
STRATEGIES FOR PERSONAL CONNECTION
Counteracting isolation with virtual social activities with coworkers. Maintaining a healthy work/life balance is important, and this includes social engagements with coworkers in addition to maintaining personal relationships outside of the workplace. Managers can ensure team members have fun together, from a distance.
- Meet for coffee. Now that commutes are (temporarily) a thing of the past, use the time you would have spent commuting to have coffee with a direct report or coworker, virtually. Most of us eased into our mornings at work this way, catching up with colleagues on what’s going on in their lives and sharing your own experiences. Or, during the time you used to be on your way home, “meet” coworkers for a post-work cocktail.
- Pair up with a “visibility buddy.” Workplace accomplishments are easy to celebrate in the workplace, but much harder to call attention to when working alone at home. By pairing employees up, accomplishments can be acknowledged to the larger cohort by that employee’s “visibility buddy.” Recognition is an important component of workplace inclusivity, which is even more valuable to women and minority employees.
- For smaller meeting groups, set aside time at the beginning of the call for non-work items. This allows for the type of banter typical of pre- or -post meeting interactions at the office.
- Keep up the weekly check-ins, and consider doing them via text message. Show appreciation for team members and ask how they are doing professionally and personally, using a genuine, friendly tone. “Sometimes doing it in a digital fashion is better—people are more likely to respond to it if they’re typing something than saying it verbally.”
- Set aside time to get to know your team. One advantage of working from home is that you can finally introduce coworkers to the partners and children and pets that they’ve heard so many stories about. Set aside time each week to make introductions over video conference. Given how unpredictable children and pets (and even spouses) can be, the entertainment value is sure to be high.
- Write letters. Gratitude expressed in a hand-written note can go a long way. “One study found that handwriting a thank-you note makes recipients much more happy than we expect. Another showed therapeutic benefits for those who write them.”
- Organize a pizza party during a video conference call. Arrange for pizza delivery to each participant so that everyone has some to enjoy. It takes a bit more effort than ordering some pies for the office, but the experience will be memorable and more appreciated.
- Utilize the “Houseparty” app for an after-work social hour. Launched in 2016, Houseparty is a free app through which users can convene in groups of up to 8 to play board games, trivia, and Pictionary in a virtual environment. Its popularity quickly ascended as the pandemic began—including a one-month tally of 50 million new users—offering an outlet for folks at home to stay socially engaged with friends and coworkers.
- Take virtual tours together. With screensharing capabilities, any number of coworkers can tune in to take a virtual or behind-the-scenes tour together. “Many zoos and museums have made their virtual tours available for free to support the public during the pandemic. You may see footage of zoo animals encountering each other for the first time, something not usually possible during business as usual.”
Given the near-certainty that the pandemic is far from over, it’s not too late to develop new routines that will cut through the day-to-day fatigue from working at home in isolation. By utilizing ideas presented herein, and getting creative with your own workplace cohorts, there are myriad ways to break up the monotony and boost your team’s engagement while you get to know each other in ways not possible prior to the transition.