It seems like so long ago that we were all tasked and challenged to figure out how to do out jobs in the COVID-19 world into which we were all thrown. Little warning and little if any choice and there we were. Business leaders had to figure out how to effectively lead when employees were not coming into the office. Employees had to figure out how to be effective and successful when trying to work from home when ‘home’ was often anything but an environment that allowed for focus and concentration.
And yet, here we are in a world that is emerging from what was 15 months and emerging into one that clearly has a different look. Some of us will return to our offices. Some will do so on a limited basis and others will continue to work from home. With this being reality, it is prudent that business leaders recognize and take steps to rebuild relationships among employees as it is one area that has suffered significantly. To the extent that productivity and success is enhanced when those working together feel and have a connection, moving forward into the emerging environment will have to rebuild what has diminished.
The Impact of a Remote Workforce on all-important inter-personal relationships
William Rothwell and Cho Hyun Park co-authored a book entitled Virtual Coaching to Improve Group Relationships. In it, they addressed this emerging issue thoroughly in identifying the importance and value of bringing this into the organization given the new reality. The designated coach focuses on team interactions. He/She facilitates a process in which team members recognize group dynamic issues and improve them on their own. Here are some of the issues that lead to the advantages of an organization addressing this need to build relationships in the new, real, working world:
- Revolutionizing the workplace:
There is little or no argument that COVID-19 revolutionized the workplace. Now and it is anticipated going forward, some 25% of workers now and will continue to work from home full-time. 70% of workers will continue to work from home on a part-time basis as they alternate between home and office.
- Advantages accompanying remote work:
The shift to remote work also brings diverse advantages to both employers and employees. Employers that offer work from home opportunities will enjoy advantages. Benefits include attracting and retaining star talent and saving money by spending less on office space, equipment, salaries, and perks. On the employees’ side, the greatest benefit of remote work is that it allows them to concentrate on their work by managing their time effectively. So, employees become more productive in their work.
- Potential disadvantages accompanying remote work
Working remotely creates new challenges for managers and workers alike. Working together in physical settings such as offices or plants is simply not the same as working apart in virtual settings. How a message is communicated changes, and influences, what the message is. And how people work together … online rather than onsite settings … changes how people achieve results, how they interact, and how they feel about their work products and work relationships.
- The loss of personal interaction influences the achieved outcomes and attitudes
Working remotely people tend to lose informal connection that add context and meaning to their work lives. They lose informal conversation that occur before, during and after meetings. They lose the informal conversations occurring at their desks, lunchroom, water cooler or copy machine. If the result is feeling left out it brings with it increased turnover and absenteeism. How employees feel about their relationship with other team members can and does influence long-term team productivity.
How Virtual Group Coaching returns what’s missing in a partially remote work world
With the emerging work world what is needed is a new emphasis on how people work together in groups and how people feel about their virtual relationships is what the authors refer to as virtual coaching. It is a helping method intended to facilitate improvements in face-to-face group interactions … that is, how people work together and how people feel about each other and their work. Some people work in a central office and others work from other venues. While managers will tend to focus on the task for the group to accomplish, the group or team’s productivity will hinge on how well people work together in virtual and/or blended settings.
Virtual group coaching is a means to improve group interaction or social dynamics in virtual settings. How peopleinteract with each other in virtual settings is different from that in physical settings due to the difference of the medium to communicate and collaborate. As such, the coach’s role is to facilitate improvements in interactions among people who work together remotely as a team or group.
- While the manager focuses on the group’s tasks(what is to be done and how it is to be done), the virtual coach focuses on the group’s relationships (how people work together and how they feel about each other and the task in virtual work settings).
- The virtual group coach does not dictate ways to analyze and improve group interaction and group relationships. Rather, the coach helps members recognize their issues concerning group process and dynamics, reach agreement on what to improve, create improvement efforts on their own, improve group dynamics and learn more effective ways of working together.
- An important assumption made by virtual group coaches is that no group or team is working together as effectively or efficiently as the group or team could be working together.
The Role of the virtual coach and who can fill that role
The role of a coach is to facilitate introspection and observation of members of the group. Helping participants to identify what’s working well and what could be working better is a good starting point. It is made better and more meaningful because the team members have been able to make a self-analytical assessment of their interactions. They have been able to determine what they need to do to bring about the desired changes. With this awareness, it is the team who can and will devise the steps they can and need to take that will bring about improved working relationships.
The person fulfilling the role of the Virtual Coach can be someone either internal or external to the company. It might be someone from the HR department. It could be a person from within a department of the company. It could besomeone brought in from the outside. What is important is that they have the proven capacity to listen and hear and the willingness to be the needed facilitator of change rather than the designer of it. A coach prepares an agenda for open discussion based on what each member talked about and facilitates a discussion to describe how the team can have more effective daily standup meetings, challenging team members to commit to ways to improve their interaction and work together effectively. This open discussion will lead them to their own solutions to resolve the issues that they perceived and improve team interaction and dynamics.
Organizations who are realizing and implementing the concept of virtual coaching are at the forefront of whatisexpected to become a key contributor of assuring success in many organizations. As Rothwell and Park conclude, just like in pre-COVID times, effective interaction and collaboration based on trust among members will be a critical factor for team success and the need for virtual coaching will only increase. Getting out in front of this seems like a wise approach to adapting to the emerging new normal.