How HR can connect employees in isolation

As most of the world moves towards a second month of lockdown or a slow gradual return to physical work, self-isolation and remote working to protect against the coronavirus pandemic continues to force organisations to face new challenges.

Key among these challenges is how to foster an inclusive and connected workplace. This is essential to keep up productivity and ensure work continues as normally as possible, but how can this be enabled when individuals are working in isolation?

The answer requires building a culture of trust and opening channels of connectivity with employees. Here’s how to get started:

Embrace technology

The first step lies in embracing technology, which provides the tools and frameworks that enable us to continue working. A versatile HR and business tech-stack can pay dividends, from ensuring operational continuity and auditable action tracking to enabling employees to access files.

That said, it is important to recognise that not all organisations are operating at the same level when it comes to technology. There can be challenges both at an organisational and an individual level. Whether a lack of infrastructure or simply a lack of skills and knowledge, these challenges are critical to overcome to promote true connectivity.

“We perhaps can’t just send computer-based training, some companies may even have to go one-on-one to show people how to use these tools,” explains Micah Alpern, EY Americas Culture and Leadership Lead. “There are a lot of companies that have these tools, but nobody has had a need to use them until now. We are going to have to accelerate upskilling people to get them on the same level.”

This requires HR leaders to take the initiative and work closely with IT and facilities teams to ensure all employees have the necessary skills, training, and access to tech they need to remain productive wherever they are.

Even at Nokia, a company focused on tech, employees are having to upskill and learn about the options available to them. According to David Shontz, Global Head of HR Reporting and Organisation Management, Nokia and a member of the UNLEASH advisory panel, “the key is optimising the team working tools that we have [for] a broader audience that may now be having to work from home [and] who are not so familiar with them”.

Encourage Autonomy

Enabling individuals to use the technology available to them feeds directly into the second step on your connectivity journey – tech enables autonomy, and this should be encouraged. At home, as in the office, employees respond best when they are given the necessary space to do their work without management breathing down employee necks, checking in several times a day to ask what they are doing.

But as Mr Alpern explains, “it’s hard for leaders and companies who are used to seeing people at their desks working to trust their employees are actually working, things are getting done and productivity isn’t suffering when they cannot see them, but they need to be understanding of each individual’s situation”.

Fostering trust and having faith in employees is critical in uncertain times, especially as the circumstances have thrown up a number of unusual issues such as employees working from home while juggling childcare and home-schooling. Such factors mean that some individuals are having to modify their working hours for example, being unavailable at points during the day and completing some of their tasks once their children have gone to sleep.

“On the employee side, people need to trust themselves and their experience,” says Mr Alpern. “Just because they are not in the office now doesn’t mean that they are unable to complete their tasks. They also need to be open and communicate things that perhaps they wouldn’t have to do in the past, explaining for example if they have to complete work at a later hour because their home life requires some adaptation.”

Commit to active listening to maintain connectivity

Even if team members are fully connected via technology, it is important for HR leaders to promote a culture of active listening, as some team members will be more comfortable with the changes to communication than others. It is the responsibility of team leaders to encourage individuals to speak up for themselves and others to ensure people don’t get side-lined or feel isolated.

“It starts with connectivity,” says Mr Alpern. “Identifying who is isolated and bringing them into the fold. Once you have that connection, try to understand their situation, asking additional questions about the challenges they are facing. It is more than you would normally ask because you can’t read their body language as you are no longer be face-to-face”.

HR analytics and tools can support such active listening initiatives. Leveraging sentiment and network analysis tools can help business leaders to gain a better understanding of employee perceptions that may otherwise be missed. Equally, running surveys, can provide important feedback about how people are coping with the disruption of change. Both options provide otherwise unseen insights that can be acted upon and addressed.

Promote authentic engagement

Ensuring the mental wellbeing of employees is crucial during isolation and it falls to HR to promote authentic interactions among the workforce. This sort of interaction relies on having fostered authentic engagement with employees, which is itself a way of protecting and monitoring mental well-being while people are working in isolation. Sincere engagement can help keep team morale up, and organisations will find that this can go a long way in keeping people mentally healthy and productive.

Mr Alpern adds, “To make this a reality, organisations need to apply solutions that balance technology and human needs”. As such, organisations are increasingly leveraging both in creative ways that help further bolster the engagement and well-being of the employees, including running virtual quizzes, yoga classes, or even after work drinks through video-conferencing tools.

Ideas like these rely on employees taking the initiative and coming forward with suggestions that will work for their teams, but organisations need to set the tone and create a culture in which employees are enabled to do this.

By following these key steps and keeping team members engaged, people are more likely to come forward with organic ideas which will help everyone be able to get on in these difficult times.