Project Management Institute

Antidote for Isolation

Teams Can Rebuild Connective Tissue with More Personal Interactions

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TRILOKS / E+ / GETTY IMAGES

By Karen Smits

For all the resilience project professionals have shown during the pandemic, the exacerbation of workplace isolation has been real—and I’ve experienced it through my work with several organizations over the past year.

At the bank where I support teams in a change process, some leaders hardly know how their team members are doing. In a startup organization, I met a new employee who has never met his colleagues in person—and they have no idea that he recently moved in with a friend to prevent burnout from working alone for so long. A global project manager in an offshore project is stuck in Brazil, while her family is waiting for her to return to Australia. And several people at a public-sector organization are working from cafes or moving back to their parents’ homes, because sharing workspace with their flatmates had become problematic.

The downside to virtual work environments is clear: The human connection that’s needed for workplace culture to thrive has been interrupted. As remote work increasingly becomes the norm even in a post-pandemic world, how do we restore a semblance of culture? How do we replicate an atmosphere where teams truly feel that they’re playing and learning together and see how leaders sustain connections?

Here are three suggestions:

1. MAKE CULTURE VISIBLE

Since everyday tasks now happen remotely and practices are hard to observe, it’s important to call attention to why things are done—acknowledge which aspects of culture are on display and why that matters. For example, when a team makes a decision, remind team members they came to this solution because they are always ready to listen, help colleagues and are focused on including the perspectives of all key stakeholders. Laying bare this cultural aspect reinforces the need for its existence as well as its significance to the organization. At the same time, don’t shy away from calling out behavior that does not reflect the company culture.

2. FIND TOOLS THAT FIT YOUR CULTURE

Your day-to-day toolset must support human connections and reflect your culture. For example, for organizations where lighthearted jokes are part of everyday communication and help break up tension, virtual teams can turn to a go-to set of GIFs and memes to punctuate team emails. Or for organizations where a quick chat can solve many matters, agree to use one messaging tool that will best support the team’s communication needs.

3. ORGANIZE IN-PERSON MEETINGS

Even with today’s abundance of online collaboration tools, there is no substitute for face-to-face teamwork to solve problems and spur creativity. If possible, find opportunities to have in-person meetings to address complex issues. That might mean limiting it to just a few people and keeping a safe distance, but such interactions and shared experiences can break the monotony of isolation and reintroduce elements of company culture. It’s also a good way to break those out-of-sight, out-of-mind bad habits that can easily seep into virtual meetings.

We need to go to extremes to preserve culture— and the people who live and love it. Even in a remote working environment, we must ensure that our actions truly connect with others. PM

img Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Singapore. She can be reached at karen. [email protected].
This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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