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Extreme teleworking can connect us to colleagues in unexpected ways

By Melissa Jezior

Right now, we’re all struggling to navigate the COVID-19 storm. Many of us are riding out the storm alone, separated from family, friends, and our professional colleagues. Losing our in-person connections isn’t easy, including ties to our work colleagues. For many, work provides a real sense of fulfillment, as does interaction with our coworkers. After all, we spend nearly half our waking hours with them.

A simple fact of our humanness is that we need connections and interaction to survive and thrive—even the introverts among us. Studies show that long-term isolation can result in significant declines in cognitive performance and health problems. For example, earlier quarantines during the sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic found that those who were quarantined were two to three times more likely to report high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms than the rest of the population.

But I’m an optimist, always looking for silver linings. One positive I’ve found as I telework with my colleagues is a much deeper connection to their humanity. Extreme teleworking has provided new glimpses into each other’s home lives and personal spaces, a view we probably would never have had in ordinary times. I see my colleagues’ books, plants, artwork, and laundry baskets. I’ve met my coworkers’ spouses, partners, children, and pets. I see the views from their windows, and I see their struggles as we muddle through the days and weeks.

While I would have never wished for this pandemic, I am thankful for the new, deeper connections we’ve found thanks to technology and telework. Going forward, I hope we can find ways to keep and enrich these deeper relationships with our colleagues. And communication will play a critical role in nurturing these new connections.

Recently, I wrote a column about how Eagle Hill’s “Four C’s of work culture and workforce resilience,” relate to COVID-19. It discussed the career and confined-to-home supports that federal leaders could give their teams to allow them to continue to provide vital public services.

Now, this column examines communication and connectedness jointly. The strength of your communications content, tone, and channels are a strong component of your employees’ connection—to you and to each other. There are plenty of things you can do to help your teams now as we continue to deal with coronavirus telework. Here are a few suggestions:

Overcommunicate. This is the time for you and your leaders to step up like you may never have before. Solicit regular feedback and hold virtual town halls to address all questions from your employees honestly, even the tricky or sticky issues. It’s okay to not have complete answers; acknowledge the questions and give the best answers you can. If more information will be coming, let people know definitively when to expect it. Every message you deliver should end by telling employees when they will get their next update. Then stick to that deadline as a promise your employees can count on.

Take time at virtual meetings to celebrate employees’ personal milestones, their contributions to their own communities, and any creative solutions your employees have developed to get work done under difficult conditions. Do the same for yourself, too. If something happy has happened to your family, share it.

Provide at least some of your messages in video form so that your workforce can regularly see you and hear your voice. Do not make slickly produced videos; in fact, simple is better. With so many confusing messages coming about the virus, people hunger for honesty, authenticity, and reliability. You convey all of these qualities with your expression and tone just as surely as with your words.

Anchor your message content in your vision for getting through the pandemic. At Eagle Hill, our vision is to do our best to flatten the curve, keep our people safe, and stay focused on our mission. In your vision, define for your employees what is essential to the agency mission. Then frame all your communications in these terms to show what you and your staff are doing to move the organization’s goals forward and to give people direction about where they likewise need to be giving their effort.

Recognize that the pandemic has not created a large-scale working-from-home scenario but rather a working-while-sheltering-in-place one and embrace the humanity of the situation. We all are dealing with more stress as we adapt to what the pandemic means for our everyday lives, with rituals canceled and children and partners home full time and struggling themselves without normal routines.

Team leaders should hold short daily standups—even if only for 5 minutes—to reconnect on a personal level and then talk about goals and work challenges for the day. At these meetings, engage and solicit feedback from every member of the team—not just the most vocal. Everyone needs the chance to communicate.

Look for other ways to virtually live your work culture. Some managers I know host weekly, opt-in “happy hour” Zoom calls to let people connect and check in on a more personal level. Another agency leader collected money on Venmo, bought restaurant gift cards for the administrative staff, and then held a virtual lunch to celebrate the administrative team.

Finally, encourage people to take leave. Even though employees may not be able to go on vacation, people need space away from work even if they are not away from home.

Together—through interconnections and communication—we’ll emerge on the other side. And hopefully, it will make us all stronger and more appreciative of our humanity.