With Covid-19, what does the future hold for workplaces?

I joined CompareAsiaGroup, now Hyphen Group, at the height of the pandemic. In a matter of weeks, workplaces all around the world were forced to work remotely changing the way typical processes run in the workspace. I was among the first job seekers who experienced the “new normal” of being recruited and onboarded completely virtually – in total physical isolation from my team and the rest of my colleagues.

It’s amazing how it’s such a common occurrence now, but was such a new concept “back then”.

Collaboration Tools for a Virtual Workplace

As a new staff, one of the first things you’re given as part of your onboarding package is access to the company’s Slack workspace. With it, you’re now linked to the whole network of people within the company allowing you to reach out to just about anyone.

In hindsight, I realised how much of our working style is influenced by having Slack as a communication channel for announcements, workflow approvals, discussions, updates and social conversations. I’ve relied heavily on Slack to build relationships, get alignment and take decisions. All of which helps to keep communication lines open and to have regular conversations regardless of where you’re located. Just on my first day, many colleagues (whom I’ve never seen) were already reaching out just to say a quick hello!

Other tools like shared documents, project management tools and shared calendars also helps facilitate a collaborative workspace.

Working remotely inevitably blurs the boundaries of work and play. It also blinds us to what our colleagues might be engaged in. Though seemingly insignificant, pre-booking in times for meetings and discussions helps in more mindful planning and preserves healthy work boundaries. Shared calendars also give visibility to the schedules of others and (hopefully) helps us be more mindful of each other’s time.

Wellness at the Workplace

Not being in the office means having lesser touchpoints, corridor talks and mini exchanges with our colleagues. It changes the way we primarily build relationships in the workplace since it limits the occasions where each team member interacts with each other. Conversations tend to be more task focused, reducing interactions to be under strict agendas and work tasks.

We had to rethink how to maintain and build relationships. Recreating opportunities for team members to interact with each other informally had to be intentional. I’ve seen how coming together to celebrate individual milestones like work anniversaries and birthdays helps inject fun and warmth into the workplace.

We’ve also started to set aside time for virtual social sessions such as monthly trivias, virtual lunches and coffees. Just this year, each local entity also started a “Fun Committee” where the committee initiates and organises celebratory and wellness activities for their teams. All these contribute to the interactions across departments and provide opportunities to build relationships outside of our typical work tasks.

Challenges in a Virtual Environment

Despite all our initiatives, the virtual work environment comes with its own challenges. “Zoom Fatigue”, coupled with back to back meetings, constant messages in Slack, a full inbox and a lack of clear boundaries of when the workday ends will take a toll on anyone in the long run.

It also doesn’t help that our main source of information is via text. Without the inputs of facial expression, tone of voice or gesture, it takes away how well we discern what the other person is trying to tell us. It’s not surprising that many messages (and intent) get missed or misinterpreted.

However, the reality is that before Covid-19, we were already working in a virtual work environment (albeit not as prevalent). With global teams and flexible work arrangements, we’ve all worked in some form as a remote team.

So perhaps, the pandemic did not necessarily change the way we work, but only accelerated how work environments need to change to cope with a remote workforce: Identifying collaborative tools, being intentional in how we communicate, blocking time for ourselves and others, putting an emphasis on wellness at the workplace and ultimately challenging us to rethink what truly defines a workplace.

 

Written by Esther Sim, HR Manager

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