With many businesses considering reentry into the physical workplace, there’s a definitive shift from the work model we experienced pre-pandemic and the more flexible approach we’re seeing now. A recent survey showed strong support for a combination of remote and in-person work, embracing a hybrid work model that incorporates both physical closeness and the flexibility teams have become accustomed to while working remotely.
With this dichotomy of the hybrid workplace, leaders are facing a new challenge of connecting employees who are spread out across a variety of locations, whether that’s in the office, at home, or in another remote location—while maintaining a sense of community and corporate culture. Virtual, cloud-based technologies can help organizations connect the dots and bring distributed teams together across new work models.
Here are three ways to use virtual technology to connect both in-person and remote team members.
1. RECREATE A WORKPLACE ATMOSPHERE ONLINE
Showing up to a physical office immerses employees in the organizational environment and their workday. To recreate that engaging atmosphere online, you need both the spatial presence of being physically close to others in the workplace as well as the social presence and opportunities for natural interaction. While the majority of people appreciate the flexibility of remote work, 49% are looking forward to increased opportunities to socialize in their return to the office, according to a workplace survey from JLL.
Employers can use AR and VR to create opportunities to bring in-person and remote teams together, from daily interactions to team-building activities. Done correctly, a virtual office environment can give employees a place to be and a feeling that they are entering the company environment to start their workday. That sense of social presence and belonging remains intact.
2. CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR CHANCE ENCOUNTERS
Creating a sense of community in the workplace happens largely through everyday, non-structured interactions or “watercooler” moments, which help establish relationships among employees. It can be challenging to encourage these interactions across time zones and digital boundaries, but creating opportunities for chance encounters can go a long way for individuals working outside of the physical office. Technology has already proven this is possible, with collaborative digital communities like Roblox providing space in which individuals can come together in a way that is natural and enjoyable, rather than forced.
If you set up a virtual world for your team, encourage employees to move around and interact freely with each other. They might choose to walk around a virtual campus-style environment where they can run into colleagues, or pop into their office for a quick catch-up session.
3. FOSTER A SENSE OF TRUST AMONG TEAMS
There is substantial power in fostering a sense of trust among teams and employees. While video conferencing can be useful for one-to-one check-ins or smaller team meetings, larger teams and organizations may find it challenging to build trust and camaraderie using these tools.
If you adopt an AR/VR solution, use it to customize tools based on your specific goals and employees’ needs. That could include breaking out of silos and typical team discussions to boost collaboration. To get the most benefit from your chosen tool, use it to encourage employees to have conversations with team members they may not otherwise interact with much, since in a virtual environment these interactions can come about in a way that feels more natural.
By creating more genuine and meaningful interactions, company leaders can also take the opportunity to model behaviors and develop a stronger rapport with employees. For example, in a virtual work setting, I can bond with employees during team trivia nights or when I’m sharing my own work-from-home challenges in our weekly all-hands meeting. This adds a more human element to digital communication, and those shared experiences and bonding moments create the trust that allows a hybrid model to succeed.
Regardless of whether employees are in the office, working from home, or a little bit of both, they each deserve an equal chance to feel like they are a part of the organizational community. By harnessing newer technologies, you can foster togetherness and psychological well-being among employees and reinforce a sense of belonging for every employee, regardless of how they show up to work.
Alex Howland, Ph.D., is President and Co-Founder of Virbela, an immersive virtual world platform for work, events and education.