Digital transformation

Strategies for Success in a Virtual Workplace—From Junior Engineer to CEO

Your career is yours to manage. Be approachable and be bold to be sure you are noticed virtually. Do not wait for the pandemic to pass.

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Many offices have suddenly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and employees must adjust to a new way of working. It is important to evaluate the positive and negative effects of working from home, on both individual and team performance. With a good strategy, many companies and employees can thrive in a long-term virtual environment.

There are definite advantages to working from home during the pandemic:

  1. The ability to manage personal time without a commute—no more gas money, parking fees, or frustration to find parking space.
  2. No social-distancing concerns with the general public on mass transit systems, in elevators, or in the office.
  3. Wardrobe requirements are looser. Many people enjoy the freedom to wear whatever is most comfortable (except on video calls, where it might be a good idea to dress for business).
  4. The ability to work with people in a variety of geographical locations is enhanced as companies have adopted better technologies for working virtually.

Most people would agree that the ability to work from home occasionally is a great feature of any job, but a long-term work-from-home situation may present the following challenges:

  1. Decreased interaction among teammates resulting in a reduced sense of community
  2. Inefficiencies and miscommunication due to written instead of live verbal communication
  3. Fewer networking opportunities to meet people outside your team or company
  4. Less-effective discussion in virtual meetings due to technical limitations, distractions, or the tendency to multitask
  5. Inadequate home office space/layout/equipment
  6. Interruptions/distractions at home from family, roommates, pets, outside noises, deliveries, etc.

Frequent, open communication with teammates and management can help in all the above challenges except for the last two. The effectiveness of a leader, coach, or advisor is based largely on successful human connection. If you’re a leader, remember that it’s not about you; it’s all about your people and the connections that empower them to succeed. Whether you are distancing from others during a pandemic or under other stressful conditions, the ability to make true connections and communicate openly is more challenging when we are physically separated.

Considerations for Virtual Work Arrangements for Leaders

  1. How strong is your two-way feedback loop with your team? Do you trust your team members to communicate openly and honestly with you? Are you open and honest with them? Try different moderating strategies in meetings so you can encourage equal participation among team members.
  2. Do you know who is an introvert or extrovert and who is straddling the middle? Introverts are likely rocking the work from home situation and their productivity is likely the same or better. Extroverts may find isolation a challenging issue, as they need regular interaction with people, especially if they live alone.
  3. Have you established strong relationships with your people? If yes, you’ll need to maintain those bonds through regular interactions. If not, working from home for extended periods can be difficult to navigate. You’ll find it worthwhile to invest the time in forging and strengthening relationships through virtual interactions, especially with new or junior team members.
  4. Do your team members have appropriate tools to work from home? Have you clearly communicated which items can be expensed? If you have purchased anything for your job, save your receipts for potential company reimbursement or for tax purposes.
  5. Can your company’s data and intellectual property be properly secured in a virtual work environment? What policies are in place and how do they affect your team?
  6. Do your company’s HR policies support both employees and contractors working from home?

Considerations for Virtual Work Arrangements for Junior Employees

  1. Ask your supervisor or upper management if they are able to meet with you for a virtual coffee or lunch. Your career is yours to manage. Be approachable and be bold to be sure you are noticed virtually. Do not wait for the pandemic to pass.
  2. Share information that may be of interest to others. If you attend a virtual conference or seminar, share your notes with your teammates. Mine The Way Ahead and LinkedIn for articles that could be of use in the workplace.
  3. Young people often have more experience with digital technology than older generations. Speak up to suggest improvements to your team’s virtual experience. Look to establish a reverse/reciprocal mentoring scenario where you train a senior on new technologies in exchange for career advice.
  4. Engage in impromptu conversation with other employees over the phone or through virtual chatrooms. It is important for new employees to learn about their peers as this enables future collaboration. Even if two employees have never physically met, connecting virtually will make it easy to connect in person upon returning to the office.

Considerations for all Levels

Whether you’re a leader or a team member, be conscious of the various stressors that may be affecting individual employees. Illustrate your commitment, over-communicate, and show that you’re present and engaged by paying attention and following up. One way to show your engagement and attention is by turning on your webcam during meetings.

Investing the time and energy to embrace new technologies designed for virtual workplaces will pay off. Due to the increased demand for virtual work arrangements, technology companies are continuously creating new products and services, making it easier for more roles to be performed virtually.

Face-to face-communication is integral in fostering connections and has the following benefits:

  1. It allows for a clearer understanding of the intended message. (Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language, found that the total impact of a message is about 7% verbal, 38% vocal [tone, inflection, and other sounds], and 55% nonverbal.)
  2. It enhances credibility and dependability.
  3. It is far more personal and allows the speakers to share more personal details, thereby facilitating bonding.

Impromptu conversations are important for building rapport and trust, resulting in a more efficient and enjoyable work environment. In a virtual environment, you should intentionally replace these natural interactions with other communications. For example, create a digital chatroom reserved for personal discussion. This can help fill the void many people experience in a virtual work environment and reinforces collaboration and fun. It may not feel natural, but if managers embrace the use of a digital space for spur-of-the-moment, unplanned discussion, their team members will be more likely to follow suit and feel more connected and engaged.
Finally, do something differentbook a virtual meeting with a coworker to catch up. Think of a virtual team activity or game you could play together. Management should endorse these behaviors as they increase employee morale which is ultimately good for business. Productive, creative business conversations often result from brainstorming without a specific agenda. Many excellent ideas are generated when two people who normally do not talk to each other interact with their unique perspectives.

Now that workers are not organically meeting and communicating face to face, leaders and employees must make an extra effort to ensure that the vital, human component of our workplace is not lost.

Amanda Calleberg works in the natural gas marketing division of Tenaska. She holds a BS degree from the University of Calgary with a major in chemical engineering and a minor in petroleum engineering. She was president of the SPE student chapter there and team lead for the SPE Drillbotics competition. She volunteers with the SPE Calgary Section Young Professionals group and serves on the membership and recognition teams. Calleberg previously interned at ConocoPhillips Canada, Cenovus Energy, and Husky Energy. She has conducted university research on the numerical simulation of methane combustion in porous media and on modeling downhole-drilling parameters.

Rose Marie Gage is the founder of Great Governance Matters and MPOWRU, which aim to empower and assist small- to medium-sized organizations. She is also chair of Ontario Agri-Food Tech; vice chair of Ag Research Institute of Ontario; independent director of Hadrian, Link Energy, and CO2-GRO (TSX-V); former chair of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Foundation and Agri-Tech Commercialization Centre; and former vice chair of the Women in Leadership Foundation. She is a graduate of McMaster University with advanced studies at the Directors’ College, Harvard Business School, and the University of Toronto Rotman School of Business.

[The article was sourced by TWA editors Abhijeet Anand and Haris Ahmed.]