September 27, 2021 at 07:15 pm
Lester D. Lat
Have you noticed that our interaction with colleagues vastly diminished during these long months in quarantine? Many of us who have been working from home since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have not seen each other in the flesh for 18 months now. The online apps we use to conduct virtual meetings provide a poor substitute for physical presence. We prefer not to show up on cam and simply hide behind empty black boxes on the screen.
Those who report physically at the office also experience barriers in expressing warmth. The friendly nod or smile and the facial expressions that light up conversations are now hidden under face masks. Physical interactions like handshakes or beso among the ladies can no longer be done in strict observance of health protocols.
Before the pandemic, the office is our community away from home. We interact with officemates eight hours per day, five days a week. These interactions and activities extend through lunch, coffee breaks, beyond office hours, and into our personal lives, built over countless conversations, food, shared passions, interests, and purpose.
Back then, while managers had to protect company time from being spent by workers on long breaks, they also recognized that these breaks helped build rapport and trust within the team. Employees who share the same passions and interests are likely to foster acquaintances and friendships. This turned the office from simply people with diverse backgrounds into a community of somehow like-minded individuals. It helped supervisors manage people more efficiently as workers tend to demonstrate a common set of behaviors except for some outliers. (For a country with a work culture that values collective effort and team success over personal achievement, it is desirable to create an environment where people collaborate, avoid animosity, and trust each other.)
When the lockdown was announced, many companies hastened their respective digital pivots to ensure business continuity and facilitate communication among organization members even when they are remote. Access to company email and apps which support instant messaging and video conferencing were provided to employees. Teams also created group chat threads in various messaging apps to keep in touch and stay connected.
But a year and a half into the pandemic, many of these group chats are no longer very active. Save for occasional birthday and holiday greetings and a few chain messages and shared posts, long conversations on topics the employees normally discussed in detail and with great enthusiasm before the pandemic do not surface in group chats. Exchanges have become primarily transactional or work-related, and the personal social media accounts and messaging apps have turned into work tools.
This disengagement from group conversations could be attributed to several factors. One could be due to the demanding nature of telecommuting, where work sometimes extends beyond the eight-hour shift, and there is no time left to socialize. Another reason could be technical limitations such as weak connectivity and unfamiliarity with various features of online messaging apps. Also, some employees may not be too fond of the chat feature and prefer physical dialogue rather than typing and sending their insights and opinions for everyone to see. Moreover, even if all team members are in one messaging group together, employees have varying use of social media, and not all of them can read and respond at once. Hence, conversations immediately end after just a few replies.
Work from home mode has become a potent strategy to ensure business continuity in this pandemic, and it pushed individual workers to do their jobs more independently. But team success has become reliant on individual contributions rather than collective actions.
With vaccine supply already becoming stable, companies are probably designing their back-to-office strategies by now. Human resource managers and team heads must see the need to consider interventions that could help bring back bond and cohesion to the team separated physically for more than a year. As an emergent strategy, some teams already started to remind members to show up on video during meetings. This way, the organization sends a message about its preference for team spirit rather than individualism.
When people gradually return to the office, team activities that do not require a lot of physical contact may be introduced to returning workers. Also, companies may redesign some jobs to involve more people and to re-establish communication and participation.
It is not clear yet when the pandemic will finally end and if organizations will abandon telecommuting and revert to onsite work for all their workers. While we cannot fully gauge if work from home has had adverse effects on erstwhile strong team dynamics, people managers should not forget to include team building mechanisms into their return to office strategies—to rekindle old ties and let esprit de corps grow once again in the organization.
The author is an MBA student at the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business, DLSU. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.