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Winning in a virtual world
7 June 2021

Winning in a virtual world

“Welcome, it’s lovely to meet you!” I say enthusiastically, studying the new face on my screen. With a lack of body language and visual cues to help me, I find myself searching my new colleague’s backdrop for clues to her personality and interests. It doesn’t give much away, but after spying a cat picture on the wall, I get the sneaking suspicion that we will get on just fine.

Meeting a new colleague virtually is something many of us have experienced over the last year, but for those who are fresh out of education, or starting a completely new role, it is a different experience altogether. Anyone starting work since March 2020 is yet to shake any hands or go for after-work drinks. And some companies, like Twitter, have announced employees can work from home ‘forever’. So how will this affect up-and-coming talent?

Watch and learn

In mid-summer 2020, COVID-19 infections had begun to fall. Pubs, restaurants and workplaces opened their doors once more. With the office open on a voluntary basis, a few of my colleagues came in a couple of days a week, breaking up the monotony of working from home. For some, it was their first time in the office, despite working at the company for months.

This began to show quite quickly. Without colleagues to learn from, the ‘newbies’ didn’t know our office etiquette. Whilst having the best intentions, they answered video calls at their desks without earphones, left coats on the backs of chairs, and bags in the gangway. Of course, a quiet word rectified these innocent faux pas, but it got me thinking. What other, less visible consequences did the lack of office exposure have on young people? It really highlighted how much we learn by observing those around us - ‘inadvertent knowledge transfer’, ¹if you will.

Building bridges

“Don’t approach Karen before her first coffee…! John doesn’t use instant messages!”

A major part of settling into a new role is getting to know your colleagues and managers. Many of us have learnt early on that adapting your communication approach to suit an individual usually leads to a better outcome. These small warnings or titbits of advice in staff kitchen conversations are much harder to initiate online. And with instant messaging keeping a record of every single conversation, you can expect teammates to be more reserved.

After getting accustomed to an individual’s way of working, we then tend to build on that relationship by getting acquainted with their interests and hobbies. Getting to know co-workers socially plays a fundamental part of forming positive work relationships. And positive work relationships, in turn, usually lead to higher engagement with your job². Social chit-chat also goes a long way with colleagues who you do not work directly with, helping to increase your presence and

reputation within a company. Whilst in the office, we often overhear conversations that give us key information on personal interests. For example, picking up that Susan from accounts has a holiday home in France, gives you a starter for ten next time you bump into her at the water cooler.

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that social connections play a central role in fostering a sense of purpose and wellbeing in the workplace³. I have personally found that my work relationships are strengthened following a work event, like the Christmas party, or after-work drinks – especially when there’s wine involved! Being with colleagues in social situations encourages us to be more open and honest, which I find leads to a more friendly relationship and a deeper sense of mutual understanding. So what happens when the opportunity to form these social connections is massively reduced?

Another quiz?

Despite the lack of inadvertent knowledge transfer and team drinks, beginning a new role virtually does not have to be a negative experience. As always, we adapt. Many employers have taken steps to increase colleagues’ (old and new) interactions, such as encouraging virtual ‘tea breaks’ and setting up company-wide team quizzes. For those who are new to the workplace, and starting in a virtual environment, I believe that it is paramount for employers to increase the frequency of one-to-one meetings with managers, and take an active role in structuring introductions to colleagues. Whilst less experienced team members will naturally meet and talk to those they work directly with, they often lack the confidence to strike up a conversation with a ‘stranger’. By arranging these initial introductions, we can remove some of the anxiety in starting these conversations and hopefully give them the confidence and tools to continue building these relationships. Whilst I don’t believe in spoon-feeding, I think it’s only fair that young people have the same opportunities to develop and connect with colleagues as you or I did.

Working from home: here to stay?

Offices are reopening, but the overwhelming consensus is that working from home is here to stay. Nowadays, it’s common to see jobs advertised as fully home-based, and many employers will be reassessing whether an office space is essential to its operations. So we need to refine our approach to homeworking and inducting new team members, and make sure those who do lack an office environment are not disadvantaged.

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Last update: 3 June 2021

Lucy Kerley
Lucy Kerley
Assistant Trustee Executive, Inside Pensions
ZEDRA

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