Skip to main content
Digital & Technology
Sustainable Innovation

Engagement and culture in a virtual world

Engagement and culture in a virtual world
Share this article:

Reflecting on the big questions of 2020 and looking forward to 2021, Impact's UK Head of Consulting, Qudsia Karim, muses on the issues affecting people and culture in newly virtual workplaces...

When lockdown first hit, clients needed help getting their workforces up and running effectively in the digital space. Leaders required support in dealing with rapid and constant change, and whole organisations needed upskilling to overcome the challenges of doing work differently or doing different work.  

As each continent headed ‘back to work’ in the summer and autumn, organisations sought to rebuild themselves as more agile than they were before, as well as more sustainable, more inclusive and more equitable. Now we are seeing a different agenda emerging which centres on employee wellbeing, asking how to lead people when change and uncertainty are the only constants. There has also been an increased focus on questions of belonging, diversity and inclusion.  

"Remote management has been one of the biggest changes this year..."

Appraisals are one small part of managing performance. If a manager waits until the end of the year to recognise achievements or raise issues, the process is unlikely to be effective. Human connection is more important now than ever, as employees navigate their way through virtual workplaces that do not allow space for organic interactions or ‘water-cooler conversations’. Regular, authentic interaction builds trust and understanding, which are key factors in both human connection and performance.  

In addition, managers and leaders need to rethink the parameters of appraisals. It is important to be congratulatory, but we also need to be understanding, with a ‘big-picture’ perspective instead of one that views this extraordinary year in isolation. It’s crucial that leaders consider intention and what people have been trying to achieve within the constraints they have been operating in. The ways in which people have coped with the crisis varies hugely, as we have all been affected in different ways by different issues. Home-schooling, illness, job insecurity, bereavement, family income: all of these factors must be acknowledged and accommodated. Being flexible and working with people ‘where they’re at’ helps them to bring their best selves to work.  

In the long term, when markets stabilise, employees will remember how they were treated during this time and make future decisions based on this. If organisations get this wrong, they potentially stand to lose out when it comes discretionary effort and talent. 

"There's a delicate balance between driving financial performance and ensuring that people are engaged and feeling valued..."

They are inextricably linked! If you have strong engagement and an effective culture, high performance will follow. The key is effective communication. Leaders should focus on sharing their organisation’s stories in a way that generates buy-in from employees, inspiring them to strive for success. Combining clear organisational goals and a high-trust environment with empowered, engaged people is the recipe for high performance.  

However, achieving this balance will depend on a number of variables, so the strongest leaders will be those who flex with the changing times, paying attention to what works and what doesn't. 

"Are our lives are ‘less human’? Or is virtual just a different way of engaging?"

We need to be sensitive to the fact that when you are operating through a screen or phone you are only seeing people through a limited lens and may be missing non-verbal cues that provide vital insight into how the other person is feeling or reacting. Leaders should reach out to colleagues to ensure that they are still feeling that ‘human’ element. But leaders’ ability to engage with their people will also be more difficult in the virtual space, so they’ll need to work harder to ensure that their message is received.  

It’s also important to remember that there are huge benefits to virtual working. It’s more accessible, more inclusive, and we’ve heard from many leaders that, having interacted with colleagues in their homes, have fresh insight into the real lives of their team.  

"Struggling industries vs embracing industries."

We are not seeing specific issues affecting particular industries, but themes are certainly emerging. For instance, those who already had an agile working culture and encouraged autonomous working practices prior to lockdown have been able to adapt much quicker to the changing circumstances. Organisational agility is the ability to flex in the moment and respond positively to things as they happen; this simply doesn’t work in traditional, hierarchical workplaces. Many organisations want to become more agile right now, and although cultural change can’t happen overnight, there are many people-related developments that can nurture trust, autonomy and agility.  

"The growing concern of wellbeing and burnout." 

Successful organisations will be those who recognise these issues and take steps to tackle them sooner rather than later. The importance of promoting self-care runs across every area of work and affects everyone, regardless of whether they are working remotely or not. It also spans generations, so there should be no assumption that gen-z are somehow immune from the impact all this is having. In fact, in some cases younger workers crave human interaction most.  

Leaders need to recognise the strains their people are under and the different ways in which this can manifest. For instance, workers operating in a command-and-control style environment may have fared better at the start of the pandemic when people were in need of direct instructions, however they may now be seriously fatigued by the stresses and fears that accompany working in this way. Even for those working in more progressive environments, ongoing uncertainties coupled with severe restrictions on options for downtime mean that everyone is experiencing pandemic fatigue on some level.  

Organisations need to actively promote wellbeing to their workforce. We have seen some great examples of this, with companies hosting wellbeing workshops, offering flexibility of location or hours worked, and providing extra days off. The important thing is that it needs to be adaptable enough to suit the individual. The best approach has to be around knowing your people and creating solutions that work for them, with them.       

The last few months have demonstrated that it is possible to leverage huge change at pace. This now presents a major opportunity to use that organisational agility for long-term good. People naturally question purpose during times of turbulence and change. So this is a great time to work towards sustainability goals afforded by changes to working styles and patterns, or to embrace the new opportunities that virtual working offers for diversity. It's a perfect time to reflect, think ahead, and make decisions that will create long-term business sustainability. More than ever, leaders need to focus on engaging people and giving them opportunities to feel first-hand that their organisation is one worth working for.