For anyone who is new to working at home, the transition may be confusing, frustrating, and a sigh of relief all in one. Without time to prepare for this change, many of us now find ourselves staring at computer screens attempting to focus on our inboxes amidst kids, pets, partners, roommates, or on the contrary, overwhelming silence and isolation. Depending on your personality and your line of work, the change of scenery could be a welcome shift compared to your typical routine. Maybe you are more productive from home without interruptions, meetings, and distractions. For others, the challenges accompanying working from home could cause a lack of motivation and a decrease in productivity.
Log on to any news, media, or social website right now and you will be bombarded with tips, tricks, and advice on how to work from home. Like this one or this one. Keep a routine or roll out of bed? Professional dress or comfy clothes? Separate work space or kitchen table? The thing is – there is no universal “right” or “wrong” way to work from home. We can certainly gain insight from those who have worked from home longer but it is also important to keep in mind the lack of control most of have in this situation. Cut yourself some slack.
One of the greatest changes when we begin to work from home may in fact be our sense of belonging at work. In 2019, a study by Karyn Twaronite’s team at Harvard Business Review, found that 40% of people surveyed felt physically or emotionally isolated in the workplace. Add in the increase in physical isolation and what does that mean for employees sense of belonging during the COVID-19 pandemic? What happens when our colleagues are no longer down the hall or across the cubicle wall? How much email can we send to make up for the lack of in-person feedback we might be used to receiving? Can video conferencing actually replace face-to-face meetings, presentations, coaching, heck – happy hour?
The need to keep business running “as usual” may be pulling some of us in the wrong direction. Nothing is usual right now. The good news is, the key leadership and interpersonal skill needed to create belonging at work translate well when employees are working at home: check in with one another. Taking the time to genuinely check in on how a colleague or direct-report is doing can go a long way in maintaining everyone’s sense of belonging right now. What does that involve?
- Ask open ended questions. Simply asking “What is on your mind right now?” or “How can I support you?” are great ways to start the check-in conversation.
- Actively listen to the response. If you are able to do this via phone or video conferencing, be present and eliminate any distractions so you can focus on more than just the words they use. What is their facial expression telling you? Does their tone of voice match what they are saying? Make eye contact by looking at the camera on your device. If you are communicating through email or text messaging, allow yourself time to process their words before formulating a response.
- If possible, do individual check-ins. Some people may not feel comfortable sharing what is truly on their mind in a group web conference or team email chain.
- Empathize. Acknowledge both the personal and professional challenges you or your team members are facing. Don’t minimize or downplay the emotion behind them. Verbalize them.
- Respond to the present-day concerns or questions while connecting them to the bigger picture, discussing the higher purpose of your work and the common vision for the future.
Working from home does not mean losing a sense of belonging. Check in regularly with those you work with and continue leading, even if it is from your couch.