Building A Team Of Remote Workers Without Them Feeling Isolated

Sensée hosted a webinar on October 10th titled: “What’s the business case for 100% back-in-the-office?” The session was chaired by CX analyst and CX Files podcast host Mark Hillary. The panel featured Stephen Loynd, founder of analyst firm TrendzOwl, and Dan Philp, Service Delivery Director at Sensée.

The discussion was wide ranging – as you might expect. Stephen and Dan concluded that there is a stronger business case for flexibility rather than a 100% return to the office, but they also talked about some of the challenges that corporate leaders face as they try to create a new hybrid – or work-from-home (WFH) – future.

One important question focused on the practicalities of team building with remote team members. Clearly a customer service team that is all collected together inside a single contact centre can be managed as a team because they are physically located together. This isn’t true with remote workers, so how does it work and what are some of the negative consequences – such as mental health problems?

Dan talked about the LiveDesk tool that is used inside Sensée. He said: “LiveDesk is effectively our virtual floor. Every agent on every account is required to log into LiveDesk every day. This is where they can ask support questions and we have floor walking supervisors in there – it is where everybody goes to interact.”

He added: “When everybody is working remotely, you can have a team member in Aberdeen working alongside someone in Cornwall. It’s important that they can engage on a daily basis so they become a real team.”

Stephen commented that he has been writing about and exploring this question for almost two decades now. He said: “Mental health for people working from home was an important issue for business process outsourcing companies back in the mid-2000s. It was clear that only a minority of people really thrived on the isolation of working from home – most people would have some mental health issues unless there was a strategy to address this.”

He then added an interesting point from the recent debate about getting contact centre employees back into the office. He said: “One of the recent arguments employees have been using in their fight for the right to remain working remotely is that they feel their mental health will be negatively impacted if they are forced to return into a contact centre.”

This is an interesting observation. Reducing the flexibility to work from home is now a larger driver of mental health concerns than the earlier issues over isolation and workers not feeling like they are part of a team.

In many ways, the LiveDesk system Dan described addresses many of the problems of isolation. Team members are logged into a platform and this becomes a virtual office. They can see each other in this space, ask questions, talk to a manager, and even socialise and just talk about their weekend. They may be sitting alone at home, but they are actively participating in teamwork on the platform.

This type of platform, or virtual office, reflects a wider change. The key themes in the 2022 Microsoft New Future Of Work Report demonstrate that work has changed dramatically in the past few years. The research draw conclusions along these lines:

  • The Hybrid Work Era has begun: Employees strongly prefer hybrid work and employers are increasingly planning for a hybrid future 
  • New technologies are rapidly improving work: When and where work happens is in flux and co-evolving with the technology. We are seeing new hybrid meeting environments.
  • Improved practices can make work better now: Technology improvements may take time, but some changes don’t have to wait.
  • The definition of productivity is expanding: Organizations and employees are increasingly recognizing that wellbeing, the balance between work and life, inclusivity, and other aspects of the employee experience are important 

It’s important to note that the Microsoft research indicates that it is not just the location of work that is changing, it is also how people are interconnected. The ability to bring people into a team and to avoid the problems of isolation are dramatically increased now. Hybrid meeting environments and many new asynchronous communication tools (such as Slack) are creating highly immersive work environments that employees can participate in from home.

A meta-analysis of seven different UK mental health studies shows that there were very few problems early in the pandemic period. When working from home was a novel experience, very few people had a problem with it. More problems developed as time went on because the need to work from home was becoming normalised and yet in most cases there was no new platform or support – just a daily call.

The study did not find a major shift in reported mental health conditions after the restrictions were eased. This is an interesting insight because it shows that the pandemic restrictions did cause an increase in mental health issues, but if the levels did not change when restrictions were removed then perhaps it was not directly working from home that caused the problems – more research is needed on this point.

It is clear that companies need to support the team-building process and supply tools that can bring people together in shared tasks and goals. Without this support, it is very easy for remote workers to feel isolated and this is where health issues start.

The complete webinar discussion covered many different areas in addition to the question of how to build a team that is staffed only with remote team members. I have a recording of the full one-hour discussion that I can send to anyone on request – just contact me here.

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