Written by: Shalini Singh
About the author: Chief-Corporate Communications, Sustainability & CSR at Tata Power | Woman Director | TEDx Speaker | Passion for Social & Green Causes!
In a Pre-Covid world, we would not be talking about how integral virtual technology is to interpersonal communication. This is because earlier interpersonal communication was not completely dependent on virtual technology. Before Covid-19, only around 7% of U.S. employees regularly worked from home collaborating and connecting virtually. In Europe, most countries had only up to 10% of remote employees. Countries like Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark have comparatively had a much higher percentage of remote employees, of around 20%. However, in India, the concept of working from home and using virtual platforms has not been very popular. Cut to 2020, a Post-Covid world changed the entire story.
A paradigm shift
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 88% of the organizations have encouraged or required their employees to work from home and 91% of teams in the Asia Pacific have implemented ‘work from home’. In India, it was a wake-up call to businesses that have already been in the throes of digital transformation to consider further changes, empowered by a combination of commonly available tools and some custom solutions. Since the beginning, organisations have been resorting to various virtual platforms to ensure that they’re connected to their employees, keeping their morale high.
Some of the ways in which virtual technology has become important are through practices of using online platforms for informal engagement, virtual town halls and communications meet, web conferencing, virtual engagement activities on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, recreating virtual coffee breaks, rapid response to employee concerns, use of social media by top leadership to encourage Informal Engagement, Contests for higher engagement through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc, Virtual Team Celebrations. As meetings have moved to virtual platforms, there has been a sharp rise in daily virtual meeting participants on Zoom with 300 million being on the platform in March 2020 compared to a mere 10 million on December 2019. There has been a 265% increase in total minutes spent on Zoom in April 2020 compared to March. Here are a few ways in which the impact of all this is evident on interpersonal communication.
Impact on Interpersonal Communication
A lot of employees now say that the shift to virtual communication has worked better for interpersonal communication. It has increased efficiency and focus while decreasing negative repercussions in the form of ‘office drama’. The ease of remote interaction has also helped employees move beyond their close-knit circles. There is a reduction in prejudices and bias in the process of collaborating to get work done efficiently. As employees do not have to commute or attend physical meetings, they can be more productive at work, save time and interact with colleagues and family members more for a more balanced schedule.
In face-to-face meetings with multiple people, ‘gaze awareness’ conveys who is the current focus of the conversation, who is talking, and whose turn it is next. Regardless of the ‘on-focus’ state used in Zoom or Teams, we are still missing that layer of communication where we can see who is looking at whom, and what that might mean for the wider issue under the discussion. During a virtual communication, social cues might be missed leading to negative reactions, comments and criticisms which could ultimately result in a strained relationship. Since people don’t see other people who are working on unrelated projects, the communication is limited. Everyone begins to work in silos leading to a decrease in interpersonal interactions.
Steps for effective Virtual Interpersonal Communication
According to Global Workplace Analytics, 25 million to 30 million employees in the US will regularly work from home for the next two years. This number is five times the current rate and by 2028 one study estimates that 73% of all departments will have remote workers. Since productivity hasn’t been impacted, companies like TCS, Infosys and Tech Mahindra are considering work from home in the long run. This is why it is essential to ensure cohesion and camaraderie in the team through shared virtual experiences designed to boost employee morale and drive positive sentiments towards the organization. For example, banks in the USA have started adopting virtual happy hours – people getting a half-hour call once a week to just gossip about anything but work. There is also the new trend of hosting trivia or random surveys for someone new every week.
On the work front, leaders can break down existing office rules to standard virtual routines. For example, leaders can enforce participation in hosted virtual conferences through fun rules where each person speaks and then calls out a name, and then that person speaks up on the issue. Seminars, webinars as well as regular check-ins by leaders on the best-practices of collaborative working and virtually communicating can help lay new ground rules and adapt to existing culture. Once this becomes regular, it will encourage open feedback among employees. Leaders should constantly identify issues for remote agile teams and come up with solutions to create an open mindset towards the adoption of virtual communication and collaborative techniques.
Adapting to new normal key to success in future
If there is one thing this phase has proven that is adoption to the new normal might be for the greater good. If reports from McKinsey, Google and others are to be believed, there has been a smooth adoption of the professional transition fuelled by positive experiences in the personal space. Working from home has also given employees greater flexibility to balance chores and office work. Interactions between employees and their families have also increased leading to greater productivity. Individuals can pace their learning curve without affecting others due to the efficiency of remote work processes. On the organisation side, remote working has saved operating expenses to a great extent. In the ,long run, organisations that are adapting to the shift in expectations and new ‘normal’ working preferences, will clearly stand in good stead.