Today’s public sector work culture is drastically different than it was just a year and a half ago. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations have adopted a hybrid work environment where employees split time between working from home and at the office.
Now that virtual are workspaces becoming just as common as physical ones, many public sector employers are faced with a novel challenge: how can organizations foster connection when employees are not meeting face-to-face in the office anymore? And what happens to work culture when employees can't physically meet and chat around the coffee machine anymore?
Before exploring how organizations can maintain connections among employees, it's important to discuss why socialization is an asset in the workplace.
Socialization is important to employees for several reasons. When employees learn more about their colleagues, it strengthens trust and builds rapport. For many people, general small talk energizes them. Small talk also puts employees at ease and helps them transition to more serious subjects such as job interviews, performance evaluations, negotiations and more. One survey of adults working full-time illustrated that for many, small talk distracts them from problems in their life and is uplifting. These employees felt positive and less burned out after engaging in small talk.
Clearly, small talk is important for employee morale. So, how are organizations fostering this connection in the time of COVID?
COVID-19 negatively impacted employee morale for many reasons. People were scared of getting the virus. Some employees struggled to care for sick loved ones, while others experienced burnout while balancing child care responsibilities with their work responsibilities. The absence of in-office opportunities to connect and socialize also took an additional toll on employee morale.
Now organizations have started using a variety of solutions, including virtual water coolers and sharing stories, to help re-establish the personal conversations people had before the pandemic and improve employee morale during COVID.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is an expert on the “loneliness epidemic” that all Americans have experienced since the COVID-19 pandemic started. He explained the importance of social connections and how they affect our physical and mental health. Using these insights, Murthy developed an exercise for his employees called the “Inside Scoop.” Here, people share something about themselves, such as a personal story, interest or hobby using photos at the beginning of their weekly staff meetings.
They saw immediate results: people felt seen and more valued because of their colleagues’ genuine interest and reactions to what they shared. Every staff member reported how connected they felt with their colleagues as a result. Team members work well together when they feel connected. Fostering that connection enhances workplace culture and can lead to better productivity.
Previously people met in rec rooms, snack rooms and at the water cooler to chat about daily life, but remote work has eliminated these types of casual meetings. This lack of spontaneous socialization is causing employees to suffer emotionally. Now, human resource managers are using virtual water coolers to help bolster the public sector work culture and encourage collaboration, thus keeping employees working remotely happier.
Some organizations pair employees together for minute chats or create virtual lounges in Teamwork or Slack. Others are building in time at the beginning of meetings for employees and managers to greet each other, ask fun questions and engage in pleasantries.
A recent study showed that teams using these tactics were flourishing in virtual environments. Those happy teams scheduled social meetings, movie clubs and even shared book recommendations and music playlists.
Learning how to assess employee morale is tricky in a hybrid work environment. Fortunately, there are helpful tools available that help track morale such as Culture Amp, RoundPegg, TINYPulse and OfficeVibe. You can also use employee satisfaction surveys to assess employee morale. Here are some tips on fostering a better connection among employees.
Create social events that employees actually look forward to instead of routine video and conference calls. Add in fun quizzes or virtual team-building activities. Finding ways to meet virtually helps create a great work culture.
Take some time to let team members share what’s going on in their personal and professional lives. One clever CEO had each employee send in a baby picture of themselves. Then he shares one at the beginning of each meeting and asks everyone to guess who it is.
You want to make sure people are happy to come to work, whether they're working in a virtual or physical workspace. Without non-verbal, in-person cues, people can sometimes misunderstand each other. It’s important not to rush to judgment. Leaders can foster a supportive environment where they encourage people to ask questions and lead with curiosity.
Working remotely has its ups and downs, but the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that team members can work as efficiently virtually as they can in person. Now, organizations in the public sector are learning to be creative with solutions that better foster connections between all staff, regardless of the workplace setting.
CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country. Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients. We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.