Missing the water-cooler skinder? Worry not, help is at hand

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Missing the water-cooler skinder? Worry not, help is at hand

Office culture has taken a knock, but experts believe technology could be a saving grace amid Covid-19

Senior reporter
Covid-19 has changed the face of office culture and employee bonds, but they can be maintained through technology, say experts.
Remotely bonded Covid-19 has changed the face of office culture and employee bonds, but they can be maintained through technology, say experts.
Image: AFP

With SA’s mandatory lockdown in full-swing, Monday meetups, Friday post-work get-togethers and banter at the water cooler have become distant memories as companies with sizeable remote workforces hit their keyboards from home.

Workplace experts have warned that the gravest threat from remote work is that it could break social bonds, but they are hopeful technology can be used to ensure office culture is maintained, albeit virtually.

Bryan Hattingh, founder of Johannesburg-based exponential leadership firm Cycan, believes “the immediate concern despite the ostensible freedoms of remote working is that employees could quickly feel ‘excluded’ from the company’s culture”.

“Remote teams have been a reality before reality hit home on the back of a public health crisis. But for many employees, doing this en masse and suddenly is a stressful experiment.”

He believes a good opportunity to create culture over distance is to leverage shared interests and group people together.

“There are a number of off-the-shelf digital coaching programs that enable employees to deliver their best working remotely.

Hangouts at the office have temporarily become a thing of the past.
GOOD OL' DAYS Hangouts at the office have temporarily become a thing of the past.
Image: Supplied

“Workplace collaboration technology is quite advanced and, implemented well, will make employees feel as if they are participating at work and connected.

“The lockdown is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for leaders to engage leadership archetypes which are predominantly transformational and collaborative, rather than command and control.

“This will enable them to continue galvanising their teams and inculcating self-determination and accountability within each of the members,” said Hattingh.

“While it is true that the social bonds that occur naturally in an office environment stand to be compromised when working remotely, it is also true that humans are social beings and bonds don’t easily diminish because of distance.”

According to Hattingh, technology has leapfrogged to such an extent that you can have “social sundowners” with friends across time zones without leaving your home.

The immediate concern despite the ostensible freedoms of remote working is that employees could quickly feel ‘excluded’ from the company’s culture.
Brian Hattingh

“As a willing participant in the remote working experiment, you have invariably reached out to friends you haven’t met in years, reconnected with old acquaintances that you had put off because of lack of time.

“The more things change the more they stay the same, so even with technology evolving rapidly, it will only contribute to making social bonds even stronger. 

“In this chaos and crisis, people are already putting that much more effort into maintaining relationships and bonds. Of course, there are limitations — with having drinks over Zoom you won’t  be able to hug, but right now in the era of social distancing, you can’t do that anyway,” said Hattingh.  

Luca Gallarelli, head of TBWA South Africa, an advertising and creative collective, said as much as the Covid-19 pandemic tested human resilience, it also tested the values companies claim to hold dear.

“If the company is emotionally and socially invested in the employees and clients, retaining and managing company culture, and employee and client experience, becomes a clear priority, even in dizzying and daunting times.

“Our people and their safety is core to our workplace culture and we made it mandatory to work remotely long before the national lockdown, suspended all travel, client meetings and other social gatherings.”

The “social” aspect was incorporated using Microsoft Teams which serves as the boardroom and space for “water-cooler” conversations.

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