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How to build team spirit and morale with limited social and physical interaction

Advice and top tips

How to build team spirit and morale with limited social and physical interaction

We may have joyously – but quietly – cheered in 2021 but the challenges that we have faced in 2020 have not been shed or left behind with the dawning of a new year.

The last 10 months have been tumultuous, with companies across the country – and indeed the world – having to grapple with a new way of working.

The mass home-working directive proved a steep learning curve for all but many employers and employees adapted quickly in this period of disruption, and the transition to new working practices was smoother than expected.

Indeed, many companies adapted so well that they are preparing for a permanent reshaping of business operations, with home working expected to become the norm rather than a temporary trend.

Any period of change comes with its challenges, and one of the key hurdles businesses are faced with in the new age of home working is employee isolation and the associated low morale.

When it comes to worker wellbeing, efforts have traditionally been concentrated on improving physical and mental health, but as the impact of social isolation has become more widely known, understood, and keenly felt, the onus is slowly shifting to making provisions for social wellbeing too.

Social isolation is a key modern-day workplace issue, exacerbated by the rise in the flexible, remote and virtual working, the gig economy, and the increase in the number of working caregivers, and the current climate only serves to compound this problem.

All too often, mid-morning coffee breaks, canteen catch-ups and a chat with a neighbouring colleague is undervalued and the benefits overlooked.  The omission of simple human interaction can have a profound effect on employees and efforts to replicate such connection through virtual means, though well-intentioned, may prove fruitless, if not conducted in the right way.

If employees do not have a sense of belonging, or feel on the fringe, their output may not only be affected, but their overall wellbeing too.

By creating a supportive environment, where employees can successfully foster social connections and maintain meaningful relationships, companies can ensure they are on a more holistic route to wellbeing and begin to forge a physically thriving, emotionally balanced and socially connected workforce.

Making social wellbeing a priority

Promoting social wellbeing is a mutually beneficial pursuit.  Whilst employees enjoy a greater sense of belonging, and feel more emotionally supported and appreciated, employers benefit from a motivated, loyal, productive and socially cohesive workforce.

Indeed, there is growing recognition of the importance of social wellbeing amongst businesses.

According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2020 COVID-19 Benefits Survey, improving social connections was one of the top benefits priorities for businesses, cited by almost one quarter (23 per cent) of UK companies.

This was undoubtedly accelerated by the pandemic, but there was certainly appetite to enhance social wellbeing before the coronavirus outbreak.

In Willis Towers Watson’s Benefits Trends Survey 2019, more than one third (35 per cent) of UK companies said that social wellbeing was an emerging focus for their business.

Furthermore, 88 per cent of businesses said they will focus on strategies to build a culture of inclusion and wellbeing in the workplace that encourages a supportive work environment over the coming years – a rise from the current 57 per cent.

In order to effectively incorporate social wellbeing into a wellness strategy, it must be seen as a key priority, on a par with physical and mental wellbeing, rather than being viewed as a ‘nice to have’, non-essential or temporary ‘fix’.

As well as working to gain board level support for social wellbeing initiatives, companies can underline their commitment by leveraging employee communications, for example, the active promotion of buddy schemes and virtual coffee mornings.

Tapping into technology to stay connected

Technology has been a key player in staying connected during the pandemic – both professionally and socially – and it would be prudent of businesses to continue to take full advantage of these platforms.

According to the WTW COVID-19 Benefits Survey, 92 per cent of UK businesses increased access to videoconferencing, to allow for virtual meetings to keep employees connected around work after the pandemic hit.

Regular team meetings are not only a practical means of managing workflow, but can help employees feel a sense of shared endeavour and comradery.  As well as being an opportunity to catch-up, these meetings can be a platform for sharing success stories and celebrating company-wide, team or individual achievements and milestones.

For many employees, the workplace is where they get most of their social interaction, so companies should ensure that their communications with employees are not just task-focused.

Social catch-ups and virtual activities, such as coffee mornings, ‘cake-offs’, quizzes, and charity fundraisers, can help boost morale, lift spirits and evoke a sense of inclusion.

Indeed, the COVID-19 survey found that 70 per cent of UK companies had fostered opportunities for employees to connect for non-work purposes, as a result of the pandemic.

For CSR activity, companies can put the choice into the hands of the workers and build social distancing-adherent volunteering opportunities around causes their employees feel passionate about, be it telephone befriending services for older people or virtual mentor schemes.

Linking with wider wellbeing

In order to effectively ward off feelings of isolation and boost social cohesiveness, it is important to recognise how social wellbeing fits into the wider wellbeing picture.

With the right strategy in place, companies can take a multi-faceted approach to wellbeing, which incorporates all elements.

From a physical health perspective, for some workers, lockdown will have inspired them to become fitter and healthier, whereas, for others, the change in routine will have had a negative impact on physical fitness, with their normal routine interrupted by gyms and studio closures.

Arming employees with regular, practical, encouraging knowledge can help give them the start they need to get their activity levels up, adapt to their situation, and avoid getting ‘stuck in a rut’.

By incorporating gamification into physical wellbeing strategies, companies can also boost comradery and engagement amongst employees.  This could include an employee-led support group, or ‘fitness forum’, where employees can swap tips on different types of exercises, run league tables and share their successes.

Sharing healthy recipes with employees, and encouraging employees to do the same, can help encourage good nutrition, bring colleagues together, as well as keep them distracted during isolation.

Emotional wellbeing is another consideration.

Employees are at risk of feeling “out of sight, out of mind” when isolated from their peers and managers for extended periods of time, so ensuring they feel counted and included is important.

Regular check-ins and wellbeing surveys can help companies gauge anxiety and stress levels on an individual, team and company-wide basis, as well as reinforce their commitment to employee emotional wellbeing.

Encouragingly, over a quarter (28 per cent) of employers have taken action to measure employee anxiety during the pandemic, with a further 47 per cent planning or considering this action, according to the COVID-19 survey.

As well as offering enhanced access to tech-focused mental health support, such as health apps, online support forums, wellbeing webinars, and mindfulness tools, businesses could look at adapting their Mental Health First Aid support, so that volunteers can offer remote sessions to their peers and colleagues can benefit from peer support.

Employees may have a preferred medium, so offering different ways for colleagues to connect, such as instant messaging, video, telephone or email, may help to boost engagement and encourage openness.

Companies are recognising the importance of bolstering peer relationships, with 46 per cent of UK companies saying that they are promoting employee groups, champions, and networks to encourage employee discussions among those with common interests or situation, as a result of the pandemic.

A nudge in the right direction

Although technology proved to be a blessing during the trying times of late, facilitating the somewhat seamless transition to home working and supporting social connection, companies should be wary of the disadvantages – namely digital fatigue.

Enhanced dependence on technology has created a culture where employees are always ‘one-click-away’ and the line between the work day and down time can become blurred.

Companies should take care not to overwhelm employees with a constant stream of video calls, whether it be for professional or social means, and reinforce the importance of finding balance between their work and private life.

When it comes to encouraging social connection, rather than try to coerce employees into ‘forced fun’, employers should instead aim to create a supportive, empathetic and mutually respective culture, in which employees can bond naturally, on their own terms.

In essence, employers should give employees the tools to build connections, rather than instruct them on how to do so.

Asking for feedback, analysing receptiveness to initiatives, and measuring engagement with different activities will give companies a full picture of what works and what doesn’t.

Whilst participation should be encouraged, it should be made clear that initiatives and activities are not obligatory.  By building social wellbeing strategy around people’s shared interests and passions though, the likelihood of disengagement is greatly reduced.

It is important that companies remember that these are unprecedented times and a great deal of flexibility will be needed in order to effectively adapt to the changing needs of the workforce – wherever they should be based.

But by choosing to see social wellbeing as a fundamental component of wellbeing strategies, and taking the appropriate action to support a more socially connected workforce, companies can be assured that they will be better placed to weather the storm and emerge with a healthy, cohesive and resilient employee base.