Culture, collaboration, and water coolers; the virtual office revolution

Man in a suit sitting with a headset and working on the laptop.

In your organization, is there anything more important than having engaged, connected, happy people?

From March 2020 to, well—now for most of us, the company focus has been stabilization. Maintaining profitability during a monumental upheaval, keeping our people connected and productive, and monitoring the effects of this unprecedented time.

We’ve managed to create ‘business as usual’ virtually, everywhere. Now that we’re stable, the focus is shifting to the long-term optimization of virtual and hybrid workforces. How do we reinvent the culture and collaboration that’s been lost? First, you have to understand the needs of your people. Then, you need to rebuild for those needs—virtually.

Employees are Diverse in Their Age, Needs, and Preferences

Organizations today employ 3 to 4 different generations, representing a huge variety of learned behaviors, technology preferences, and work styles. This wide range of people presents complex scenarios that businesses need to understand in order to respond with solutions to support their work needs. The study of these generations within business settings gives us insights into what they need to thrive.

Gen Z: The newest addition to the workforce

Possibly the youngest generation to enter the workforce, many Gen Z employees are opting out of college for a variety of on-the-job experiences instead of accruing student loan debt. Gen Z is defined by their independence, competitive nature, and tendency to be very pragmatic. They thrive with exposure to new experiences and crave ample opportunities to upskill, prove their abilities, and grow into new opportunities quickly.

As the first true digital natives, it was likely your Gen Z employees who most quickly adapted to quarantined work scenarios—they’re driven and resourceful in finding answers and solving problems. Gen Z cares greatly about their work making a difference but equally important to them are the rewards of working hard: gains in their position and salary, flexibility in their work schedule, and trust from leaders to own more.

Takeaway: If Gen Z doesn’t feel seen (valuable), heard (opportunity), or connected (culture), they are quick to find a new gig to fulfill those needs.

Gen Y: The notable millennial mindset

Representing 35% of today’s active workforce and a projected 75% of the working population by 2025, millennials have an amplified presence within many organizations. The American Gen Y population is collaborative, idealistic, and yet—notably unengaged. Millennials thrive when working within teams and connecting with the greater goals of the organization. With hardworking and passionate dispositions, this generation requires challenging and meaningful work to stay engaged—and stay with you.

Shifting to remote work was a non-issue for Gen Y, and they were likely the people who put additional effort into staying connected amidst the pandemic. Millennials began to feel the pinch as the months dragged on without tangible collaboration and personal development. With a lack of clarity around their growth opportunities and a lack of engagement with their teammates, Gen Y accounts for at least 25% of ‘The Great Resignation’ thus far.

Takeaway: If Gen Y isn’t consistently challenged and engaged, their efforts will shift to opportunities with organizations who can offer that excitement and substance.

Gen X: The loyal backbone of the labor force

Gen Xers embody the entrepreneurial and loyal nature that businesses need and appreciate, especially in times like these. As dedicated employees, Gen X has put in the time and effort to navigate the technology advances that have transpired during their careers, and they’ve used their ingenuity to bridge the gap between Boomers and Millennials. Currently though, the Gen X population is underappreciated for the critical roles they play in the workplace.

With tendencies toward independence and work-life balance, and as the generation in the midst of raising kids and managing aging parents, the Gen X labor force are reported to have had a very different experience during the lockdown. They gained flexibility to accommodate their busy lives but lost visibility and growth opportunities at a critical point in their career. As the experienced demographic of many companies, Gen Xers carry a heavy responsibility load but often see less appreciation and professional gain for this security.

Takeaway: If the overwhelm of Gen Xers is ignored, and they are continually relied upon to develop younger generations without appropriate support to develop themselves and advance in leadership, they will retract their loyalty in favor of companies who will invest in their experience.

Man working on laptop

2020-2021 Stats of the Negative Effects from Remote Working

95% of Gen Z + 93% of Millennials reported difficulty working from home, citing an absence of opportunity to watch, listen, and learn. What are the specific difficulties referenced?

  • The 2 primary reported feelings are: less connected and less informed.
  • They’re talking about missing the institutional knowledge and emotional intelligence of Gen X and Boomers.
  • New employees—those onboarding in remote settings—share that they feel like an outsider or a ‘new guy,’ for much longer than expected.

61% of Gen Z + 57% of Millennials report productivity issues related to too much time on video calls. Only 35% of Gen X + 26% of Baby Boomers say the same. Interestingly, there is a huge disparity across these generations and the use of email versus messaging apps vs video calls for status updates. It’s something that needs to be structured and dialed in for long-term efficiency gains.

For Gen X, the remote shift supported their need for work-life balance. Gen Z views this flexibility more as work-life integration. Get comfortable with this—it’s only growing in importance.

74% of actively disengaged workers are actively looking for jobs or are watching for job openings. The same behavior for non-engaged employees is 55% +  30% of engaged employees. Gallup cites the following as key to increasing engagement in younger workers:

  • highly skilled managers who set clear expectations
  • staying in touch with each person through meaningful weekly conversations, and
  • maintaining high accountability through structured processes.

All of the current research is putting a spotlight on the permanent need for intentional connectivity—both spontaneous and structured.

Addressing Our Employee Engagement Problem

Taking care of the whole person is, in part, the responsibility of an employer. If we spend over 60% of our time working, that responsibility is appropriately placed—especially if you are serious about increasing satisfaction and retention in your company. The approach to caring for your diverse workforce should include a mixture of customized and standard support mechanisms.

Building a high-trust culture is all about creating opportunities for connection through deliberate or spontaneous collaboration and communication. Transparency is essential to company culture, and leaders need to enable this through the right processes and channels. Scheduling time to build relationships within your team is just as important as scheduling time to work.

Employee engagement = the level of an employee’s emotional involvement + a commitment to the organization (and its goals) = the driving force behind employee performance.

Start fresh with your new hires. Anything that will speed up the onboarding curve and support ongoing relationship building is going to be a worthy investment. Consider also that turnover affects your current staff as well: they’ve lost a close work relationship, they may carry a heavier workload while there is a gap in the team, and they benefit and heal from also building new relationships and talking candidly with others.

From the beginning of onboarding a new employee, all the way to full productivity (read: about 6 months), the presence of frequent and unscheduled access to managers, colleagues, and executives is essential. This means recreating virtually some of the office flow that originally provided these interactions: water cooler conversations, virtual co-working spaces, and high availability with figurative open doors. Inclusion is needed with remote working, but it has to be natural rather than forced in order to build collaboration and efficiency at the same time.

It’s worth figuring out what will work for your people.

  • Gallup finds that companies with a high level of engagement report 22% higher profitability, 21% higher productivity, and up to 65% less turnover.
  • Harvard did an interesting study and concluded those who are actively engaged in ‘water cooler’ discussions were significantly more likely to be productive sooner with greater results and their job satisfaction was extremely high.
  • 70% of employees say that having a friend at work is the most crucial element to a happy work life. What’s more, 50% of employees with a best friend at work reported feeling a stronger connection to their organization.

Enhancing Creativity and Innovation Virtually

The creative and innovative strengths of an organization have always been somewhat fragile. These two contributors to success can wax and wane in response to a variety of changes. It’s not surprising that studies during the pandemic shut down show a hefty decline in creativity and innovation. As a byproduct of organic and unstructured interaction and exploration, creative and innovative ideas will suffer when people are isolated.

The Microsoft Remote Work Study During Covid-19

A large-scale natural experiment was set up at Microsoft during their mandatory remote work phase of the pandemic.The internal data from calendars, emails, instant messages, virtual meetings, and feedback mechanisms gave Microsoft ample data to clearly evaluate the effects of fully remote work.

The Journal of Nature and Human Behaviour evaluated the data collected from the communication practices of 61,182 US Microsoft employees from December 2019 (before mandated remote work) to June 2020 (after 3 months of mandated remote work). The measured behaviors were frustrating:

  • remote work caused employees to communicate more through asynchronous media options—sending more emails and many more IMs
  • remote work caused the patterns of communication to become more static, or siloed, and less stable
  • and people favored collaborating more with their strong ties as opposed to their weak ties

Combined, these types of effects make it harder for employees to acquire new information and effectively share information across the organization. Silos in the office were already detrimental to creativity, innovation, and productivity—so what happens if we can’t solve for this in the virtual work environment?

Ways to Foster Creativity and Innovation in Remote Work Structures

The name of the game is connectivity and flexibility. Just as with engagement, building a culture of  inclusion and fostering an impromptu dynamic will help create an ideal virtual setting for creativity and innovation. This is where new technologies that recreate living office environments really stand out.

Rebuild a department in the cloud where creativity used to spawn and enjoy real-time collaborations that used to ground our day. Reclaim the buzz of conversations like this:

Justin: “Hey Haley, quick question…”

Haley: “What’s up—”

Justin: “Do you want to make edit suggestions on that new brand video from creative first? Or do you want to review it with the team?”

Haley: “Mmmm…. I want to hear everyone’s initial reactions. Set up a time for us?”

Justin: “Cool, I’ll set it up for this afternoon.”

A study led by the coworking space brand WeWork provides employee commentary on the benefits of a physical office space:

  • collaboration and enhanced creativity
  • opportunities to socialize
  • on-site resources, and
  • quiet spaces to retreat to.

Aim for transparency and visibility into what is going on across the business. With a robust virtual office solution, you can see who is where at any given moment. Find someone in your hive to see if it might be a good time for a quick chat. Or poke your head in a room where a few teammates are gathered to give them a quick update you just got on a project.

Business meeting. People around the office desk. Standing man presenting report.

Productivity Through Structured Collaboration

Many research-based articles of late report that while individual productivity has increased, the overall productivity of organizations has fallen since the pandemic. For Gen X, the remote shift supported their need for work-life balance and gave them total control in juggling work and life. Gen Z views this flexibility more as work-life integration and has shown that productivity is found in blurring the lines in ways that promote self-governance and accountability. You should get comfortable with this shift—it’s only growing in importance for the younger working populations.

Data from the aforementioned Microsoft study revealed that synchronous communications decreased overall: in-person collaborations dropped to zero; as well as audio, video, and even across Microsoft Teams. While Gen Z and Millennials are more used to getting work done independently better than Gen X and Boomers, it’s those two more experienced generations that have a solid foundation of working together, sharing institutional knowledge, and seeking out mentoring opportunities—all essential functions of productivity.

Pro tip: Take this dynamic scenario and use it to your advantage! Build your virtual infrastructure to support activities that will initiate cross-generational learning in your organization.

It All Ties Back to Employee Satisfaction and Retention

Studies have found that career wellbeing is the foundation for improving other elements of wellbeing: social, financial, physical and community. If serious attention to the wellbeing of our labor force was prioritized we could predict nearly 2x increases in the national employee engagement percentage. Take a moment to imagine what profound and positive effects this could have—for your people and your profitability.

Companies who focus on blending their multi-generational teams in ways that support natural collaboration, creativity, and productivity will also win in their quest to reinstate a strong culture and satisfied employees who stick around longer.

About MyHive

Co-Founded by Dano Ybarra, serial entrepreneur, author, and Apple and Adobe veteran.

“As CEO of MyHive, we have created a permanent solution for remote connectivity. We believe you can operate a remote business and still have a home base—it just lives in the cloud and costs a lot less than real estate.”

MyHive provides a way to recreate the positive office dynamics in a virtual space, helping you mitigate the negative effects of remote work. Our mission is to humanize the digital workplace—and every feature is focused on rebuilding what was physically lost in the rapid shift to remote.

If you’re curious to see what a buzzing, virtual office might look like for your organization, get in touch with us at MyHive.