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Focus on People, Not Proximity

Reflecting on 2017 before it disappeared into the sunset, I found one common theme, professionally and personally: gratitude for the high-quality relationships I have in my life and the new ones developed last year.  

I’m both grateful and lucky to meet with clients in so many different places and to make friends around the globe. High-quality relationships are grounded in kindness, generosity, and compassion. In the professional world, there is a tendency to look at these qualities as “soft” or as a liability, but research is increasingly showing that positive emotions enhance performance and encourage resilience at work.  

With that in mind, and with the war for talent raging and real estate prices going up, virtual work is here to stay. As employers and HR leaders, this means that the most important thing to focus on going forward isn’t where people work. What’s important is focusing on the ‘’why” of work, the ways we work, and the most optimal platforms to do the work.  

Prior to the 2009 market crash, people were generally more apt to relocate for a job; workers followed their career trajectory to whatever city it took them to. Today, people have a greater focus on their life both personally and professionally. It can be more challenging for employees to uproot themselves and their families to start over—often compounded among young families and those caring for aging parents at the same time. Employees increasingly value themselves and their overall well-being and work/life balance, not just their jobs. 

The mindset for adapting to this is rooted in having trust in your employees that results in engagement and connectedness. It’s about creating increased connection through technology, but in a way that goes beyond current discussions about the effectiveness of various collaborative technology platforms. What are companies doing to build accountable and engaged virtual teams? Many have said that you can’t keep employees connected if they’re working virtually, but I don’t believe that’s true.  

In many companies, for example, there are remote employees who have worked together for many years, but who can count on their hands the number of times they’ve met in person. In spite of this, they’ve formed a strong connection and know each other beyond the names of each other’s children and the colleges they hope to attend. What’s building the trust, empathy, and connection between these employees also goes beyond mere technology. Working on deadlines and difficult projects—coworkers giving and receiving help when needed—these are the things that build connections, whether in person or virtually. When you focus on strengthening these connections among your talent in equal amounts as your P&L, your talent will drive your bottom line through increased innovation and productivity.   

Embracing the virtual team concept should be part of your focus on being agile, which in turn is driven by asking effective questions, being willing to experiment, and knowing how to fail fast. You have to stay agile, and—if your organization hasn’t already—you must catch up to the future of work. Agile leadership going forward goes well beyond making sure your talent all works in the same physical location. 

If you think about how many working relationships are built—with colleagues, clients, or industry contacts, for example—they’re built by phone, text, email, and now video communication. You might meet peers in your industry at a conference once each year, for instance, but for the most part you’re communicating through devices. Still, strong relationships are being built.  

Developing productive, collaborative, and innovative virtual teams is not without its hurdles. Employees have to feel they are aligned with the organization’s mission and purpose and that they are integrated in the organization’s culture in order to be truly engaged and thriving in their work. Also, with more conversations regarding the loneliness epidemic in our society, it is more important than ever to help employees feel a sense of belonging at work and in their communities. Bringing virtual teams together a few times a year can augment this sense of belonging.  

For HR to truly transition to being about the company’s people, culture, and purpose—and all of the things that we call next practices—CHROs must focus on helping virtual team members find their sense of belonging with their co-workers and within the organization. They must model and design a culture that supports connection for all employees, including their virtual teams. In the end, it’s about focusing on your people, as opposed to proximity.

Cher Murphy is the former Chief Talent Officer at i4cp and former manager of i4cp Executive Search.

Read more 2018 talent predictions.