Maintaining teamwork tops the key concerns for executives as they grapple with whether employees should work remotely or go back to offices.
Building a strong company culture, keeping employees productive and happily engaged is more challenging than ever with a distributed workforce.
“How do you keep the team intact? How do you ensure the teams are engaged and that you are not losing track of people? As the CEO, these are the questions that are on top of my mind and that of the entire executive team,” says Kariuki Ngari, CEO at Standard Chartered Bank of Kenya.
The bank had invested heavily in digital tools to serve clients. But when Covid-19 struck, it brought in a new need: investing in remote working and finding ways to keep the team intact.
For John Musunga, joining Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL) as managing director in the middle of the pandemic has meant that there are members of his team he may have to wait longer to meet them physically.
He says that it is not the perfect way to start but the use of virtual engagements such as Zoom calls has filled part of the gap. But the longing to physically meet people remains.
“That for a leader is not easy because you are coming to a business and you are not seeing faces. That is not easy since part of being a leader is connecting with people and engaging them. Technology is trying to bridge this gap,” says Mr Musunga.
And now companies are getting creative to reduce the feeling of disconnection and isolation among remote team members, many who used to draw motivation from being by their coworkers.
Bamburi Cement managing director Seddiq Hassani says the firm started remote working in March last year and one of the key challenges especially early months was keeping workers’ energy levels high.
“From time to time, there was a lack of interaction among colleagues. We have had to introduce ways of engaging employees remotely so as not to lose teamwork and organisation culture,” says Mr Hassani.
He adds that remote working calls for an increased need for executives to update employees about the business and the welfare of their colleagues.
Bamburi, for instance, organises events such as virtual coffee or virtual cake cutting where informal interactions are encouraged. The cement maker also organises weekly virtual meetings where external speakers are invited to talk to workers on topics such as parenting.
However, Mr Hassani acknowledges that remotely orienting a new employee into the organisation so that they become part of the team is not easy.
“It is not easy. We have someone we hired in July last year. During the first six months, she didn’t meet physically with anyone and we had to rely on virtual interactions. It is not the best way to onboard someone even though she has eventually integrated with the team,” said Mr Hassani.
While many firms had invested heavily in digital tools for serving customers, they still envisioned an environment where workers will be physically present.
StanChart Bank, for instance, had to invest in laptops for all the staff who needed to work from home, and pick on a secure digital communication platform. By June last year, nearly 70 percent of the staff were working remotely.
But with a return to office dragging due to fresh waves of Covid-19, Mr Ngari says new ways of engaging employees had to be found.
“Departments have come up with ways of engaging. There is always something happening from Wednesday to Friday. For example, on Fridays we organise virtual informal engagements called ‘Sunrisers’,” says Mr Ngari.
Every Thursday the bank engages staff on issues such as mental health and financial management.