Make the Personal Connection in the New World of Virtual Work

Trainers know how to create learning environments that focus on the emotional side of organizations to help create connection, empathy, and talent development in support of individual and organizational performance in this new world of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive and rapid shift to remote work and a transformational move from face-to-face to virtual leadership. The need to stay home to stay safe has created an unalterable force driving fundamental changes in the way people work together, how they are managed, and how they do their work.

Recent articles from two major consulting organizations capture the enormous impact of these changes on the workplace. McKinsey has been studying the increasing pace of organizational evolution for the last five years, but its article, “The Post-Pandemic Organization,” describes the Coronavirus pandemic as a pivotal event that has made those changes occur through transformation, rather than evolution. A recent BCG article, “Sensing and Shaping the Post-COVID Era,” drives home this point: “History shows that such changes are not always temporary—crises can fundamentally reshape our beliefs and behaviors. How then can companies prepare for a post-crisis world, rather than hunkering down and waiting for a return to the past?”

New skills are necessary in order to perform existing jobs as they evolve. Then there are the new jobs that are being invented as the nature of business changes. McKinsey, in its report, “The future of work in America: People and places, today and tomorrow,” notes that “millions of jobs could be phased out even as new ones are created. More broadly, the day-to-day nature of work could change for nearly everyone as intelligent machines become fixtures in the American workplace.”

The Missing Piece

The future is frightening. The literature is filled with advice on what needs to be done. There is a focus on digital transformation, upskilling and reskilling, use of artificial intelligence, and myriad approaches to resetting an organization’s strategic direction.

But the review of the literature also reveals that something is missing: the personal connection.

The latest research from Raghu Krishnamoorthy at Wharton provides an important insight into this missing piece. His work highlights the importance to employees of “checking in and trust.” This need is in contrast to managers whose primary focus is on “performance and goals.” Employees desire emotional connection, while their leaders focus on output and productivity.

This insight highlights the key importance of managing, leading, and accessing the talent necessary for competitive success. It means that making the right strategic decisions is not sufficient for successful organizational performance. The human factors remain critical.

Our new world of virtual/remote work enables autonomy and a great deal of self-determination. But it also creates isolation. And isolation eventually will reduce productivity and employee engagement, and will increase turnover because there is no emotional connection to the employer or to professional colleagues. Elsa Strong, in a November 2020 Training magazine article about virtual teams, notes that “without the regular in-person contact with their managers and other colleagues, they can begin to lose their sense of belonging and passion for the team and the broader organization.” Without engaging hearts, minds, and people’s connections with each other, organizations will not be able to continue to perform over the long term.

The Role of Training

So how do we build relationships when the structure of work seems to prevent the formation of connections? That is the area of investment that requires increased focus, but often is forgotten.

Training provides an answer.

In some ways, the role of training is the same as it has always been. The Training function provides a resource enabling the organization to realize/uncover and communicate its strategy, reinforce the culture that will enable the organization to achieve that strategy, and help people develop the knowledge and skills so that individuals and the organization can be successful. The methodologies to accomplish this purpose will evolve, and the use of sophisticated technologies will expand. But what cannot be forgotten in the quest for performance, efficiency, and redeployment of resources is the necessity for empathy and the human connection in today’s remote/digital world.

Trainers play a critical role in this transformation of the workplace because they are uniquely positioned to help people and organizations learn how to respond to these new challenges. Trainers know how to create learning environments that focus on the emotional side of organizations to help create connection, empathy, and talent development in support of individual and organizational performance in this new world of work.

Ross Tartell, Ph.D., is currently adjunct associate professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University. Dr. Tartell also consults in the areas of learning and development, talent planning, and organization development. He received his M.B.A. in Management and his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Columbia University. He formerly served as Technical Training and Communications manager – North America at GE Capital Real Estate.