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Connecting employees during physical distancing

In an effort to slow the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19), many organisations have some or all of their employees working from home for extended periods.

State and Federal governments in Australia are signalling that shutdown of schools and government offices could continue depending on how the virus behaves, while Australian employers are preparing for a prolonged period of enforced remote working in some states.

Social or physical distancing, the not-very-nice-sounding technique of minimising person-to-person contact, could be the key to containing the virus, but what does it mean for our mental wellbeing?

Connection is key

Workforces rely on connection to thrive. SuperFriend’s annual Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Survey, Australia’s largest workplace mental health survey, has consistently found that positive, high quality interpersonal interactions are essential to maintaining good mental health and wellbeing. Connection is the glue that enables effective teamwork and unites teams around a common purpose through meaningful work.

Among SuperFriend’s five domains of workplace mental health – leadership, connectedness, policy, capability and culture – workplace connectedness receives the highest ratings each year by Australian workers. It’s something Australian workplaces do relatively well.

But what if everyone stopped going to work?

Quality over quantity

Technology allows many of us to work remotely – most offices can reliably access emails, calendars, file servers and video conferencing software from home.

The downside is the potential loss of workplace connection and collaboration with colleagues. When people work in mentally healthy environments, they typically feel more valued and willing to contribute to the organisation, and are able to bring their best selves to work. They report higher productivity, lower absenteeism and a higher intention to remain with their employer – all are contributors to the bottom line.

Finding ways to maintain this connection is critical, particularly when stress levels are higher due to health concerns.

Some simple and practical activities to foster connection in a remote workforce include:

  • Actively utilising communication channels such as Teams or Slack, with different conversation threads on each topic
  • ‘Virtual’ team birthday or other celebrations with BYO cake
  • Message boards where team members can recognise a colleague who has gone above and beyond to help others
  • Hold a video quiz or virtual scavenger hunt
  • Run an online step count or other activity challenge to raise money for charity
  • ‘Coffee roulette’ where team members are randomly matched to share a coffee over video

The art of the check-in

These activities can boost morale, but nothing can replace the care of a co-worker or supervisor. Heightened health concerns, combined with social isolation, increase the need for supervisors to check in regularly with employees.

Research shows that workers are more likely thrive when they feel seen and heard by leadership. When leaders can’t ‘walk the floor,’ they need to be deliberate in setting up time for a genuine ‘how are you traveling?’ conversation. This can even be as simple as keeping the conversation open even if it’s just to say hi and chat about what they’ve been up to.

Overcome the cringe factor

The key is finding activities that fit your workplace culture and replicating these in an online environment. We’re in uncharted territory here: it will seem clunky and artificial at first, but sincerity and authenticity can overcome any feelings of cringe. That’s the thing with leadership: if it feels uncomfortable, you’re probably doing it right.


Not sure where to start? Our workplace mental health experts are here to help you.

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