As the world enters the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, employers and employees alike have rapidly adapted to the new virtual workplace, but the big shift also resulted in loss of social interaction so organizations are now focused on finding ways to keep their workforce socially connected.

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic just over one year ago on March 11, 2020, and, shortly after that declaration, working from home instead of from offices quickly became the norm for white-collar employees across Canada. By the end of March 2020, all Canadian provinces and territories had declared some form of a state of emergency and lockdowns, forcing both employers and employees to quickly adapt to the new remote-working reality.

Read: Sounding Board: The isolation risks of remote working

Overall, employees are satisfied with how employers adapted to this significant shift. A 2020 survey by software company ServiceNow found although a majority (82 per cent) of Canadian employees think their employers are doing a good job supporting them through the transition to remote working, 45 per cent still feel disconnected and isolated from their colleagues.

Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labour Relations, and three colleagues conducted a study that found on days when people had more office small talk than they normally would, they felt more heightened positive emotions, more gratitude, more pride and more energy. They were also better able to recover from stress during the workday and were in a better mood when they went home.

Small talk creates rapport, builds relationships and establishes trust, says Methot, noting it also helps with transition — it’s used before performance evaluations, at the start of negotiations and before sales pitches.

“You very rarely would jump into a meeting without having small talk beforehand. It’s the bookend before and after more substantive or controversial conversations.” She adds one of things being studied right now is whether there are ways to re-establish those interactions effectively in this new remote-working environment.

Read: Is loneliness the next employee wellness frontier? 

Melodie Mason, the Canadian Standards Association Group’s vice-president of total rewards, says  interpersonal relationships in the workplace are key amid this ongoing public-health crisis.

“It’s really been about understanding the human side of it because you’re also uncovering the challenges some people are having with life. We’ve still found ways to connect like we would have if we were in the office.”

To ensure she’s enabling her team to connect on a personal level, Mason tries to schedule extra time in meetings so employees can have informal conversations before or after diving right into business.

And on a monthly basis, she says the company schedules “water-cooler meetings,” making use of breakout rooms to get employees into smaller groups for personal chats and trivia games. She says the organization has onboarded a few employees over the course of the pandemic, and these events have really helped them get to know their colleagues and familiarize them with the company’s overall culture.

Read: Technology, remote working creating workplace loneliness: study

A lot of small talk was spontaneous in offices, which is hard to replicate online, Methot points out. “Our interactions are going from being more discretionary and spontaneous to much more intentional and transactional.”

The CSA has recognized this shift as well, so it’s added spontaneous check-ins, where regional human resources teams call their staff just to see how they’re doing and the organzation schedules coffee breaks once a month, where employees can dial in and chat with their colleagues. “We’re trying to encourage casual conversations and not just the business-driven conversations,” says Mason.

What’s interesting, Methot adds, is it’s the social interaction that can help employees cope with feelings of loneliness, but in this setting, everyone is hypersensitive to the fact people are pressed for time and are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” or childcare issues, and so they’re much less likely to reach out and do things like weekly check-ins.

“People are avoiding engaging in the precise behaviour that could help counteract the feelings of [isolation] and loneliness. The business case for focusing on employees’ social health should be a priority.”

This is the second part of a series of articles running this month that’s diving deep into how the benefits, pensions and institutional investment industries have changed in the year since a global pandemic was declared.

Read the first story in the series here: One year later: How the pandemic sped up the shift to virtual mental-health care

Read the third story in the series here: One year later: Institutional investors looking beyond pandemic

Read the fourth story here: One year later: The AIMCo, Caisse and OPTrust on lessons learned during the pandemic