(Photo by Jay Yuno/iStock by Getty Images)

The effects of the pandemic have forced new conversations in the workplace: How do we better take care of our mental health? How do employers engage a remote workforce? How do we maintain productivity and prevent burnout?

Forward-thinking employers are leaning on digital tools to help answer these questions–and come up with solutions for the coming era of hybrid work schedules.

Digital tools can be used to bridge gaps: between coworkers who live on opposite sides of the world, between colleagues in a dispute, between needs and responses, and between the present and future. “I think tools can fill this void between the office environment, where everything is visible, and the home environment, where pretty much nothing is visible,” said Mattias Hallberg, the CTO and head of product development at Attuned, which makes software to help managers understand their employees’ motivation.

The versatility of digital tools to improve the employee experience was the center of a panel discussion I moderated during From Day One’s recent conference on “Digital Tools for Building an Engaged, Productive Team.”

We’re now all familiar with the solitude of quarantine. “I think the pandemic and a move to more remote work has really spotlighted the need for more connection,” said speaker Kate Zimberg, the VP of employee experience and enablement at F5 Networks, an application security and delivery company. To satisfy this need, Zimberg’s team has piloted a peer-to-peer coaching program in which employees are paired to talk about a topic of their choosing (work-life balance or career prioritization, for example) over a period of two to three months. “They are fed with a series of questions to discuss. It’s just the two of them, so they get to form a safe relationship with someone they may have never met before.”

Restoring human connection can form the basis for healthy working relationships across a virtual or hybrid workforce. In the office, Zimberg’s team is replicating the in-person collaboration experience with tools like Zoom, Slack, Lucid, Adobe Spark and Miro to “replicate, and in some ways better than replicate, a whiteboard in the conference room experience.”

While digital tools are beneficial for workers who sit at a desk all day, they can be deployed to help employees in other work situations too. Applied Materials and Bristol Myers Squibb, both of whom employ in-person as well as remote staff, are using digital tools to improve the work experience of those on the manufacturing floor. Mike Hill of Applied Materials, the director of integrated talent management, said the company is using augmented reality (AR) to train support engineers at the customer level to fix their equipment. “They can see layouts of the equipment diagrams and what have you, and they can have audio coming in from somebody else anywhere in the world, telling them how to do something. It actually saves a whole lot of time.”

Other tech tools can be used in learning, development, and career growth. Chantal Veillon-Berteloot of Bristol Myers Squibb, the VP of HR for global product development and supply, said her team is “exploring ways to leverage AI to understand better the internal and external work from a skills perspective and foster greater internal mobility and greater development opportunities. There’s a lot of appetite for this,” she said.

Speaking on employee experience, top row from left: Gina Nebesar of Ovia Health, moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, and Kate Zimberg of F5 Networks. Bottom row, from left: Mattias Hallberg of Attuned, Chantal Veillon-Berteloot of Bristol Myers Squibb, and Mike Hill of Applied Materials (Image by From Day One)

Restored contact creates opportunities for inclusion too–or lack thereof–and panelists’ experience using digital tools to cultivate this in the workplace have varied. Hill said that in his experience, face-to-face communications make it easier for people to speak up: “I think we’re more inclusive face to face, and I think that’s happened because of the way these meetings work. When we’re really trying to do something fast or hard, we’re less inclusive, we don’t hear all the voices, we don’t sense people want to contribute, and I think that’s a big problem.”

Zimberg said her experience has been different–that being totally remote has put everyone on equal footing. When only a few team members were remote, they were the “forgotten ones,” she said. Now that everybody is remote, at least for the time being, workers are more intentional about seeking out the opinions of others.

A forward-thinking way of applying digital tools in the workplace is conflict resolution, one of the areas where Hallberg’s work is focused. “It sounds almost impossible, right? Using digital tools to resolve conflicts, which traditionally is something you do face to face,” he said. “But at Attuned, we believe that a lot of friction between people at work comes from the difference in values, or rather, a difference in what motivates them. Our tool is really there to help people uncover these and to bring them to surface.” He calls this making “the unseen seen.”

Hill has used similar tools for interpersonal diagnostics at Applied Materials: “I was looking for a tool that a team leader and team members could use to diagnose their team dynamics–not what they’re working on, because they spend hours and hours talking about that. But they rarely talk about how the team is working,” he said.

Panel speaker Gina Nebesar, co-founder and chief product officer at Ovia Health, a maternity and family benefits company, said implementation of digital tools can aid employee well-being. There has been a rapid proliferation of digital health-care tools, and Nebesar talked about the normalizing effect of their application: “I think in a year we’ll no longer be saying ‘digital health care’ or ‘virtual care,’ it’ll just be called ‘care.’”

Maintaining mental and physical well-being can be especially challenging for parents and caregivers. Nebesar has seen employers adopt Ovia’s platform to “reach these parents in a safe and accessible environment, which is often in the comfort of their own homes,” she said. During the pandemic, some caregivers have adjusted their schedules and working environments, while millions of women have left the workforce altogether. They’ll need to get back to work, and Nebesar believes that the use of digital tools is necessary if employers are going to support returnship–tools for finding child care and mental-health care, as well those digital supports that make it possible to work from anywhere, like communication and planning apps.

“When people don’t have child care that they can rely on, they can’t work. When people don’t have behavioral-health support, they can’t work,” Nebesar said. “So how am I going to support my employees, not just in a pandemic, but what does this investment look like in the long term? This is a really important conversation I’m so glad to see among so many of these employers.”

I asked the group: If digital tools are meant to make life easier, how many is too many, and how do you know?

Veillon-Berteloot, for whom English is a second language, reminded the group that non-native speakers simply need time to process and absorb information. So while digital programming, like training and watching meetings on playback, can be helpful, the sheer overload can make it tough for those in a global workforce to take it all in. “Be cognizant that there’s only so much the brain can absorb. Digital is not making your brain bigger, your capacity bigger,” she observed.

Zimberg advised against always chasing the next shiny thing. When her team needed a tool to handle goal setting and feedback, they earnestly shopped for a new product. “And finally we came to, ‘You know what? Our current HR [information system] can do it. It’s not sexy, it’s not the best user experience, but it’s there, people know it,’” Zimberg said. “It’s not something else we need to buy and implement and train and do change management.”

She added: “The real capacity of our people is incredibly important to be thinking about right now.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.