By Margarita Sarmiento, 5/1/2020
These are unprecedented times. This is a statement I have heard so often in the past few weeks that I have vowed never to use that word again. The extraordinary reality we are living in has necessitated that we stretch ourselves, pushing many of us beyond our limit as well as outside our comfort zones- both figuratively and literally. The need to shelter at home has scattered our workforces, causing many to do more than just shelter, as we create new ways and places to educate, dine, exercise, and work at home. And, for those of you managing these dispersed teams, the last few weeks have been taxing, if not downright challenging.
The challenge comes as you balance the unchanging need for people to do their jobs while dealing with the new reality of these never-before-seen circumstances. This is especially important to keep in mind if you routinely manage remote teams. Consider that in most cases these employees are not your typical remote employees working from home, as much as they are employees having to work at home during a crisis. This distinction, though slight, can be quite significant because treating them the way you would other remote employees, may serve to disconnect them even more.
Unlike a typical remote employee, our shelter-in-place workforce did not choose the situation they find themselves in. So, they did not have the opportunity to plan for and establish a separate and distinct work area, providing themselves a cocoon of sorts from the rest of their home life. They also do not have a “mothership” to which they are tethered, no matter how loosely, as most corporate and home offices are shuttered while leaders try to establish a sense of normalcy. The “mothership” is gone… or at least suspended in space.
As someone who has managed remote employees in the past, I can tell you that the most important aspect of keeping them engaged was to make them feel a part of the bigger picture, helping them understand how they fit and minimizing their isolation. Experts tell us that regular communication and shared identity within a team can mediate the effects of physical separation. Unfortunately, many of the physical and psychological adjustments that a typical remote employee would make to create a sense of belonging and connection are just not possible today.
As I talk to organizational leaders today, I’m hearing over and over their struggle to keep team members connected and motivated as they are feeling more and more isolated. So let’s look at three areas we need to address proactively if we hope to keep people engaged, and some specific ways to meet these challenges.
Both formal and informal communication methods are being challenged in today’s virtual workplaces. We all have to work a little harder to share what we are thinking, and what we need from one another. Frequent remote meetings with team members are critical in any off-site arrangement but don’t forget the importance of the casual conversations that serve to strengthen relationships between team members.
- Schedule video meetings whenever possible. One on one, and as a team. Face to face connection goes a long way towards commitment and accountability.
- Allow for informal conversations. Don’t be afraid of casual chit-chat or catching up. Team members used to work in the same office need an opportunity for “hallway” conversations to happen virtually.
- Stress the importance of being clear and concise in written communication. Employees that are used to discussing things with their fellow team members face to face may now be communicating with them electronically. Encourage them to proofread, not just for spelling and grammar, but for content.
We know that authentic relationships and transparency among leaders and team members are foundational to strong healthy organizational cultures. As a manager one of your primary responsibilities is to build a relationship, creating a sense of community with your staff. Distance makes connection a bit harder to achieve, but not impossible.
- Make meetings fun! Take time to break up the monotony of the virtual, flat-screen meeting. Start the meeting with Show & Tell a trivia game, ice breaker, or scavenger hunt (first one back with a cooking utensil, stuffed animal, funny hat, pet, vacation souvenir, baby picture…the possibilities are endless!).
- Set up some fun extracurricular team activities– Cooking classes, Yoga, Happy Hour, Coffee breaks. Send out the makings for s’ mores and have a virtual campfire, telling ghost stories and singing camp songs. Create casual learning opportunities through virtual Lunch & Learns and TED talks.
- Take time during staff meetings to check-in. Ask them, “What are you reading? …cooking? …watching? …making?” and give them the opportunity to share learnings with one another.
Being engaged has always been the key to a committed, productive workforce; and engagement or motivation is directly linked to feeling valued or feeling your work is valued. A decentralized workforce means we must engage people a little differently. Leaders may have to ask more questions or be more specific in reminding people of their value or worth to the organization. They need to be more intentional in connecting people to purpose.
- Allow people the opportunity to share successes, especially the small ones that may not make weekly or monthly reports.
- Use this time as an opportunity to have them learn new things by attending virtual training; this will serve to simultaneously reinforce as well as increase their value to the organization.
- Ensure they have what they need. Be available. Touch base regularly and often. Be sure to clarify expectations and deadlines. Make sure you are following up and following through with things you have committed to do or provide for them. Remember that without the regular interruptions and distractions of the office, they are more focused on their tasks. The longer they are seemingly waiting on you, the more frustrated they may become.