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.

  1. Communication

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.

  1. Connection

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.

  1. Commitment

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.