Creating Cohesive Remote Teams

“You will reap what you sow. People will remember how they were treated, and it will have a lasting impact on recruitment and retention.”

What was once a desired perk and bargaining chip in hiring negotiations – work-from-home days – has, by necessity, morphed into a 100% remote workforce for many businesses. In March, it was required that non-essential workers stay at home, and businesses that had traditionally been office-based had to quickly pivot to a work-from-home model. Now in month two of the great migration, teams of two to 1,000+ have traded cubicles for the kitchen table or living room sofa every day of the week.

I have been curious about how it’s been working out. What are business leaders with a strong commitment to employee engagement doing to create and foster robust remote teams during Covid-19? I reached out to a range of businesses small to large, privately owned to big corporate. There were the expected differences based on the nature of the business and individual leadership styles, but some common themes emerged.

Empathy

Leaders walk a fine line between wanting to push people to be productive and recognizing that some find it difficult to stay motivated while experiencing feelings of isolation and stress.

·        Be aware of different situations. This involves having one-on-one conversations. What are the individual needs of your team? What are the challenges they’re facing? Childcare requirements, senior’s care, relationship issues, financial pressures, crowded living quarters, isolation and loneliness: sub-optimal conditions will affect performance.

·        Recognize that the challenges of living and working in isolation or in non-ideal circumstances are being felt and encourage healthy ways of coping. Suggest scheduled breaks and walks, fresh air, and if possible, provide a trusted professional voice to talk to staff about physical and mental health matters.

·        Be flexible. People may need to work off-hours (after children are in bed or partners/roommates have finished working). What was previously a long monthly meeting may now require shorter weekly or daily meetings. Recognize that some people may need help with time management and work with them to lay out a plan.

“This is an incredible social study and every situation is unique. We need to be sensitive to the whole human being – there is no compartmentalizing. If you lead with empathy, it’s a time to shine.”

 Engagement

You can no longer walk over to someone’s desk for clarification or hear what’s happening with your colleagues in an open concept office. There is no longer the spontaneity that sparks the sharing of ideas. Discussions have to be scheduled.

·        Teams are missing each other. They need face-time to connect and share what’s happening professionally and personally. A weekly virtual group lunch or end of week “happy hour” on a meeting platform can be an effective way to connect. How this is done depends on the generation and individual personality. Not everyone wants to go on camera; if people are experiencing Zoom-fatigue, they could hop on with cameras off (without pressure) or swing by for 10 minutes.

·        Set goals for the future. We can’t control whether we’ll work from the office or from home right now, but we are in control of our productivity and the quality of our work. Work with your team to create a plan – 30-60-90 days. Offer courses, provide educational content, increase product knowledge, involve your learning and development team. Take steps to be stronger and more knowledgeable when things “get back to normal”.

·        If there are senior people in the organization who are not empathetic to the emotional work of life and how much space that takes up, we need to find a way to gently coach and provide unasked for advisory.

“Our job as leaders is to inspire people to be the best we can be.”

Communication

Working from home under the current situation is more than just a change in location. Clear communication is needed to build trust and strong cultures.

·        Recognize that there’s a lot of uncertainty and address it. Will there be lay offs? How can we bring value to our clients at this time? What other things can we offer? People are looking for reassurance. One small business owner told me she shared quarterly financials with her team, so they understand why decisions are being made. This may not be possible in every organization, but people will appreciate as much transparency as can be provided.

·        Listen as much as talk. Take a “temperature check” with individuals. Ask them what’s been helping them … or not … and make adjustments.

·        Make it clear to your team that they bring value, that you don’t want to lose them. If you must lay off, help them to take action. Some people freeze when stressed. What happens next? Provide information about CERB (employment insurance support) and walk them through the process. And share the announcement with the rest of the team in a personal way (not by email announcement).

“Yes, it’s challenging for us, but we have to think about our customers and how we’re serving them.”

All the leaders I spoke with said they appreciate the “in it together” attitude their people have shown. Some who normally sit back are stepping up and there’s a stronger sense of community. People are very supportive of each other. They said their teams have been incredibly productive – they’ve embraced what needs to be done and they’re getting it done.

This lock-down won’t last forever and soon we’ll prepare for re-entry. We’ve experienced a more personal way of working during the Covid crisis. Virtual meetings are more intimate - your face is right there. We’ve seen our co-worker’s homes, their families, their pets. We’ve seen more of the person than simply the employee or colleague and we know we don’t need to be sitting in front of each other in an office to build deeper and better relationships. How will companies go back after this? Employees (with their organizations) will need to make decisions about where they want to work and whether their employers can provide what they need. Conversely, companies that have invested in a culture of trust, integrity and high performance will have been given a new opportunity on the other side.