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Keeping the Team Together Virtually

Mar 17, 2020

In a few short weeks, COVID-19 has dramatically changed the landscape of work for numerous employees around the globe. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook are among the familiar names that have sent employees to work from home in response to the growing pandemic. Though pre-outbreak data reports that roughly 43% of employees already worked remotely on some basis, full-time remote work on a large scale is a significant change for many employees—a change that can be challenging for those not yet accustomed to making remote work, “work.”

But there’s good news. There are a number of simple steps managers can take to keep their teams connected, productive, and engaged. And beyond the obvious health considerations in the current environment, multiple data sources show significant benefits to remote working. Among them, a study by Amerisleep found that remote workers are 57% more likely than others to be satisfied with their job, and a FlexJobs survey found that 65% of respondents felt they would be more productive working remotely than in a traditional office. Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace study showed engagement levels were highest for employees who spent 60–80% of their time working offsite. And there is a long history of data linking engagement with retention, productivity, and profitability.

So what can managers do to keep their teams connected and engaged, and realize the potential of remote work? Check out a few simple strategies you can implement today!

Focus on Communication

Communication is essential to keeping employees aligned, connected, and engaged—even more so with a distributed workforce. Err on the side of “overcommunicating.” Try to get everyone on the team important information at the same time. Being left out of important updates can foster feelings of disconnection and inequity, in addition to contributing to issues in completing the team’s work.

Check in with employees on the clarity of communication. Does everyone have the same take-aways? Where is there confusion? Where do team members need more information?

Ensure all employees have a voice. People have different communication styles—some are bold and readily speak up, while others yield to more dominant voices. In a virtual environment, it’s important to be intentional about prompting every team member to join in.

Choose the right communication method for the message. Don’t default to email because it’s easy. Choosing between a web conference, phone call, email, or instant message may seem like a small decision, but it can make a big difference.

Remember to listen. Communication isn’t just about sharing and facilitating the flow of information. It’s also about being an effective listener. In a world high on multitasking, this can be tough—especially in a remote environment where it may seem easy to hide your inattention. To be really effective, you need to focus in, actively listen, and resist the urge to multitask.

Strengthen Connections

As the leader of a remote team, you play a critical role in creating an environment where your team feels connected to you, to each other, and to your organization. With employees being thrown into ever increasing levels of isolation as social distancing takes hold and restaurants, parks, and other venues close, connection becomes even more important in keeping up morale. Ask yourself what you can do to strengthen relationships and create opportunities to connect virtually about more than just the work at hand.

Start by giving your employees personalized attention. Make it a priority to meet with each team member regularly in a one-to-one setting. Gallup reports that employees whose managers meet with them on a regular basis are nearly three times as likely to be engaged compared to employees who do not meet regularly with their leader. And don’t get too mired in the day-to-day work. While that is certainly important, it’s equally important to focus on sustaining a personal connection, supporting their career development, and simply staying in touch with how they are feeling.

Ask your employees what they need from you, how they would like to stay connected, and ensure they know the best way to reach you. While some employees thrive in a remote environment, others can find it quite isolating. Demonstrate that you are there for them regardless of your location.

Maintaining strong connections across the team is also essential. Encourage team members to connect and collaborate virtually and make time for casual connections too. It doesn’t have to be all work. For example, consider scheduling a virtual lunch or coffee break where team members can drop in to socialize virtually and maintain the personal connections they would normally have in an office. You could add activities like sharing a favorite photo or object and the story behind it, or matching baby pictures to the employee. Ask what your team would enjoy and get it on the books.

Get the Most from Your Technology

It’s 2020. You likely have a wide range of technology available to you to collaborate virtually. But are you using it to its full extent? Does your team know all the features and functions available—and if so, are you using them?

Spend some time getting familiar with the technology your organization has to support virtual collaboration and make a point to use the features that will help your team work more efficiently and effectively. Scan your corporate technology cheat sheets and tips. Schedule a team meeting to share best practices for virtual collaboration. Invest the time now to figure out how you can use technology to save you time later and to make your virtual interactions even more effective.

Don’t forget your webcams. We know—people love them or hate them. But regardless of your preference—you really should use them. Webcams humanize your connections. They let you see facial expressions, body language, and other cues that tell you how the person on the other end of the conversation is feeling. They also remind you that the other person is really there, and that visual reminder can help combat feelings of isolation employees may be feeling.

Do you have to use webcams for every conversation? No. But you should use them regularly for scheduled one-to-one conversations and meetings.

Set Your Team Up for Success

As a manager it’s essential that you set your team up for success, starting with ensuring they know what’s expected and how you’ll stay aligned. A team that is accustomed to working side-by-side might be used to stopping you in the hall for quick clarification or dropping by a colleague’s desk to align on direction. As a group you may need to establish new ways of working. Be very diligent in setting clear expectations and ensure the team knows how you will work together, where and how to get help quickly, and how to check in on progress and stay aligned.

It can also be helpful to establish ground rules for virtual meetings. For example, agree to expectations around pre-read materials, use of webcams, and multitasking. Meeting participants should treat a virtual meeting in the same way they would an onsite meeting. Most employees wouldn’t openly email or work on another project during a face-to-face meeting, and they shouldn’t do it in a virtual meeting either. Getting agreement as a team on your virtual meeting expectations will go a long way to keeping you on track and from losing important communication.

Lastly, encourage your team to maintain healthy boundaries for their workday. Employees new to working full-time from home may not have a dedicated office or separate room to work in, but they will likely find it helpful to designate a workspace that is comfortable, free from distractions, and just for work. It may be as simple as moving a small table and chair to a quiet corner of a room but having this designated space can help them set boundaries on their day.

With that being said, the newly remote worker, as well as the seasoned remote employee, are finding themselves with their school-aged children and other family members in their “home office.”  Understand the potential need to be flexible about meeting times.  Show understanding by letting your team know that there will be no negative fallout for family and pet background noise or unforeseen interruptions.  Be aware that their home internet connection might not be able to handle the remote meeting technology requirements as well as the work infrastructure can. 

Be vocal in reminding employees to maintain work-life balance. Studies have shown that remote workers tend to put in more hours—it’s easy for the workday to bleed into personal time without the boundary of a morning routine and daily commute. But work-life balance is essential, so be a role model in maintaining your own boundaries and encourage your team to maintain balance as well.

Companies around the globe have been capturing the benefits of virtual work. Whether your team is new to virtual work, or simply looking to become more effective, by implementing a few simple everyday strategies, you can get the most from virtual work too.

Want to learn more? If you need help delivering people solutions in a virtual environment, contact our VITAL Talent team to discuss how we can help you continue to build employee connections, drive engagement, and develop your employees through our virtual and online training programs.

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