It’s an understatement to say that the office workers’ world has dramatically changed since the pandemic began. Many managers wonder how exemplary managers have dealt with the challenges, and capitalized on the gains of the new way to work.
I recently interviewed insightful managers and key individual contributors on their best practices for managing remote teams, as well as identifying lingering issues. Some interviewees requested anonymity, so only their positions are listed.
While Covid-19 is responsible for the loss of over 22 million jobs in the US in 2020, many companies have fared very well. The interviewed managers didn’t have significant productivity or efficiency challenges,
In fact, Stacey Porter, VP, People Operations & Strategy at Outset Medical, said, “Productivity is better. We quickly became more respectful of each others’ time — you schedule time to talk. No trivial meetings. We’re utterly focused. Meetings don’t go overtime.”
This productivity increase may be, in part, because it is freeing to some workers. A Google engineer said, “I like working at home. It’s more autonomous. I don’t feel like I’m being watched.” A tech writer at a Fortune-500 company said, “I really like working a home. I get more done.”
A few companies experienced extreme growth during this time. Amna Pervez, Vice President of Human Resources at Collaborative Imaging, reported triple growth in 2020. Craig Jory, Director of Training & Development of XL Construction reported on-boarding over 70 employees since the pandemic began.
While productivity may not have been a problem facing the teams, a common lament was a lack of opportunity for face-to-face human connectivity. A HR business partner/manager at a CA Fortune 500 company said, “It was easier to get things done in the office. It is hard to have quick meetings.”
Virtual Water Cooler Chats
The vast majority of interviewed managers described informal interactions as a significant key missing piece of work-life. Those are the short, face-to-face interactions that happen between meetings, after calls, and while getting coffee. Balky Ravichandran, Human Resources Director at Capgemini, shared that the relationships most at risk are the ones that are outside of the people to whom he regularly talks. He advises other managers to consciously continue to develop relationships with those who you may not have regularly talked to pre-COVID.
To continue developing these relationships, Amna Pervez shared that her former employer, Trusted Health’s People Team came up with the idea for an online lounge where employees can take a quick break to chat with whomever is in the virtual room. This encourages breaks for conversations with peers, without formally scheduling a Zoom or Teams meeting.
Louise Kyhl Triolo, VP Global People Development at VMware, says VMware utilizes a virtual ‘collaboration’ office hours where people show up at a pre-determined time and bounce ideas off each other, get new insights and move forward on key topic, even if they aren’t working on the same thing. She said it increases connectedness among coworkers.
One training, education and awareness manager sometimes utilizes a short trivia game before virtual meetings begin. This small interaction among employees allows for a looser, hopefully, more inclusive work environment.
These practices serve as a replacement to small daily interactions that previously happened naturally between co-workers. But it seems hard to replace happy hours, lunches, and company events with online versions.
To nurture more connection through longer social events and forums, Amna Pervez said that Trusted Health created different groups, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), that employees join for a specific interest. There are groups for parents, pet lovers, wine tastings, runners, crafters, etc. “These groups have the most success among all of the internal interest groups.”
Other managers used weekly happy hours. Balky Ravichandran says Capgemini’s happy hours are voluntary, not work-related, and relatively effective. It helps to provide prompts or structure for discussions. For example, they may ask people to bring a prop or something significant to their lives. They have a focus for each happy hour, such as sharing passions, or favorite vacation spots.
Angie Kutlik, SPHR, Sr. Consultant, Talent Management Strategy and Leadership Development Program Lead, Kaiser Permanente, also utilizes a loose structure during team huddles where you may be asked to bring some of your favorite items such as hats, favorite drinks, or snacks in order to get attendees invested or involved.
While many companies find some success employing minimal structure to online happy hours, others may not. Mike Hill, Director, Integrated Talent Management at Applied Materials, articulates how Applied Materials organizes a happy hour or a game night with the description, “Whatever you’ve got, bring it.” This perspective helps people know the activity is for fun, which helps allay concerns they may be judged poorly if they don’t do well on the game.
John Vu, Engineering Program Manager/Portfolio Manager at PayPal, says employees are simply getting “Zoomed out” even with a social time with colleagues. “There are organized events joined through Microsoft Teams. We hired a chef to provide live cooking shows with a cocktail chef and pastry chef. Out of our department’s 200 employees, fewer than 10 showed up.”
You can see there aren’t any guaranteed replacements to face-to-face activities that we heavily relied on pre-Covid.
Human interaction wasn’t the only challenge managers face.
Enhancing Tech Tools for WFH Workers
Another common issue is implementing new or existing technology sufficient for full-time remote productivity. Implementing a completely online interface can be a struggle for many companies. Making sure employees are properly equipped with the tools they need to succeed working from home is essential. Craig Jory explained how executives are prone to make assumptions about employees’ home setups which may lead to them not necessarily having the right technologies. His solution was encouraging one-on-one dialogue between employees and managers about conditions at home and allowing employees to take home their office tools such as a monitor or keyboard. He also supplies employees with additional tools if the equipment they needed to be productive at home was different than in the office, such as chairs or wifi routers.
Stacey Porter echoed the importance of allowing employees to take home monitors and even standing desks to ease their transition to remote work. This helped Outset Medical’s staff stay productive in their new WFH environment.
After employees are properly equipped with the physical tools, they must be able to utilize the new technologies. These new platforms have been important during the pandemic since in 2020, 41.8% of the workforce has been completely remote. They will also be utilized far more after the pandemic, as 36.2 million Americans are expected to work remotely by 2025, an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels.
The interviewees had different methods and guidelines for addressing this problem. Utilizing more communication vehicles, such as Zoom, WebEx, Slack, and text messaging, rather than only email, proved helpful.
Kalenga Pembamoto, Sr. Talent Development Manager at Eden Housing, said employees reported having trouble adjusting physically when first working from home. They initially didn’t have proper chairs, or their WFH space wasn’t very ergonomic. Eden Housing gave a stipend for home office equipment, and their insurer offered an ergo counselor to help people set up their home workspace properly.
Amna Pervez provided an excellent outline on what benchmarks your online support and platforms should meet, “1. Where can people access information easily? 2. Is there a central place where communication is taking place? 3. Who are the primary points of contact for a certain role or position?, and most importantly, 4. Do we have technical support for when those things go wrong, and is it responsive?”
Using tools like Google Drive to organize and centralize information is extremely effective. Making sure platforms are easy to use is essential when implementing them full-time.
One interviewee who works for a large utility company, said a big challenge working from home is figuring out and fixing technology problems “because IT staff are busy taking care of others, It takes a lot longer to fix things when you aren’t both in the same location. IT staff used to come by your desk and could easily troubleshoot and fix things. Now you’re mostly on your own, or have to wait a lot longer for help.”
Every manager described frequent and consistent communication as extremely important and what makes all of the other strategies of remote work possible. Communication with employees, and understanding what they may need to be successful working from home is mandatory. Praising and acknowledging employees, sending articles or social media posts that aren’t work-related, talking about mental health — these all allow for a healthier and more productive work environment.
Included in effective communication was manager’s willingness to share where they were imperfect. A manager in higher education said she appreciated it when her manager was vulnerable about his own struggles working from home. “It made the rest of us not feel inadequate for not having figured out how to work well remotely.”
This vulnerability helps build psychological safety, which is key to building effective teams, and even more so with remote teams. This is also evidenced in co-workers’ willingness not only to tolerate, but embrace, people’s personal life bumping into virtual meetings. Anthony Cristiano, Staff Software Engineer at LinkedIn, said, “People are comfortable with kids and animals.” In fact, many colleagues enjoy meeting members of each other’s families they might not have met.
But some conversations that were a challenge in person are even more uncomfortable remotely. Maureen Middleton, Senior Human Resources Manager at Tides, shared, “Difficult conversations can be even more difficult on Zoom. That is why communication skills along with compassion and empathy become even more important.”
Focusing Even More on Coworkers’ Well Being
Jill Sonderby, former Learning and Development Manager at SurveyMonkey, describes how they provide paid time off for mental health days. They created a manager training program for how to navigate mental health conversations with employees. The intent is helping managers know they are not responsible for solving those issues, but rather detecting concerning signals and checking in. They also work with an organization “A World Without Suicide” which shows employees the company genuinely cares about improving mental health problems that many of them may come to face or have already.
Craig Jory said XL Construction has a wellness initiative that included discussions on mental health. Utilizing these wellness conversations allow employees to feel more comfortable with those conversations more often.
A of Learning and Development at a Silicon Valley financial institution describes sending two of his outstanding employees $150 spa certificates, for which they were grateful. But another gift had an unexpected and even more profound impact, “They both got new bikes around the same time. I got them $10 little squeaky rubber duck bike lights. I swear that had more impact on those two people than hundreds of dollars worth of spa certificates.”
Companies got creative creating fun activities to keep teams connected. Virtual happy hours, trivia nights, club meetings seem to be ubiquitous. A few companies took it up a notch by organizing socially distanced events. Danielle Herrerias, SPHR, Vice President Human Resources at Buck Institute for Research on Aging, said they started hosting outdoor movie nights in their parking lot during the summer, complete with pre-packaged snacks. Employees liked seeing one another even if socially distanced, plus it was a fun outing for their whole families.
Even without a large budget, utilizing effective communication continues enhances healthy relationships with employees
An increase in communication also enables potentially flexible employees’ work schedules and deliverables. A Facebook employee shared with her manager that she was having trouble balancing her deliverables as well as caring for her two toddlers. She said that even with scheduling time to take turns with her husband to watch their kids, she could only focus after the kids were in bed, around 7:30 pm. Her boss agreed to not expect replies to emails until after that, and would only text before then if something was urgent. This relieved some of the employee’s stress about not being as available during normal work hours.
However, not all managers are demonstrating flexibility. The manager in higher education shared her frustration with her manager’s “extreme lack of flexibility.” This made working remotely even more difficult for team members.
Managers must understand that employees may be more productive with different schedules. Aida Jimenez, Human Resources Director at Shoe Palace Corp., saw the effectiveness of giving employees the option to work fewer days but more time per day, rather than more days with fewer hours. Managers must adapt and change, Jimenez expresses, “Whatever you think is going to work initially, you will have to be willing to change in a few weeks.”
Some organizations are flexible about how people show up at meetings. They allow folks to have video off if the staff person doesn’t want to be seen that day. Others are OK having walking remote meetings, or attending while on one’s treadmill or exercise bike. One manager at Facebook said a teammate in London took the team on a virtual visit to a nearby park as part of her 5-minute share time during a team social.
Modifying How We Define and Measure Work
Communicating what is and isn’t working allows companies to continue moving in the proper direction. Not only did some managers change the times their employees worked, but some also changed how they measured that work.
Managers are re-calibrating how some employees’ work is being measured, making a project/results-based work model more popular than the old-fashioned face-time measurement.
When asked how the pandemic is affecting performance management, specifically, will managers be more concerned with deliverables rather than time spent on projects, one respondent said, “Yes, absolutely. I’d even predict that the 40-hour workweek will be in question. Work — and effectiveness — should be re-imagined to focus on results, deliverables, and contributions.”
Communication has been the most consistent solution to many of the problems managers face. The definition and measurement of work is being reevaluated. Technologies are improving. We are learning how to re-create water cooler talk. There have been problems, but our interviewees have found many solutions. It’s time to reorient people to the external changes we’ve endured and the internal solutions we’ve utilized to counter those changes.
Rebecca L. Morgan, CSP, CMC, CVP specializes in creating high-performing teams and individuals. She’s appeared on 60 Minutes, Oprah, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes.com, National Public Radio and USA Today. Rebecca is the bestselling author of 28 books, including her most recent, Leadership Lessons from Silicon Valley: How to Survive and Thrive in Disruptive Times. She is an exemplary resource who partners with clients to accomplish high ROI on key-talent development projects. For information on her services, books, and resources, or for permission to repost or reprint this article, contact her at 408/998-7977, Rebecca@RebeccaMorgan.com, www.RebeccaMorgan.com/.