How To Manage Your Remote Workforce
The global pandemic caused a shift in the centre of production, from offices to households. Production has come full circle: the Industrial Revolution had shifted production from households to factories. The success of the vaccine rollout and resistance from chief executives like Jamie Dimon, had caused many people to believe that remote work was a passing phase. Yet, resistance from workers has led to businesses accepting the reality of remote work. Many businesses now allow either complete remote work or follow a hybrid work model in which workers have to spend some time in the office. The challenge for managers is developing ways to manage remote teams. Managing a remote team asks unique questions of managers, questions which we will attempt to answer.
Empathy is Key to Managing Remote Teams
The global health crisis is a traumatic event. People have lost loved ones, been starved of physical contact, and lived with uncertainty and feelings of dread. Depression and other signs of mental illness have risen. The pandemic also altered the calculus of work: for many millenials, the sacrifices made to find good work seemed silly in the context of the pandemic. Research suggests that millennials plan to quit their jobs in record numbers. For these millennials, their work lacks meaning and takes them away from the important things in life. Even within an office space, managing in such an environment is difficult. When team members are remote, the demands on managers’ empathy and skill skyrocket.
Managers must find ways to connect with their workers and guide them through this challenging period. Managers have to actively look for signs that their workers are suffering from distress, or struggling to focus on their work. Business leaders like to talk about emotional intelligence, but the reality is that business systems are not built to concern themselves with keeping their workers engaged or even keeping them at work. Systems assume that workers will, subject to the appropriate compensation plans and benefits, do their jobs and not think about quitting.
Human resources departments must provide managers with evidence-driven guidance on how to support their workers, keep them engaged and promote their mental well-being. A business can no longer assume that so long as compensation and benefits are appropriate, people will be engaged and want to remain in their jobs.
Managers can fulfill their role through direct and indirect observations on their workers’ mental wellbeing. They have to be actively vigilant. Workers have to be constantly assured of support, in a spirit of unconditional positive regard. By this I mean that workers should not feel that approaching a manager for support or just a sympathetic ear, will lead to negative judgment. They must feel that whatever they are saying, you will see the best of them and the goodness of their intentions. For instance, if a worker says “I think my work is meaningless and life is short. Why should I be working for you?”, that is not a moment to be defensive, to accuse them of lacking hustle, or to attack them. You have to understand the deeper motives of their words, and address those. Use those motives as a teaching moment to change the nature of work. If they sense that they can come to you without judgment, that alone will make them feel better about their work. One of the criticisms that millennial workers have leveled at their managers is that they are not seen. David Graeber’s essay on “bullshit jobs” became viral because the nature of work often leaves people feeling empty.
Equip Your Remote Teams
In a world of remote work, households are the new centres of production. Managers must provide workers with the tools they need to work effectively. It’s important to realise that many people do not have home offices, the technology to work effectively, or the ergonomic furniture to work comfortably. For instance, a person may not have a good camera for video conferences.
Equipping remote teams is not just about giving them access to collaborative tools or technology. Many workers are not comfortable with operating these technologies on their own. Some may not even be comfortable with operating virtual communication platforms.
Virtual communication is different from in-person communication. For instance, many people report feeling fatigued after long stretches of video conferences and a lot of people feel drained by emails and other such communications. We are wired to desire and feel comfortable with in-person communication. We are simply not wired to spend the whole day on Zoom. Some businesses have used surveys to try and diagnose problems with communications and alter their communication models. For example, I know of one company that has Zoom-free Fridays.
You have to be willing to listen to your team members. Managers don’t know everything.
Sometimes, virtual communication can break down. WIthout the cues that in-person contact provides, virtual meetings need more communication cycles to resolve issues. An issue may be unclarified after six emails, after which workers should have protocols or be taught to exercise their own judgment, so that they can escalate virtual communication. Perhaps after those ineffectual emails, they should take their conversation to a video call. You cannot replace in-person communication with virtual communication, without also changing the assumptions around communication.
As we said above, virtual communication requires more articulation than in-person communication, because it lacks the visual and aural cues of in-person communication. We have all sent a text message that someone completely misinterprets, yet, when you say the same thing in-person, there’s no issue.
Realising this, you should promote even more dialogue that existed when communication was largely in-person. The room for misunderstanding is huge. People may take offence where none was intended, or misinterpret an issue so that resolution becomes difficult to attain.
Heightened dialogue should exist vertically, between managers and their teams, and horizontally, between remote workers. This will have concrete performance implications. Research shows that an organization’s strategy is more likely to succeed if its workers understand that strategy and the organization’s decision and what it means for them and for the organization. This is far more important than whether the workers actually “like” the proposed changes.
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