The COVID-19 pandemic has had dramatic impact on work, particularly in the way that it has moved the workforce out of the physical office and forced companies to create virtual work environments or otherwise accommodate employees working by remote. While at first blush that may appear to be simple enough, it is quite challenging not only logistically, but also in terms of maintaining productivity and morale.
Working from home comes with many benefits, but also brings with it physical isolation – from your coworkers, from your bosses, from your team members. Aside from meetings and conferences, we are also deprived of the casual interactions, things that we took for granted, like passing each other in the hallway where many conversations start. Or seeing each other in the break room or the office kitchen. Also gone are the times that we break bread together – even the times where we would share a ride to get takeout to bring back to our desks.
For managers, there are additional challenges. For example, bringing on a new team member has new challenges and if not handled correctly, can negatively impact morale and team cohesion. Similarly, the pandemic has brought with it changes to the business landscape and the need to make business adjustments. These can present team members with additional stresses and confusion.
As a manager, there are some steps that you can take that help with both your team and your own morale and also aid in keeping your team motivated and engaged in a largely virtual work environment.
The isolation and fragmentation lowers engagement, productivity, and morale. It is incumbent on leaders and managers to meet this head on. It all starts with communication.
With all of those interactions cut out of our daily routines, it becomes even more important to communicate with team members. For leaders and managers, it’s no different. You must take every opportunity to assure that team members are clear on goals, assignments, and their respective roles. This is especially true in light of the continuous stream of challenges that the pandemic throws at businesses. This also means that all of these goals, assignments, and roles must be repeated and reinforced in order to assure that there is no miscommunication. As important is the need to keep in regular contact. With the increased isolation comes the need for more purposeful attempts by bosses and managers to communicate.
All of us have team members that we favor over others. We either find them to be easier to work with or easier to get along with or just more competent. We tend to keep in contact and communicate more with those who for whatever reason we favor. Conversely, we tend to refrain from or even dread communicating with other team members. Especially when dealing with a remote workforce, it is important for leaders and managers to avoid this bias. Keep an accounting either through your professional software or even in the form of a chart of all of your team members, and when you last corresponded with them either in a group or individual setting. Also, keep an accounting of when you last gave them an assignment and assure that you are dividing up responsibilities as equitably as possible.
It is important to keep in regular contact. This means standing times one or if appropriate two or more times a week. This will get your team used to meeting and reporting on a regular basis. Additionally, it is easier to cancel a standing meeting if it is not necessary or circumstances mandate rather than to coordinate schedules each time you want a meeting. Also, ad hoc meetings are more likely to result in poor attendance or irregular attendance by some.
With the increase in the methods of communication, there has been an increase both in less personal methods as well as ones that are more personal. It may be easy and convenient to communicate using the variety of written methods available to us – email, text, Slack, etc. While those methods certainly have their place and utility, you should work hard at maximizing richer communication forms. For example, assure that there are regular meetings using video, FaceTime, Zoom, and the like. This allows everyone to communicate more effectively and to minimize misunderstandings and miscommunications as they will be able to better understand emotions, body language, and non-verbal cues.
When everyone is working remotely, we no longer pass in hallways or have impromptu meetings in the break room or office kitchen. These are informal contacts that are important in team building, and create a sense of belonging. They are also important opportunities for moving projects forward without the pressure and formalities of scheduled meetings. Recreate these by having more one on one time peppered with more small talk. Also, encourage team members to call each other as needed rather than just during scheduled times.
Working by remote comes with a number of issues that can affect participation and also can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications. One way to address those is to normalize the new work environment, which is vastly different for each of your team members, especially considering the relatively homogenous environment which exists in the office. Each of your team members have different challenges and distractions. This is true even with relatively common things, such as kids at home or a spouse. People live differently even when it comes to interacting with their loved ones.
Therefore, the more your coworkers know about each other’s new work situations, the better they will communicate and the more connected they will feel to each other. For example, without putting people on the spot, encourage virtual tours of their work stations or offices. Some may be sharing their workspace with others in their home. It is important to let them know that you appreciate the challenges they face and the effort they are making. Also, do your best to avoid singling people out in meetings when it comes to things like background noise. Instead, implement procedures, such as muting when not speaking.
Working by remote has been on the rise, but the pandemic has made it the new normal. And regardless of how the pandemic resolves, the remote workplace is with us to stay. It is important to take steps to assure that your teams are motivated, engaged, and connected.