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  • Deb Urbanik

New to managing a remote team? Here’s what employees really want from you...

It's a confusing time.  We are all being asked to live and work a little differently to help avoid the spread of COVID-19.  This includes an unprecedented shift to working out of our homes.  This dramatic, unplanned change gave no time for managers who have traditionally had lots of facetime with their teams to get prepared for leading from afar.  Prior to starting my own company, I was a remote employee for more than 20 years and here are the 5 manager behaviors that I valued most. 

1.     Trust me – When you work at home, regardless of your level of dedication, you wonder what people in the office are thinking about you.  Managers must lead with trust. Your employees are feeling anxious, confused and uncertain. Many are balancing restless children, elderly parents, empty supermarkets and their own health concerns while still wanting to feel like a successful and valued contributor at work.  Having a manager who communicates their confidence in your skills and their understanding of your challenges has never been more important.  Resist the temptation to micro-manage and make sure that when you reach out it is to check in on how your team is doing (their needs), not just to check up on what they are doing (your needs). 

2.     Help me see my team – Virtual meetings can be painful. People often complain when they are asked to turn on their videos when joining a remote meeting.  But with advanced warning, this mode of communication is a powerful driver of a sense of community.  Our brains are still hard-wired to seek safety in groups.  The cues that communicate that we belong include proximity, eye contact, mimicry, vocal pitch, attention, inclusion, and body language.(1) These elements are best accomplished with real human connection which includes both hearing our peers and seeing them too. Lead-out on maintaining positive human connection with your people. Give advanced warning that meetings will be “videos on” and foster your team’s sense of community. 

3.     Keep me connected…literally – You never feel more isolated in a home office then when you are trying to connect with a system or person and cannot get through. Newly remote workers may need much more hand holding when it comes to resolving technology challenges. Take the extra time to be sure your team is setup for success. IT will be strained with this new normal and problem resolution may be slow. If someone is having challenges let them know they are not alone. Your ownership, navigation and advocacy can change an employee’s experience from frustration to fulfillment. 

4.     Understand workdays may look different for me and let me know it’s OK – I worked remotely while raising three kids. I had time to build patterns, hire help, and set space in my home that was respected so I could get work done without interruption (although I welcomed the occasional little face peeking through the door). I was able to feel productive and accomplished.  I have seen some of my newly remote friends with young kids posting on Facebook that they are holding meetings in their tool shed to escape their riled-up, house-bound offspring. While this is great for a laugh, it is also the source of tremendous angst and strain for the employee who is trying to effectively serve a client or hit a project deadline. Managers need to understand that work may look differently for a while. It might come with background noise or in batches early in the morning, during afternoon naps and late at night. Most importantly, let your employees know that it is all OK.  Be vulnerable with your own challenges and empathize with theirs. As long as deliverables are happening, let the how be up to the employee. Let them know, “We are in this together”. 

5.     Keep me in the know and let me know I’m on track –In the past employees could see their teammates working toward their goals. Associates had “watercooler moments”, breaks and lunches to catch up on company and personal news. There was a basis for comparison of how they were doing against their group norm.  Newly remote employees risk losing that line of sight unless their manager keeps them in the know. A great way to show people they are on track is through storytelling and recognition.  Use your team meetings as a chance to talk about goals and celebrate progress and successes.  Frequent in-the-moment appreciation through eCards, email, phone or other social tech communicates that your effort matters and that you are on track.  

While training would have been great before taking on responsibility for the success of a remote team, you can still excel by leading with trust, empathy, appreciation and fueling a sense of virtual community.  

(1) The Culture Code –Daniel Coyle  Bantam Books, New York 2018 p 11

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