AMA’s Ask The Experts: Management Leaders Discuss Best Practices of Managing a Virtual Workforce

Jul 10, 2020



The fifth installment (on June 17) of AMA’s Online Management Series Ask the Experts featured a panel discussion with leading authorities discussing Best Practices of Managing a Virtual Workforce. The panel included Tonya Echols, executive coach and leadership consultant; Susan Mason, educator, executive coach, and trainer; Dr. Bill Thallemer, leadership coach and change management practitioner; and Dr. Joseph Reed, master trainer and authority on management, influence and productivity.

Dorothy Deming, Director of Education, Content and Operations at AMA, moderated the webcast. She positioned the conversation as a forum for answering listeners’ questions about identifying ways to improve as virtual managers and support team members. She also pointed out that many of the virtual management skills can also be applied when professionals return to their workplaces and resume in-person interactions.

Deming posed the first question to the panel: “How can managers earn trust within their team in a virtual environment?”

Echols: “[Today] is an opportunity to reset, and ask, ‘How do I best engage with my employees?’ Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we’re doing, we forget to do that leg work. Now, everyone’s in a new environment. Managers need to step up and reach out to employees and make sure they feel supported and have a voice. Open up, be vulnerable, and be honest so employees feel their manager wants them to be a part of this [new experience].”

Reed: “I like acronyms: BIAC—Benevolence, Integrity, Ability and Consistency. When most people think about how to build trust in teams, they focus on the wrong approach. Some people use a “résumé” approach: ‘Trust me, I have a PhD. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years.’ What they focus on is their abilities. You may be great at what you do, but if people think you don’t have their best interest at heart, they’re probably not going to trust you. Physical distance makes it harder to gauge those issues—the benevolence, integrity, etc. All we get are these little snapshots, and we’re making inferences about people, so you need to over-communicate and talk about your positive intentions for doing what you’re doing.”

Deming: “The next question from our listeners is, ‘How can managers continue to boost morale when roles have changed and people have a lot to balance?’”

Thallemer: “Peoples’ lives are disrupted—not only work lives but personal lives. If their roles have changed, people need to be very clear about what their defined role is. If they are, then morale improves. The ‘new world’ is very nebulous. If they understand the expectations, it makes it a lot easier for them to balance what they don’t know with what they do know. Coaching becomes about how you help them in the vague environment. Think about creative ways, such as virtual happy hours, or giving everyone a ‘happy minute’ to describe a recent positive experience.”

Mason: “One of the things people really need to hear right now is that you [the manager] are aware of their circumstances. My key advice to the manager is to see the individuals. Don’t just ask questions about how the work is going, but ask about what’s getting in the way, and ask what you can do to help them. Also, start getting people paired up with other people. Get some collaborative pairs going, people who can depend on each other. If they feel cared for, they’re going to feel like they can trust you.”

Deming: “The next question is, ‘What can managers do to develop new skills and behaviors that are needed now?’”

Reed: “I think this is a pretty great time to look inward, to identify your talents and your areas for development. What are your strengths, your weaknesses, your opportunities, and the threats? Then, go back and identify the competencies that you want to work on going forward. AMA actually offers a management certification process. Once you have an idea of what you want to develop, you need to commit to it. If you don’t pick a time and a place to do it, it probably won’t happen. Put it on your calendar to work on it.”

Echols: “One of the things I work on with leaders all the time is how to add value to the organization. What you thought might have added value six months ago might no longer be relevant. It is about building your skills, but build skills that add value for the organization.”

Mason: “Research tells us that if you tell other people about something you’re working on, that kind of commitment in a public way keeps us a lot more honest in pursuing our goals. Get a coach, somebody who is going to keep motivating you every step of the way. Have someone who can give you some support, ideas, and some push when you need it.”

Thallemer: “A lot of people aren’t going back to work. They’re going to work from home. So every paradigm that you have is going to shift. We haven’t had ground rules yet. How does everybody interact with one another? You don’t need to be an expert at everything, but you need to be an expert at ‘the process’—and today, we have a new process.”

Deming: “Can you give an example of ground rules to ensure this kind of work gets done?”

Thallemer: “A first ground rule [might be] to have video meetings each week so you can connect with people. So I can see how you’re doing. The second one is ground rules for people to connect with each other to maintain the workflow. And then the last example would be to still have your professional development piece to address new skill needs.”

Deming: “If you could pick one skill that every manager needs in the virtual environment that we’re all in, what would it be?”

Reed: “Emotional intelligence. Self-awareness, self-regulation in these troubling times. And even more important when we’re not co-located is to be able to demonstrate empathy and positive influence of other people.”

Echols: “Flexibility and agility. You want to get used to changing and pivoting and making decisions based on new information. And be open to that.”

Thallemer: “Assessment. You need to be able to assess where your people are, where the team is, where the organization is, and you need to be able to assess it in a different environment. That ability to assess quickly is really important. ‘Take the temperature’ all the time so that you can adjust your own style.”

Mason: “Really deep, sophisticated listening. Listening for the report on the task, the report on performance, and really listening to the emotion and how the person is doing and using that to really give people day-in, day-out feedback. Feedback needs to be continuous, and in tandem with listening.”

Deming closed the discussion by asking for a few closing thoughts.

Echols: “Be kind to yourself. You’re not in this alone. No one has the answer. Give yourself the space to figure it out, and pull people closer to you, not further away, even if it’s through your computer.”

Thallemer: “Use your resources that help you be a better manager. Don’t try and do it by yourself.”

AMA’s Ask the Experts Online Series is complimentary. Each webcast is available on demand after its initial broadcast for a limited time.

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