Engaging (Suddenly) Remote Teams Virtually
Dec 18, 2020
BY NIKKI EVANS AND HUGH MASSIE
In the midst of the unexpected and unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, most organizations have found themselves managing at least part of their workforce through a sudden shift to working from home.
For many employers and employees, the work-from-home (WFH) experience is new.
There was insufficient time to train managers about the adaptations necessary to make this kind of environment successful. What should managers and leaders do to help team members succeed when everyone is in a different location?
COMMUNICATION MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER
You will be relying on communication, both to ensure your team is working on the right priorities and to understand what support they need from you. As a leader, you will need to communicate more often than you may think necessary and repeat your message more than feels comfortable. Saying something once when it comes to key directives and changes is not going to be sufficient to ensure everyone understands you.
People process information differently, and because you are the one communicating, you’ve had some time to process the information you are sharing and understand the context for your communication. Remember that your team doesn’t have the same benefit as you in seeing the context of what you are trying to tell them.
Some team members are going to need more time to process new information than others. Some are going to need more one-on-one contact than others. Work to communicate the important things multiple times and in the way that is easiest for each team member to hear and understand.
REMEMBER TO PAUSE AND UNDERSTAND
Start by knowing your people and the way they innately best receive information, and make the effort to ensure effective individual communication. If you don’t know them, get to know them. This may seem like a ridiculous investment of time during a crisis, but just knowing if your people tend to be more results or relationally focused, and whether they tend to move at a faster or more careful pace, can give you all the information you need to adjust to their needs and support getting the best results from each team member.
You can figure out these things about your co-workers in a few ways. One is to ask them—most people will have a sense of themselves and the way they prefer to work. You can also observe the behavior of your team members. Do they speak up quickly and talk through thoughts aloud? These members are probably faster paced. Do they need time to think, prefer to have an agenda, and hate to be put on the spot? They are probably your more careful team members.
How do conversations go with team members? Do they get straight to the topic of the meeting? These may be your results-focused team members. Do they prefer to talk about more personal things to start or finish a meeting? Do they like to know who’s going to be involved in what you are planning? They may be your more relational team members.
USING BEHAVIORAL INSIGHTS TO TAILOR COMMUNICATION
Results-oriented team members need a clear goal and mission, the information to move toward that goal, and the freedom to make progress. They tend to be logical and visionary and determined. They like to see accomplishments and get a sense of satisfaction at seeing a job completed or turned over to someone else to fully finish off as they move to the next project.
More relational team members need a sense of community and belonging and to see how they fit in the group. They tend to be collaborative, amiable, and engaging. They like to see what others are doing and get satisfaction from contributing to a group and being part of a community.
Under stress, which we may all be experiencing in some form or another, these behavioral patterns are even more difficult to change without intentional effort. Fears emerge and people have fewer cues like body language, proximity, informal or impromptu chats, and social invitations to use to combat ideating on worst-case scenarios.
Results-focused and faster-paced team members may fear losing control—finding it hard to trust that good work is being done from home. They fear a lack of authority to drive results and will resist being too confined to a set routine. These results-focused and more careful team members fear appearing incompetent to others, lacking time to prepare or being rushed to make a decision, or being left out of decision making. So you may see those fears emerge.
Faster-paced relational team members fear public failure or being taken advantage of, and these behaviors can emerge under stress conditions. They may be feeling excluded or anxious about unresolved conflict. For your more careful relational team members, stress brings a fear of instability when facing sudden surprises or constant change in routine and responsibility. They also may shut down if they feel a lack of cooperation or are pressed to come to decision before processing both thoughts and feelings.
This means your team members will experience the current situation, current goals, and current agendas in potentially very different ways. While you may all have a common goal, the approaches to reaching the goal may be quite different, and the support your team needs from you to reach that goal will look different for each of them. This doesn’t have to be bad news. It means that, with a bit of intention, you can make each team member feel heard, supported, and engaged, even while everyone is working remotely.
START WITH YOUR “UNIQUE,” UNDERSTAND THEIR UNIQUE
As a manager who wants to get the best from her team, you can start by knowing your own preferences. This will help you in a few ways. First, you will understand your own needs and how to ask for what you need when you are in stress mode. In addition, knowing your starting point will give you an idea of how much effort and intention you need when adjusting to meet the needs of your team.
If you are fast-paced and results-driven and you are managing a more careful relational team member, you will need to be very intentional about slowing your pace, spending time checking in on the personal with your team member, and helping him or her feel safe and supported before driving toward the result you want to see. You can do this successfully, but it will take intention and effort to do so. Consider it the path to getting your result. On the other hand, if you are working with someone who is also results- focused and fast-paced, you won’t have to adjust much at all to convey the same goal or information.
If you tend to move quickly and are more relational, and you need to work with a team member who is more careful and results-focused, you will again need significant intention and effort to match that style of communication. You will need to slow your pace down, give the person time to think through answers, and be prepared to provide details or to review information in detail. This will likely feel extremely uncomfortable, as it doesn’t feel fast enough or is too “in the weeds,” but your careful, results-focused team member will appreciate it and feel supported and understood.
PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH
In our organization, we do more one-on-one calls than we used to. Our leaders reach out to each team member every day or every few days, depending on the team members’ needs. These conversations range from just checking in on how people are feeling and what they are struggling with to getting more specificity on the planning or delivery of projects.
Our leadership team meets every morning for 15 minutes. This allows us to check in on each other, provide updates on our team’s projects, and ask for help where we need it. In addition, during this pandemic, we have added sharing something we are grateful for. This simple addition has increased our connection with one another tremendously and is now one of the things many team members look forward to the most about our daily check-ins.
We have also leveraged video calling much more than in the past. We find it helpful to see each other as we conduct our regular meetings. Occasionally, we will ask on these calls that everyone share something from the space they are working in—like the time everyone introduced dogs or children to the team. This show-and-tell was another fun way to connect. A virtual coffee break or happy hour could serve the same purpose in keeping team members connected and creating a shared experience for the team.
We have also leveraged chat capability and are using that with each other more. We had that capability in the past, but we standardized on a platform and have really encouraged real-time sharing. We have again seen that our team feels more connected, gets answers faster, and can have “hallway” conversations even with everyone being remote. We find that this unscheduled way of connecting is an excellent addition to the more formal remote work processes we have, such as our daily check-in meetings.
While the work may need to get done and the circumstances and priorities may have changed, you need to communicate those changes to your team in a way they can connect with and that makes them feel understood and supported. Doing so can be the difference between teams that come out of the situation stronger and more connected and those that have to reestablish trust and norms for work when they return to an in-person office or hybrid environment.
About the Author: Nikki Evans is chief learning officer for DNA Behavior International. She leads training programs, team events and workshops designed to guide people to achieve greater self-empowerment, make Behaviorally SMART decisions and accelerate their performance. Hugh Massie, a global pioneer in human performance acceleration through the practical application of validated behavioral insights, is CEO and founder, DNA Behavior. He is co-author of Leadership Behavior DNA: Discovering Natural Talents and Managing Differences (Freedomstar Media, January 2020), with Lee Ellis.