You Can’t Check In Too Often With Your Remote Employees

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Working in an office, there’s a rhythm of once-a-week meetings and periodic check-ins, supplemented by casual elevator updates (“Hey, I just talked to Julie …”). But now that your staff is spread out on couches and in kitchens, you need a new communication strategy. Top management experts shared their tips.

Talk More

“Short and frequent is the pattern that works,” says Timothy Clark, chief executive officer of LeaderFactor, a training and consulting organization. “Employee engagement is dynamic and delicate. If you don’t communicate frequently, people disengage and lose productivity.”

Your staffers are now doing without the normal smiles and chitchats that build trust. “We don’t realize how much we adjust our behavior when seeing another person’s micro-nuances,” says Leigh Thompson, professor of dispute resolution and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Invest in daily, 10-minute check-ins with your teams, or one-on-ones with independent workers. “Sometimes managers are reluctant because they’re worried about being viewed as micromanaging,” says Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Indeed, the same strategy that is overkill in an office is essential remotely.

Be Human

Virtual teams tend to focus on getting down to business, Thompson says. Don’t do that. “People will stop behaving in warm, constructive, compassionate ways because they aren’t getting constant, real-time human feedback.”

Videoconferencing reinforces human connection and helps set the right tone. “Right now, more than normally, the behavior and emotions you model are going to be watched and imitated,” Larson says. Lead through candor and compassion.

Schmooze

Your new role includes facilitating positive team-bonding activities daily. “Research shows that these interactions increase trust among team members and, in turn, affect how much they like each other,” says Larson. That “actually impacts work outcomes,” she says. Easy virtual options include:

  • coffee hour
  • happy hour (with or without bosses)
  • pizza party (on the company dime)
  • sharing playlists or social media on nonwork topics (parenting, pets, etc.)

Let ’Em Fight

Learn how teammates disagree online. “Conflict takes a different form when we’re not face-to-face,” says Thompson. She suggests a mock debate over a low-stakes issue. Some people will avoid conflict, others will gently disagree, and some will be combative. When it’s over, the team will have survived, and it’ll be better prepared when a real issue arises.

Be Gentle

If you have to communicate that someone’s performance is uncharacteristically subpar, make it a conversation, not a formal assessment. Try, “We need to have a chat about what’s going on here and figure out if this is something that can be resolved,” says Larson. Listen, she says, and don’t assume that poor work will be the norm going forward.

Go Deep

“Check in on everyone’s emotional states,” says Clark, who calls this “emotional engagement management.” He suggests conversation starters such as:

  • “We’re gonna get through this, but in order to do that, I really need to know how you’re doing.”
  • “What’s your biggest obstacle?”
  • “What can I do to help you?”

Then zip it. This isn’t the moment to launch into your problems. “Let her talk for a while, and find out what’s going on,” says Larson. “Show that you hear her—state back some of what she says, express sympathy and empathy, and offer support.”

Now is the time to project leadership through genuine concern. “People can smell your intent,” says Clark. “You can’t fake it.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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