Four Ways Managers Can Build Closer Remote Teams

Four Ways Managers Can Build Closer Remote Teams

By Tricia O'Connor

If we didn’t all know it before COVID-19, we do now: working from home is tough. The constant juggling act between work duties, childcare, homeschool, cleaning, fitness, and maintaining emotional connection can leave employees feeling drained, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Adrenaline carried most of us through the first few weeks of this forced remote transition, but now the pace, loneliness, and utter disruption to our routines is starting to fray our nerves.

Managers are unfortunately caught in the middle. Your team is looking to you for guidance, support, and confidence. Meanwhile, leadership is sharing potentially dicey business operation projections. Oh, and you’re sharing a home “office” with a partner and two rambunctious children.

EBI understands the difficulties of managing remote teams during this pandemic. In fact, our entire staff is 100% remote and fully operational. We have, however, discovered that despite our distance from each other, our team is closer than ever. So, we thought we’d share some of the personal touches that have helped our already savvy managers keep up morale among teams. Read on for inspiration!

1. Practice Empathy

At its core, empathy is compassion; The ability to understand someone’s thoughts and feelings and take their concerns into consideration. While humans may be born with the capacity for empathy, it’s actually a learned behavior. As a manager, you probably already know you’re supposed to be empathetic, but you may not know why or how to put it into practice.

There are tremendous benefits of being an empathetic people manager. Businessolver’s 2017 Workplace Empathy Monitor Report shows 77% of workers would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace. Considering pay cuts are happening across industries because of coronavirus, it is more important than ever to practice empathy. 

The good news is that empathy is a life skill that can be practiced anywhere – even at home. During this COVID-19 chaos, managers can continue to stretch their empathy muscles by focusing on employee wellbeing as it relates to employee productivity. Showing that you’re coming from a place of concern rather than business advancement, is important while families are juggling new realities and people are struggling with mental health challenges. Scheduling check-ins with your team members provides you an opportunity to gauge their stress levels, address any work concerns, and simply get to know them in their new environments.

Stepping into their shoes shows you care about them as employees, and more importantly, as human beings.

2. Video is Key

There is something about seeing a person that fosters a deeper connection than just conversing through email or a phone call. Catherine Mattice, a workplace culture expert with Civility Partners, says video conferences are great tools to use during this time to connect with employees. Being able to see your team member’s work environment or read their body language can give you additional insight into their reactions and help you practice empathy.

Opening communication among team members, not just in a manager-employee funnel, is also a key step to building morale. As a manager, you may be aware from your check-ins these informal chats are happening organically. In that case, it sounds like your team, like our EBI human resources team, has a strong foundation and has developed coping mechanisms naturally.

“We meet with cameras on as a team once a week and just talk,” explains Julie Mulhern, Director of Human Resources at EBI. “This week, we all met at lunchtime and talked about what we’ve been doing in our spare time, gave ourselves manicures, and showed baby pictures of ourselves. Just staying connected on a human level makes us a stronger team.”

However, if you sense your employees need a little nudge, you can follow this team-building example. EBI has implemented weekly small, scheduled breakout groups called EBI Chats. These interactions are completely social with no business talk allowed, says Marti Kurland, leader of Global Design Culture at EBI.

“We are inviting people to get personal and tell for whom or why they were given their name, what’s on their travel bucket list, and so on. This is an opportunity for us to value people for who they are, not just the job they do. We will laugh and bond and create positive energy.”

But, if all else fails, you can turn yourself into a potato.

3. Be Flexible

In a perfect world, your team would be able to maintain the same projects, schedules, deadlines, and performance standards at home as they do in the office. However, our COVID-19 homebound reality is far from perfect. Babies and toddlers can’t go to daycare. School-aged children must be home-schooled. Sandwich-generation families may be caring for quarantined parents. People with mental health conditions may be struggling. Finances are strained. The cleaning and bleaching don’t stop. And let’s not forget about the dishes – all that cooking is adding up!

This means you may need to relax time-based performance standards and instead have conversations with your employees about what their daily schedule is really like. The Society of Human Resource Management recommends evaluating remote workers on output and completion of objectives.

“Now is the time to trust your team, not expect everything to line up with a normal schedule,” says RJ Frasca, Vice President of Marketing at EBI. “Try setting goals and priorities early in the week, or even the week before, and then having morning stand-up meetings to check in with everyone. Be ready to adapt quickly as priorities will shift quickly in these types of situations. Most importantly, be available to support your teams’ needs.”

So, if your employee needs to work at 5 am and then take a break when their children wake up, let them. Just be sure to communicate when you expect deliverables.

4. Highlight Help

Employees in many industries are scared. They’ve seen the unemployment numbers and wonder if they’re next. Managers need to be able to provide constant and consistent communication. “This level of transparency provides reassurance, clarity, and mitigates fears,” says EBI’s Mulhern.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, EBI’s Executive Leadership met every morning to maintain a pulse on the organization and outside factors. They needed a clear understanding of the economic environment and best business practices during a pandemic. But they didn’t keep all that information to themselves. Instead, they developed weekly All Staff meetings where they openly discussed business operations, economic outlooks, sales updates, employee engagement strategies, and employee resources.

That level of transparency helped build trust, ease employees’ anxieties, promoted positivity, and provided practical information. It also set the tone for how managers could provide information to their teams. If leadership was delivering transparent communication, then they could, too.

In addition to keeping your team informed about approved company information, managers can also help their employees by reminding them about where and how to find help, says Mulhern. Here are some examples:

  • Send reminders about Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)
  • Discuss health and wellness actions employees can take at home
  • Share initiatives to promote employee positivity and engagement
  • Remind employees you are a safe outlet to share concerns, or point them to someone who is

Your employees no longer have the luxury of popping down the hallway to speak with an HR specialist. And, since they’re new to remote work, they may not know where to find that sort of information on the company website. You can help fill that gap and ease their nerves.

EBI is Here

In just one month, COVID-19 has changed our workforce. While this remote hiring binge is in response to a short-term event, it may have long-term benefits for businesses and employees. A 2019 study of remote workers found they are happier and more loyal to their companies. We hope these tips will help you become a happier manager, too.

As always, EBI is here to help. Please don’t hesitate to send us your questions. In the meantime… get to know us and speak with one of our experts.

About the Author

Tricia O'Connor

Tricia O'Connor

Writer. Digital marketer. Storyteller. An award-winning writer and editor, Tricia O'Connor is the Marketing Content Manager at EBI. Tricia worked as a broadcast and print journalist for nearly two decades writing and producing programming for high-profile networks like ESPN Radio, History Channel, and Hallmark Channel, as well as contributing editorial work to publications nationwide. Tricia joined the EBI marketing team in 2019 and is responsible for content strategy, development, and engagement. Tricia earned a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a proud undergraduate alumna of Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

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