Photo: Kevin Bhagat

Remote Work During Coronavirus: Leadership Matters

Bottom line: employees, last I looked, are people. And we need to protect and support our people during this incredibly tough time. We’re all facing phenomenal degrees of uncertainty as we navigate uncharted and scary territory. We don’t know how bad it will be, how long it will last, or what it will take from us. Anxiety is as common as oxygen right now, and peace of mind as hard to come by as n95 masks. But as you shift your workforce to remote, here’s one small consolation to think about. This is the future of work.

I’m not talking about the pandemic. I’m talking about being able to rely on the power of your work culture and the agility of technology to flex to a different reality. For all of us, the challenge is maintaining continuity without disruption or stoppages, but that’s more complicated than just a punch list of to-dos. There are many companies already doing this, and my own firm has been proudly and very successfully remote for years. So here’s some simple advice. It’s not about technology, but about culture, behavior and human nature:

Exceptional Times Call for Exceptional Tact

Empathy is a word bandied about a lot these days. Now, right now, we’re in a global crisis in which understanding that we are part of a larger social community and being able to imagine being in each other’s shoes may literally improve our chances for survival. 

Your employees are going through incredible stress right now: suddenly facing the prospect of children out of school; trying to figure out how to keep their elderly parents safe; coping with empty supermarket shelves and worse. This is not the best time to take someone to task for being three minutes late to a meeting. 

The More Distance, The More Training

Taking the leap into a digital workspace should not be done alone: whatever your platform, lean on the provider to give your employees all the training they need to feel comfortable. Particularly if your workforce is going to be scattered far and wide, they’re going to need to all be up to speed — and dismal adoption rates on new technologies can often be traced to one simple factor: fear. 

People are facing enough of that, so give them everything they need to comfortably make the switch. And that means tailoring coaching so that even the most technologically insecure member of any team is confident enough to participate. Remote workforces depend on everyone being able to access, communicate and use the technology equally. But that means some need a lot more guidance and help than others. They should never feel penalized for it. Don’t expect everyone to take a single tutorial and know how to navigate. 

Solicit Feedback on Your Work Culture (and Take it to Heart)

Your remote workforce may not have agreed with your assessment of the workplace culture when they were in the same building, but being physically near each other and within a shared workspace often makes up for flaws in the culture. Not so when your workforce is remote. After everyone heads home to work, and as everyone starts using the remote platform that’s bringing them together, conduct some clear and honest surveys to get their feedback on what’s lacking in your work culture. Ask people for their opinions and concerns and give them the time, space and ears they deserve and need to speak up. Listen carefully, and listen well. You need that feedback to find the weak spots — and there won’t be a single organization that doesn’t have them. 

What I have found is that if you don’t bring these issues out into the open, they will fester and compound in the remote environment. But if you solicit employee feedback and then don’t take action on that feedback, you’ll make it worse. Start by reporting the results of your surveys and questions back to your people — and turn it into a clear and shared effort to make things better for all. Be transparent, and be proactive. Both of those traits are even more critical in a remote workplace culture.

Find Your Ambassadors

There are going to be people in your organization that truly care about the success of going remote. These are not brand ambassadors, they’re process ambassadors — those who want to make sure this transition is effective and successful. Good! Instead of assuming their reasons as self-centered, or questioning their motivation, don’t. It may be to their benefit (right now, of course it is) to get their teams and colleagues working smoothly via the remote platform. But that also means you’re aligned in that goal, if not for exactly the same reasons. That’s fine. Alignment is a matter of coming together around shared interests, and finding common ground.

Instead of second-guessing why someone is a team player, actively, clearly acknowledge your appreciation. You need more eyes and ears in a remote organization, as it’s too easy to let communication slide — and there is literally less visibility. Your ambassadors will not only champion the cause and inspire others to make the effort, they can also relay when someone’s having an issue, or has a concern — and make sure you’re aware of it. Why? Because they care. Accept it.

Don’t be a Stranger

Remote leadership is a contradiction in one sense: leaders need to be clearly involved, engaged, and accessible to their people. Don’t be a stranger. Be there more than you think you need to be there, and never appear to be disinterested or busy in meetings. And be present for everyone, whether that means you reach out to everyone in a quick video chat, a daily message and a question all can respond to, a virtual roundtable Q&A, or simply providing your email. Your people need to hear your voice, read your texts, and see your face.

The bigger the organization, the harder this can be to carry out. But take advantage of your tech and communications platforms to make it happen — you knew I wasn’t going to fully ignore how important technology is, didn’t you? Use video, use chats, use virtual conferencing, texts, intranet, messaging, IMs — whatever you already have present in the day-to-day functions of your workplace, optimize them now. I’d work with your teams — not only in HR but in marketing as well — to craft a plan for your presence. Reach out to your managers about what they need from you and when. The same way you consider frequency when it comes to recognition (short, sweet and often is far more effective than rare and overlong), create a cadence of messages and outreach. Stay in your employee’s daily routines. This will matter more than you realize. 

The Last Thing

The last thing you want your remote workforce to have to go through is feeling like they have left the office and that’s the end of their connection to the company. For so many in the workforce on all levels, the rug is being pulled out from under us. But If you approach remote leadership with a real commitment to staying human and staying present, this is just the beginning. And when this is all over, and it will be, your whole organization will be in a far better position to meet the future of work head on.