When you are in the office, you normally talk with those who are around you. As a human, you are influenced by proximity, among other things. When individuals are working from home, several things can happen:
- Communication among employees focuses only on tasks. People will fail to build relationships with their colleagues and end up feeling like a bunch of strangers working on a random task.
- People feel isolated and lonely, resulting in mental health problems, disengaged employees, and higher turnover.
- Individuals with difficulty managing their workday or using technology will be left behind. Their productivity will drop.
In the current situation brought about by covid-19, people who do not live alone have to work in potentially less than ideal situations. Think about working parents, couples living in small houses, people with a bad internet connection. If your workforce is suddenly forced to work from home or you split your workforce into different groups to reduce the number of staff members and create the possibility for social distance, you will experience that managing people is different. The main difference is that your managing needs to be more intentional. If you rely only on your gut judgments and feelings, you will see the consequences of your actions very soon. Between the employees, the distance, physical and temporal, means that unclear communication will have bigger negative consequences than usual.
What is the purpose of communication?
Communication has two main functions in companies:
- Share information with employees so that they can make work-related decisions.
- Build and maintain relationships among colleagues to be familiar enough with each other that some basic level of trust exists.
The first function is work-related. The interaction between colleagues is purpose-driven. You seek feedback, discuss performance standards, brainstorm ideas, solve a problem, and exchange your views about a potential vendor. The point is that the interaction is focused and work-related.
The second function is not-work related. It's not about getting work done, but about simple human interaction. It's the type of interaction you have at the water cooler. It's talking about human stories, what your colleagues did during the weekend. On Friday's, with my NUIG colleagues, we talk about the weekend driving the kids here and there, dinner with the in-laws. That kind of stuff. Monday's we again talk about the weekend, the stuff kids did. Whatever happened. While this interaction is not work-related, it builds familiarity. That is important for work-related communication. It lays the foundation.
3 things you should be doing now
- Adapt your KPIs, objectives, performance standards, whatever you call them. This creates breathing room for your employees. It also sends a clear signal of what you expect. It creates certainty for your employees. It also shows that you are a human being and can empathize with your employees' situation.
- Develop a small but crucial set of communication tools: What tool will be used to replace face-to-face communication? Where will you store project-specific decisions? What tool will you use to replace the whiteboard?
- Measure how you communicated before the sudden change. This is your benchmark. This is what you want to recreate. If you have communicated electronically, take that data, create your organizational communication network data, and analyze it. My inbox is open for help. If you don't have that type of data or don't want to use it, create a quick survey (5 minutes max) to measure your organizational communication network data. Again, my inbox is open. I can send you a template. If you have any other HR data (engagement, culture, etc.), keep measuring it. This is your insight into how your people are doing, how the current situation impacts them.
Suddenly remote: 5 do's
Now you know how important communication is for your employees, and you know that you need to step up how intentional you manage your team. Below is a list of more resources about managing remote teams. Read the ones that are relevant for you, and take notes.
- Clearly communicate to your employees that you don't expect them to perform at the same productivity level as before. Make it explicit - write it down - what the minimum is that you expect. This creates safety.
- Over-communicate. Marcus Wermuth said it first. You might think that you are repeating yourself, but you need to be super clear and explicit when working online. I always remember a colleague telling me that they used to tell students to "scroll down to the end of the page” It's the digital version of "turn the page".
- Check-in with your team members. You need to develop an awareness of someone's mental health without seeing them. This is going to be difficult. Pay attention to team members who are slowly participating less and less in online communication. Sometimes people need to disconnect. That's ok. Establish the rule that disconnecting is ok, but needs to be announced. For example, November is a tough month for me. I'm active in the workfrom slack group. I told them that I'd be disconnected during the next 20 days. If you analyze your team's communication data, you can use this to measure a drop in interaction or a drop in the number of people with whom someone interacts. These are red flags and tell you that someone is disengaging.
- Bridge your silos! Every company has some degree of departmentalization. Individuals talk more with those inside their group than others. That's ok and helps teams being efficient. These silos can become stronger and stronger when working from home. The chances that you see someone is less when working remotely. This means that silos can become stronger. This will hurt your company. You are less agile and innovative.
- Schedule virtual coffee chats or lunch or whatever your company used to do face-to-face to get together. If you never did that, do it now to help your team come together. We all need breaks. The point is to break the loneliness from working from home, to help your team members’ well-being. You could all cook the same thing, or you can order food for your team members and have it delivered. You should have these virtual sessions open for partners, kids, and pets to join.
- As a manager or business owner, you should create a list of needs your team members might have or things they can help out with. Communities are crucial right now. Maybe someone doesn't want to go out anymore, do the groceries for them. Take care of kids, offer lessons online, take out someone's dog. Or seemingly smaller: Send your employees a letter, telling them that you support them through this time, add a game for their kids, or some paper. You have no idea how valuable normal paper is for working parents. And pens. I started to guard my pens. And glue.
- I said it before, but do not keep the same performance standards. Just don't. The situation already burdens your employees; they don't need your pressure. A good friend struggles to keep her young son occupied while maintaining an 8-hour shift and making sure that her house is not a complete mess. She was told to do as much as she can, but this is not enough for a perfectionist. She needs clear standards about what is expected. Setting clear and lower standards helps your employees get a feeling of accomplishment.
- Don't schedule unnecessary meetings. Really think about what needs to be discussed. If it’s more of an update, send an email. Remember, a lot can be done with track changes and comments. Not everything requires face-to-face discussion.
- Don't overload your employees with tools. There are a ton of tools. But a tool is just a tool. What problem should the tool solve? Be clear on that. Also, remember, each tool requires your employees to learn how to use it. This means changing behaviors. Changing behavior is taxing. Everyone who tried to quit smoking, eat healthier, do more fitness, be less social media, etc., knows that.
- Avoid one-to-one communication. One-to-one communication takes time and reduces transparency. It also means that if you aren't there, the communication web breaks down. Certain things should be said in one-to-one communication. Other information should be open for all.
Of course, these resources are biased by my recent interaction. Some names are always on my mind or in my social media feed. The point is there are a lot of resources. Take care that you are not being exploited through your sudden need and the urgency of the situation.
- Several people are doing a lot of great work in the field of remote work. It is important to keep in mind that working remotely and suddenly working from home isn't the same thing. Gonzalo Hall is among the many who have written about why this sudden move to working from home is not the same as becoming a remote company.
- Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, is one of the leading voices on remote work. Check out their work.
- Companies like Github, Zapier, NearForm, Basecamp, Automattic, Buffer, Doist have done remote work for a very long time. Check out the resources they have about managing remote employees.
- GrowRemote, while focusing on building offline communities to support remote workers, has a big network of dispersed members with different skills set. They are offering resources and meetings with experts. The key point GrowRemote can offer is that they are excellent at building and mobilizing communities. This is what you need to know.
- Workplaceless offers regular networking events and remote working skills. If you see someone struggle with working from home, set them up with this learning opportunity.
- Virtual not Distant is a wonderful podcast. Future of Work is also great if you want to learn about remote work, Yonder is another.
- workfrom.co is one of my favorite online communities. Join and have a chat. There also created a forum with question and answers; all provided from the community. Weekly QA is just being implemented.
- If you are struggling with the transition, check our the remoteworkmates slack group.