Far away and yet so close: How managers stay connected to remote employees

When the pandemic hit, many companies were not prepared to transfer teams to their home office immediately - all communication had to be moved into the digital space. Fortunately, what initially seemed unimaginable to some companies turned out to be a catalyst for new, flexible working models that are now leading to great employee satisfaction. 

While a remote setting offers many benefits, such as more flexibility and autonomy, at the same time there are potential challenges and more room for misunderstandings. To prevent misconceptions, here are a few simple yet highly effective approaches.

The right amount of communication for an efficient workflow

Eliminating the need to commute and be physically present in a shared office has a very positive impact: there are fewer interruptions, and therefore, more intense focus times when teams and individuals can work undisturbed. Things that at first glance seem self-evident require precise and daily planning, full transparency, and respect for each other. In order to start and finish all meetings on time, daily planning with buffer times is required. Buffers between meetings to drink a glass of water, collect thoughts and prepare for and follow up on what has been discussed is crucial for an efficient workflow. If a meeting does not add value, managers and employees should evaluate necessary changes, at the same time be open to cancelling them completely.

As in the physical environment, the leadership style needs adaptation to the situation. For example, communication via several channels at the same time (emails, Slack messages, phone calls) might create the expectation that all messages might need immediate and equal attendance hence potentially leading to a state of feeling overwhelmed. It helps to communicate the expectations and purpose of the respective channels. Emails can be used for official communications with long-term relevant content and can be provided with an appropriate subject that summarises a topic, relevance, and a deadline at a glance. Whilst instant messages are suitable for quick communication and phone calls for very urgent matters that require immediate feedback. 

Build trust with regular and open exchanges 

Whether in the office or remotely, trust is the fundamental prerequisite for great teamwork, along with good communication. A busy schedule often leaves no room for personal conversations in a remote environment. In regular 1:1 conversations, with purposely allocated time for small talk, the manager can learn more about their direct report and communicate appreciation at the same time. 

Understanding the direct reports’ individual needs (i.e. style of working) helps to get to know a person better, and thus better assess individual situations. Getting to know each other on a personal level in a remote environment brings different challenges than meeting personally in an office space. In the remote environment, there is no opportunity for spontaneous and random conversations at the coffee machine as there might be in the office. A nice way to meet in the remote environment can be by using, virtual coffee meetings or walk&talks (phone conversations held while walking far from the office or desk) - can help people get to know one another better - being in movement while speaking helps to encourage informal conversations about challenging topics while coming up with new creative ideas by being on the move. 

As in any situation in which people communicate with each other, circumstances can easily be misunderstood in a remote setting, despite good agreements. In the office environment, it is the manager’s job to seek dialog with the employees: How was the situation perceived? What was actually meant? How to deal with similar situations in the future? The same applies to managers: If a mistake was made, it helps to openly communicate about it. That way, the parties involved can reflect on it together and avoid a similar situation in the future.

Rules and structures for communication create liabilities

For the general coordination of work in remote or hybrid teams, it is even more important to block one's availability in the calendar. Unlike in the office, team members in the remote environment do not see when people are available. Communication tools such as Slack make it possible to automatically communicate one's status through calendar integration - in addition, colleagues can be informed about absences (e.g. vacation, illness, or lunch break) based on the status. Additionally with this, managers should empower targeted focus times free of meetings for their employees and themselves. 

Communicating emotions in virtual space

Limitations of virtual communication tools can arise because of the physical distance and lead to individuals not having their say sufficiently in video conferences. Here, too, it is helpful for managers to know the team members on a more personal level, to classify their personalities (who appreciates being addressed directly, who feels overwhelmed), and to give the meetings a structure, for example, through a defined sequence.

To create a positive work atmosphere in the team, the manager could provide a buffer for non-business-related conversations in internal meetings. One possibility is to ask how everyone is doing at the beginning of a conversation, to report on the weekend, or to share about the lunch break after lunch - little things that are usually taken for granted or at times visible in the office. In addition, meetings with the camera switched on enables the exchange in the virtual space to be more personal and closest to a face-to-face interaction. This allows all participants to perceive and respond to the reactions of their conversation partners through facial expressions and gestures. Photos for internal communication tools also enable a digital identity and personalise the exchange. 

In the remote setting, mental health plays a central role. In situational leadership, it helps the manager to keep the health of team members in mind. It is recommended to raise awareness of the issue within the team by the manager encouraging employees to take care of their holistic health (physical, nutritional, and mental health), providing tips to employees on company level by offering sports and meditations through apps or remote events such as health weeks can be very beneficial to create awareness. 

Working from different locations with new, digital means of communication requires some coordination by supervisors, especially in the beginning. 

Feb 2022 - 4 min read

Tuba Vogel

Tuba Vogel

Tuba is Chief People Officer at Expertlead. Before joining Expertlead, Tuba successfully completed her Masters at Middlesex Business School London and her Bachelors at the University of Applied Sciences Aachen. She then started her career in human resources and with that has been pursuing her passion for scaling international tech startups, setting up processes, especially shaping their corporate culture and values among others.

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