While some people have been working remotely for years, fully distributed remote working across teams has previously been rare. However, within the last few months, we have seen a complete shift in working practices.

With unparalleled speed and agility, most business operations moved to fully virtual environments due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Even though most business continuity plans include remote work as a planned emergency response action, details around actual implementation are often vague. As a result, many of the workers on these newly remote teams have been thrust into a new world of work with little notice, few formal guidelines and minimal resources.

Mangers must now work out how to influence employee performance, satisfaction and wellbeing within a remote working environment—one which is likely to continue for some time. Although many managers are also new to working remotely full-time, it’s vital that they adapt quickly and effectively. Research shows that the manager-employee relationship has the biggest influence on improved and sustained employee health. 

By taking steps to strengthen the quality of manager-employee relationships, managers can provide an important buffer against the potentially negative outcomes of full-time remote work. Research shows that a manager’s trust and support, as well as the quality of communication with employees, are among the most important factors contributing to satisfaction for remote workers.

Here are 4 ways to support employee engagement, health and wellbeing in a remote working environment.

1.    Communicating virtually

Stay in touch

It’s important for managers and employees working remotely to meet more often. This ensures individualised attention and appropriate support is given to each team member.

For effective one-on-one meetings, consider prioritising the following 4 things in each conversation:

  • Build the relationship: Set aside time for unplanned and informal communication
  • Discuss the work: Clarify priorities and milestones and explore current or anticipated barriers to performance
  • Share recognition: Remind employees how their roles link to team goals and organisational strategy, while thanking them for their contributions
  • Provide compassionate and timely support: Inquire about the specific remote work challenges each employee is facing and ask what support would help. Also ask about the non-work-related issues that might impact an employee’s ability to work well during this time

Mix it up

It’s easy to rely on the convenience of email, but when a team is working remotely, multiple modes of communication are recommended. For example, instant messaging can be used for quick questions. Phone calls offer information-exchanging opportunities in the same way that hallway and breakroom conversations do in an office environment.

Managers should also encourage video-conferencing so that some meetings include face-to-face interactions. Even when used sparingly, video is an effective means of building relationships remotely. If your organisation uses video intermittently rather than as the norm, it’s good practice to provide advance notice before a video meeting. This prevents the call from feeling intrusive, and it gives employees time to prepare themselves and their surroundings accordingly. Appreciating that work meetings are now being held within someone’s home and personal space, and being flexible around the challenges that this might pose, can help maintain good levels of trust and loyalty. 

2.    Facilitating social collaboration

Social support is an important driver of employee engagement, wellbeing and retention. 

When working remotely for long periods of time, people may begin to feel isolated. They may be more likely to feel passed over for promotions or overlooked for the recognition they deserve. They are also more likely to get stuck on a project because they are not sure where to turn for help.

Proper social support and recognition can mitigate the anxiety and stress that leads to burnout or exhaustion. Managers must establish remote practices that foster trust, support, and knowledge sharing.

To build your team’s virtual culture, schedule time to convene as a group weekly, or more often, depending on the amount of collaboration required for your team to perform. In team meetings, make it the norm to invite participation from everyone.  This gives quieter employees the opportunity to be heard. Managers can also encourage and role-model behaviours that promote productivity and knowledge sharing. This includes:

  • Using meeting time wisely
  • Allowing time for introductions and greetings
  • Having an agenda for participants to follow
  • Sharing questions for consideration in advance (or pre-reading if appropriate)
  • Documenting action items and takeaways 
  • Facilitating discussion

Managers can also encourage efficiency when exchanging information. Relying on email to collaborate and share files can easily become difficult to track. Instead, consider using services that allow for shared virtual workspaces and simultaneous collaboration. A good project plan, whether in a homegrown spreadsheet or sophisticated software, helps teams and managers coordinate dependent tasks for large, complex projects. Planning and tracking work details is important when teams are co-located, and even more so when they are fully remotely distributed.

In addition to meeting each week to align on work, virtual teams can also benefit from meeting regularly just for fun. These social gatherings should be inclusive, relaxed and provide opportunities for employees to celebrate milestones, share personal updates and find common interests. It’s important that these more informal meetings are optional, as there will be individuals who might find them uncomfortable or slightly invasive. 

3.    Managing expectations

One of the unique challenges facing remote workers in the current pandemic is the sharing of remote workspaces with spouses, roommates or children. This isn't typical under usual circumstances, but reasonable in an emergency situation. During extraordinary times such as these, managers should demonstrate flexibility, while establishing important boundaries.

It’s generally recommended that managers align with their remote employees on certain expectations, such as an appropriate work environment and hours of availability. Having a quiet, distraction-free place to work may not always be achievable during a crisis, but clear expectations can still be set for committed response times and core hours of availability. Defined response times give employees control over how to best focus their time while ensuring they are sufficiently responsive to colleagues. Establishing core hours of availability ensures employees can access their colleagues during certain blocks of time each day. Such arrangements are especially important for teams in different time zones.

The importance of trust and autonomy 

Trust is fundamental to successfully managing remote work. Managers must shift to assessing employee performance based on results, instead of observed effort. Remote managers will benefit from focusing less on how and when work gets done, emphasising instead whether work meets quality expectations and is delivered on time. For this management system to be feasible, employees and managers must work together to set clear objectives, identify specific tasks to achieve, and document timelines for completion. Guidelines should also be established around when to provide updates to managers, how to review deliverables, how success is measured, and who will make decisions. This means explicitly clarifying any areas of role ambiguity for employees.

Remote workers are empowered and more satisfied when granted the discretion to determine how and when to do their work, within reason. That means assigning responsibility while affording remote employees the proper amount of autonomy. What counts as “proper” autonomy will differ based on each person’s individual needs and capacity. Scheduling flexibility may be appreciated by newer employees, while more experienced employees are likely to prefer more discretion to make decisions independently. Identify what is meaningful to each employee and offer them the amount of autonomy they can handle. 

Keep in mind that allowing people more autonomy without the skills, experience and resources they need is likely to result in stress and confusion. Whilst training and development may not have been a priority initially, as we accept that remote working may be a reality for some time to come, it’s important to re-focus on employee learning and development to ensure engagement and motivation. Helping someone to create a vision for the future which includes development opportunities will also help counter the stress associated with the loss of previous plans. Creating a sustainable, realistic vision for the future is vital for peoples’ mental health and wellbeing.

4. Coaching performance

Coaching is an important element of the employee-manager relationship. But many managers often find it difficult to provide specific, timely and objective feedback, even when they observe performance daily. Coaching requires an inquisitive and curious approach, but some managers, especially as levels of stress build, easily slip into “telling mode” regardless of whether they are remote or in-person. The following tips can help you maintain productive coaching sessions with your remote staff:

Adapt coaching conversations

Without the opportunity to read non-verbal and contextual cues, remote managers need to rely even more heavily on open-ended questions. Some may find it useful to leverage a structured process or set of questions to guide each conversation. It’s also advisable to invite others to contribute to the agenda and ensure there is ample time to discuss role and organisational expectations as well as employee wellbeing.

Facilitate individual discretion

As in any coaching situation, managers should focus on understanding each employee’s unique challenges and strengths, while growing their capacity to handle decisions autonomously. When it comes to employee discretion, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Increased autonomy is generally related to higher job satisfaction for remote workers, but some employees experience strain when offered increased autonomy. It’s important to discuss the amount of autonomy you will require from employees and check in with them frequently to determine if they need additional support. At a minimum, managers might consider each employee’s capacity for added decision-making responsibilities, set boundaries and explicitly communicate all the information employees need to make sound decisions.

Empower with support

Managers should regularly inquire as to where support is needed and help employees overcome challenges without being overly directive. Figuring out what each employee needs does not have to be a guessing game. In fact, most people would appreciate if managers directly inquired about their needs and preferences more often. This sets a baseline for transparency and sends a clear message that managers are open for discussion about topics that are important to employees. 

Asking an employee what they are finding most difficult about the current working situation indicates that you’re interested in the response and not embarrassed to ask potentially difficult questions. Remember that as a manager you don’t have to have all the answers or understand the particular context your employees are managing. Simply listening compassionately and collaborating to find a helpful way forward is a good way to be supportive and ensure employee wellbeing. Familiarising yourself with the support networks and opportunities within your organisation and having contact details at hand means you can respond quickly and signpost people to the help they need. 

Set an example

For a manager to earn credibility as a coach and garner appreciation for their remote leadership style, they must role-model expected employee behaviours themselves. This will remind others of the standards expected and demonstrate how to implement them effectively. 

It’s also important to be available to employees. Remote managers must respond with urgency to employees’ concerns. All team members need to have equal access to managers, though some may require more time and support than others.

Compassion related leadership

Research shows that showing warmth, compassion and curiosity when a person is in difficulty or has made a mistake, fosters better relationships between employees and managers than more traditional punitive measures. We know that when people witness compassionate leadership, they are also more likely to be loyal. As we are especially sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders and managers it’s important that anyone in a leadership position effectively role models empathic and compassionate responses. This is especially true in challenging times when frustration would be an understandable response. Particularly if timescales are tight and mistakes reflect badly on you as a leader. 

‘Compassion is the ability to notice and respond to your own and others distress in ways that are helpful and to act proactively to alleviate and prevent.’ (Paul Gilbert 2010)

It can be challenging to be empathic when you are dealing with overwhelm and stress yourself. So, it’s important that managers prioritise their own wellbeing and develop an effective source of support for themselves. While remote managers must offer adequate support to their employees, they also require support from their organisations and senior management. Senior leaders can provide managers with ongoing leadership coaching and role-model the healthy remote-work habits expected in the organisation. During times of crisis, senior leaders can also add value by communicating with employees more often, providing regular business updates and making it known that employee wellbeing is a priority.

Ultimately, managers and senior leaders alike should strive to build stronger relationships with their remote employees. To do this effectively, they can relinquish control and trust remote employees to exercise more discretion, while at the same time determining what they can do to help meet the unique needs of each team member.

Written by: Kirsty Lilley

Kirsty has delivered mindfulness and self-compassion courses to a wide variety of workplaces during her career and is also a trained psychotherapist and coach. She has worked at a strategic level within organisations developing wellbeing policies and been responsible for developing training courses on improving mental health and wellbeing, as well as courses designed to help line managers support people with mental health difficulties effectively and continually works towards the reduction of stigma within workplace settings. Kirsty is committed to an integrated and compassionate approach when helping others to fulfil their potential.

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