by Kevin Eikenberry, co-founder Remote Leadership Institute
The transition from leading from the corner office to leading from home has created a number of logistical and management challenges. We’ve already unpacked a number of those here on this site, in our book, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, and on our COVID-19 resource site.
If you want your team to stay engaged and connected once they are working remotely, you must be more intentional. Engagement and connection will both take a hit when teams begin working at a distance, unless you take intentional, regular action.
I’m using the term engagement here, but I’m not necessarily talking about productivity. I’m talking about the type of interpersonal engagement that build cohesive teams. That’s the glue that holds teams together and it’s the fuel that propels them to greater productivity.
Whether you did anything to promote team building before (I hope you did) or not, some team connections come naturally. Just by being in close proximity, people met in the break room, had chats in the hallway, or popped into each other’s offices to say, “Hello.” As a leader, you didn’t have to do much to let those organic connections to happen. But once everyone is working remotely, all of that is gone. What do you do now?
Recreate the connections from the office
The people you’re leading haven’t changed. They still have the same personalities and the same needs. What’s changed is the setting you now work in. And while that’s a pretty big deal and requires some adjustment, it’s important to remember people are still people.
What leaders can do is facilitate and demonstrate how your new tools (Slack, Zoom, Skype, etc.) can be used to replicate the relational dynamics you had at the office. Let your team know (and show them by going first) that it’s okay to send a Slack message that’s not about work. In fact, you can do what our team does: create a separate channel (we call it the watercooler) where people can talk about non-work topics.
Consider having a “virtual lunch” together. Here’s how we do it: We gather together at an appointed time with our lunches and turn on our webcams. We simply eat and talk (not about work) just like we would if we were seated around the same table in a break room. In fact, the conversation is probably a little bit better. Have you ever tried to have a table of 12 talk to each other in person? It will take some facilitation, but it can be amazingly engaging and fun.
Time for everybody to pitch in
As people have transitioned everyone to work from home during this pandemic, not everyone is having the same experience. In talking to our clients, we are finding that there are unequal workloads across team members. The shift to working remotely for some has resulted in a huge increase in the number of tasks they have to manage. Still others on the team have seen their task list considerably cut due to all of the changes in the economy and the needs for the organization’s work products.
As a leader, you can help even out this disparity by encouraging conversations and reaching out. Let your swamped team members know it’s okay for them to ask for help. Similarly, encourage those with less on their plates to reach out and lend a hand when possible to pick up some of the overflow.
Times of crisis can be great time of camaraderie when this dynamic of mutual help gets established. Teams grow stronger when everyone works together to meet a challenge.
The traditional “team building” activities like ropes course and “trust falls” are off the table in this time of isolation. So what can leaders do to promote more closeness? Get creative.
We recently had a “funniest meme” contest where everybody found a COVID-related meme and posted it on our watercooler Slack channel. We then voted on the one we liked best with the winner getting a gift card. I’ve also used “surveys” with groups I’ve consulted with, having them cite their favorite movie or song and challenging teammates to match the results to the right person. Those are fun, revealing, and remind us of something critically important when we don’t see each other every day: we’re still human.
If you’re a larger team, many of the communication tools like Zoom have “breakout” features that allow you to assign people into smaller groups. Consider this option to spur more conversation and interaction.
Whatever you do, make sure you keep your team’s interaction front and center on your priority list. It’s not that some of these immediate challenges aren’t important; it’s that your team’s cohesion and unity is ultimately what will determine your level of success, both during this crisis and well after it’s over. If you want to make sure your team stays connected, start doing things as a leader to connect them.
Team building is just one topic I’ll be covering in our upcoming workshop, How to Create and Manage Remote Teams. This workshop is part of our Remote Leadership Certificate Series and we’re offering it as a stand-alone workshop for all the new remote leaders trying to adapt to this new mode of working.