When Covid hit, it introduced organizations to a very unfamiliar situation that compelled us to adapt to a remote work setting almost in no time. As the initial days of the lockdown turned into weeks, the effects started emerging — the fear of the virus, anxiety of job loss, stress of new routines, feelings of isolation, etc. These were times that no organization was prepared for, and with uncertainty looming large, the leaders and HR had to huddle together and rewrite the people management playbook.
‘Soft is Hard, Hard is Soft’, says Tom Peters. We quickly realized that our emphasis had to be on soft measures, to make sure our people were feeling positive and working with the same energy and purpose.
While a lot has been written about managing a remote workforce in the last year, this article captures our approach through five things that could apply to any business and cultural context.
1] Enquire: Use polls, surveys, and chatbots to sense the pulse of the organization at regular intervals. These surveys should be designed to elicit responses that help gauge the emotional state of people, their ability to balance work with family, challenges in communication and collaboration, work-related issues like IT connectivity and access rights, etc. Managers and HR Business Partners should action these findings at the individual and team levels.
In addition, Managers should have regular one-on-one conversations with each team member. These informal engagements go a long way in calming nerves and reassuring people.
2] Empathize: Listen attentively and patiently to team members, acknowledge their individual problems and challenges, allow suitable flexibility in work schedules where possible, and most importantly — help them realize that they are not alone in this.
Meeting agendas can be restructured to provide time for appreciation and personal problem sharing. It is important that all individual and group interactions begin and end on a positive note. Allowing “video off” interactions and accepting sudden family interruptions while in meetings signals care and respect for the individual.
3] Engage: It is essential that leaders talk to the organization at regular intervals, sharing details of the state of business and near-term plans. It is paramount that these forums be used to alleviate fears of job loss and pay cuts and to quell rumor mills. The key is to not just communicate, but to over-communicate.
“Thank you” meets to acknowledge the contributions of all those who have gone beyond the call of duty and kept the work engines running (e.g., IT and Facilities teams) are big morale boosters.
Introducing new joinees in team meetings, having virtual water coolers that enable non-work conversations, team coffee breaks, one-on-ones with CXOs, and virtual organization-wide events that keep bonding and social connections alive are a big part of the remote playbook.
4] Exchange: Manager-to-Manager webinars to exchange notes on good practices for managing their teams remotely, posts on internal blogs, and sharing of videos on how people have turned adversity into opportunity are some ways to share and learn from individual experiences and successes.
5] Experiment: With the office being out of bounds, people obviously miss brainstorming using whiteboards, working from collab zones, the freedom to just walk up to colleagues, and the smoke breaks they have together. With remote work, serious and constant experimentation is needed to recreate the experience that people otherwise had onsite. Using innovative tools for collaboration, revising stand up and meeting routines, defining work and home boundaries, and embracing asynchronous communication are some tried and tested methods being used by remote teams to bring back efficiency and effectiveness.
Last year, the future of work arrived with the blink of an eye. Even after normalcy returns, it is crucial that the learnings of the last year stay with us. The biggest lesson from this period has been that when faced with unprecedented change, you don’t need to resort to tectonic shifts and complex game-plans — it is the ‘little big things’ that can make the most difference.