Why Good Supervisors are Key in Building a Remote Work Culture that Works
Remote work arrangements are nothing new and prior to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, were on the rise. And then, suddenly, last March, organizations that had never considered allowing employees to work from home were forced to pivot. As the country went into lockdown, organizations quickly made arrangements for employees to transition to remote work. An April 8th online article from The Economist, entitled “The Rise of Working from Home”, notes that last spring about 60% of Americans were working from home, compared to just 5% before the pandemic. Now that the COVID vaccine is more widely available and the lockdown requirements are easing, the trend of working from home is likely to stay. Your supervisors will be critical to building and maintaining a healthy remote work culture for your organization.
- A healthy remote work culture requires supervisors to intentionally engage with employees to build relationships and have meaningful conversations.
- To build a healthy remote work culture, supervisors must set clear expectations for their employees and teams and hold them accountable.
- Supervisors must effectively leverage tools and technology with their teams to build a healthy remote culture.
Some organizations, like certified Best Christian Workplace Apartment Life, have made the decision to keep all of their people working remotely. That doesn’t work for every organization, of course. Not every job can be done offsite, but the trends we are seeing indicate that the next generation of workers values the flexibility and autonomy of remote work opportunities. Over the coming months, many workers are or will be looking for positions that offer at least some flexibility for working remote or a hybrid arrangement.
What does this trend towards decentralized work environments mean for the cultures of our organizations? How do you develop and maintain a healthy culture when people aren’t together? We know from our research and the research of organizations like Gallup, that the supervisor is always key. They are the “front line,” communicating the company’s purpose and values to their teams.
In their book It’s the Manager, based on Gallup research, authors Jim Clifton and Jim Harter identify seven behaviors that good supervisors practice:
- Build trust
- Help others become more effective
- Lead change by setting goals
- Inspire others by their confidence and providing recognition
- Gather information and make good decisions
- Communicate regularly
- Create accountability
Each of these behaviors is a factor in communicating what the company values and where it is headed. Supervisors who don’t consistently practice these behaviors often have teams who are less effective and engaged and have lower levels of satisfaction with their jobs. These challenges can be magnified in a remote work environment if supervisors don’t personally connect with their employees.
What is different about managing teams of remote workers and what do supervisors need to do to help build a remote culture that works? Let’s first look at a few examples that illustrate the difference between remote and office work environments.
Lack of Face Time
Probably the most obvious difference is the lack of “face time” that happens casually throughout the day in the office with others. People are isolated in their homes. There are no “water cooler” conversations or chatting over lunch, resulting in fewer opportunities to build relationships through casual interactions. As the lockdown continued into last summer, Pat Lencioni identified the “Five Dysfunctions of a Virtual Team” in his “At the Table” podcast. The first dysfunction he cited was that absence of trust. He notes that trust is based on vulnerability and letting ourselves be known. Without meaningful personal interactions, trust can’t be built, and, over time, trust that may have previously existed will deteriorate.
In Zoom or WebEx meetings we are typically very agenda-focused. These sessions are often more like presentations than real opportunities for discussion. We want to deal with the agenda and get back to work. Having kids (or pets) around video meetings may be a distraction and can create tension or embarrassment for the parent. Understandably, they are less attentive than they might be if they were in a conference room together. We also miss out on those brief connections that naturally happen before or after a meeting when we are in a conference room together.
Lencioni also notes that it is harder to have healthy conflict via Zoom or WebEx. We are less likely to get or give feedback in a virtual environment. It’s easier for people to be disengaged. People who are quiet may be less likely to speak up. Again, if meetings are very agenda-focused and time-restricted, we are less likely to allow adequate opportunities for healthy debate and discussion.
We may become dependent on software and tools for communicating with employees. Productivity tools are great for helping us manage and track tasks and time. If we, as supervisors, are overly dependent on tools to help our teams be efficient but are not regularly talking to our people, we lose that connection as well. Tools are no substitute for building community and relationships.
The Line Between Work and Personal Time
A major difference is the blurring of the line between work and personal time. The Economist article mentioned earlier noted that people are working more hours overall, not fewer when they work remotely. We are more likely to send emails late at night when something crosses our mind, rather than waiting until regular “work hours”. And we may take some time during the day to help a child with schoolwork or run a quick errand. Neither of those is a bad thing if kept in balance, but it is important to set boundaries, so employees do not feel taken advantage of.
Giselle Jenkins, one of our BCWI Consulting Directors, says performance conversations can be another difference between in-office and remote workers. Supervisors need to shift their frame of thinking about performance/progress conversations with remote employees. Progress may look somewhat different, and employees may have grown more than they or the supervisor readily recognize. Learning and job development may look different in a remote environment, particularly in this last year when people were adapting to the remote environment.
All of these differences can weaken personal connections, both supervisor to employee and peer to peer. Supervisors can build and strengthen a healthy remote work culture for individual employees and their teams. Let’s look at some practical approaches to coaching remote employees and teams so they are effective and engaged.
Personal Conversations and Check-ins
It’s easy to depend on emails and productivity tools and think we are communicating what employees need to know and do. But a healthy relationship and work culture require actual, personal conversation. Schedule regular phone calls or Zoom meetings with individual employees to connect both personally and about work. Christyl Buchanan, the Executive Director of HR at Gateway Church in Southlake, TX was a guest recently on The Flourishing Culture Podcast. She shared how Gateway Church improved its employee engagement during the lockdown (Season 6, Episode 12: How to Improve Employee Engagement and Well-Being Remotely). One of the practices they implemented was a weekly one-on-one check-in. During the meeting, each employee rates their week from one to five, with one being a hard week and five being a fantastic week. This gives the supervisor a quick snapshot of the employee’s week that they can follow up on and ask questions about. During the weekly check-in, they also discuss priorities and what the employee accomplished or didn’t accomplish and reset priorities together for the next week. They also ask for feedback on different events to help them understand what challenges employees may be facing or what they are learning.
These types of conversations that Christyl describes are important for establishing expectations, creating accountability, and providing encouragement. The goal is not only for supervisors to be aware of what is going on but for supervisors to really connect and have meaningful dialogue with individual employees.
By creating informal opportunities to get employees together, Pat Lencioni said Zoom can be more than just a business tool. It can be a platform for human interaction, and he suggests using it as a conference room to hang out over a meal or even to work alongside each other or other team members on your individual tasks.
Robert Bortins, Jr., CEO of Classical Conversations in Southern Pines, NC, and a regular guest on The Flourishing Culture Podcast shared practical suggestions they utilize to lead their remote teams (Season 6, Episode 12: Important Advice on Managing Remote Employees). Using the right tools in the right way is important to create a virtual workspace that facilitates interaction and builds community. The second factor is to have a regular cadence of meetings, so you are connecting on a regular basis and people know what to expect and how to plan. The third element is to facilitate a virtual community by having fun together or sharing conversation as you would around the water cooler.
He noted the importance of having best practices with video conferencing. We have all experienced the frustration of people beginning to talk at the same time. The Classical Conversations team utilizes the chat box in Zoom to indicate if they have a question or want to say something. Another leader monitors the chatbox to call on people who have “virtually” raised their hand. This keeps the conversation flowing.
Another best practice is to get a verbal agreement from everyone on the team regarding decisions made before moving on to the next topic, individually checking in with each person. This ensures everyone is on board and provides an opportunity to ask questions if there is something they don’t understand. It keeps people engaged as well. It can be easy to hide in a virtual room, especially for someone who is quiet. Bortons notes that, as a supervisor, you often must intentionally engage those people to get the wisdom they may have out of them.
Require everyone to have their camera on. Giselle Jenkins notes that you can’t build relationship without being face to face and that if someone won’t turn their camera on, it begins to erode trust. Having cameras on also gives the supervisor the opportunity to monitor other’s reactions and body language as discussions progress.
To help facilitate community, schedule time in the beginning to connect. Allow people time to chit-chat before the meeting begins. Often virtual team members only “see” each other at team calls. You should have an agenda but build in relational time. It may necessitate asking everyone to answer a question (what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?”) to help break the ice, but it is another opportunity to engage everyone on the team and get to know each other better.
It takes a significant investment of a supervisor’s time in people and teams. If a supervisor has too much of the “work” on their plate and doesn’t have the necessary time to engage with their employees, their success in helping to build a strong remote culture will be limited. It takes a supervisor with a servant’s heart, asking “how can I serve my team today?” It requires thoughtful planning and intentionality. Building a healthy remote work culture is hard work, but the reward is effective, engaged employees working together to fulfill your organization’s purpose.
Our BCWI consulting team offers a variety of training and tools to equip you to effectively develop a flourishing workplace, including training for supervisors. Contact us today by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how we can help you.
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