When offices closed in mid-March and we all began to work from home, chances are that company leadership hadn’t yet thought intentionally about how to support an entirely or mostly-remote team. And that intentional thought continued to get delayed, as most of us expected we’d be working from home for a month or two at most. Then Memorial Day arrived and we thought for sure we’d be back in the office by July 4th, then Labor Day.
Now that it’s 2021, and many of us are still working from home offices, one thing is clear: Gone are the days when leadership will require an entire workforce to report to the office every weekday during the same hours.
While some companies will remain fully remote for the long term, many will settle into a hybrid arrangement. With that in mind, now is the time to get intentional about remote work policies for the present and into the foreseeable future.
How to Help Remote or Hybrid Teams Thrive
Leaders must create company-wide and team-based strategies that support employee happiness, engagement, and productivity in this new environment. Following are suggestions to get you started, taken from the blueprints we’ve helped our clients create.
1. Prioritize Remote Workers
In a hybrid work arrangement, on any given day, some employees will be working in the office while others will be working from home. Without intentional consideration, the team members who are physically onsite are likely to get more preferential treatment from leaders who are also in the office. When team members calling in to a meeting was an exception rather than a rule, they were often treated as observers instead of active participants.
In a permanent “hybrid” situation, however, it’s critical to conduct meetings in a way that fully engages all participants. This will help ensure that those working from home remain completely invested and fully productive. Whether planning projects, collaborating on tasks or conducting other types of meetings, leaders will need to operate differently.
Conducting fully-engaged virtual meetings is a specific skill set that many people are unlikely to have. Don’t leave it to your managers and team leads to figure it out on their own. Invest in training to fill this skills gap. It will ultimately be an investment in preserving or improving your company culture.
We’ll cover this in more detail in part two of this article, but some tips in the meantime:
- If there’s a meeting that involves workers both in the office and offsite, level the playing field. Rather than have onsite employees sit in the conference room for the meeting, have all meeting attendees log into the meeting individually, from wherever they are.
- Don’t make assumptions about silence. Solicit input from participants by name. This might also make meeting leaders think twice about who needs to be involved, thereby optimizing the number of participants for greatest efficiency.
If leaders don’t find a way to equalize the input from both on-site and remote team members, the offsite workers may slowly grow distant and more removed. In this case, you’re likely to see burnout increase, and productivity and engagement decrease. But you can prevent this by putting a conscious emphasis on remote team members.
2. Lean Toward Asynchronous
In-person meetings and other types of real-time communication can be the most efficient solution in many situations. And it’s understandable when everyone wants immediate answers to their “quick” questions.
However, constant “real-time” (synchronous) communication, such as via chat or worse, expectations of immediate responses to emails, is devastating to productivity. It prevents the uninterrupted work time that is necessary for team members to bring their full range of talents to their work, which is what makes them feel satisfied at the end of their work days. It contributes to being busy but not productive.
Additionally, when people are working remotely, leaders have less control over the hours their team members work. This makes synchronous communication much harder. Remote work offers inherent flexibility, but if your communication doesn’t adapt, “flex-time” quickly becomes “always on.”
An emphasis on synchronous communication is even more detrimental in a fully remote or hybrid work environment. It’s time to take a hard look at whether your team’s communication practices are efficient, and work on making a shift to prioritize asynchronous methods. An added benefit is that it will encourage planning and more thoughtful work. Some ways to do this include:
- Encouraging the use of “do not disturb” mode in your team communication tools
- Setting realistic expectations around email response times
- Designating a specific channel for real emergencies
- Ensuring your team has the workflow management skills to work effectively, with sufficient forethought.
3. Aim for Interactions, Not Transactions
When you do have a synchronous meeting—whether it’s one on one, with the team, or all-hands—it’s more important than ever to prioritize interactions over transactions.
When team members are physically together, informally interacting with colleagues before a meeting or during lunch helps make work more fun and rewarding. But now, with back-to-back video calls, agendas are often stripped to transactions—all the objectives, budgets and projects that must be addressed and nothing more.
However, if leaders want to foster an inclusive and friendly culture where team members care about each other, opportunities for colleagues to connect on a personal level are critical. We’ll offer more specific ideas for helping your teammates connect in part two of this article.
Once people engage with one another and there’s some laughter, you’re bound to have a more energetic, productive meeting.
4. Set Guidelines With Your Team
No matter what expectations you set, it’s critical that team members have input. With input comes buy-in and engagement, both of which are key to happy and productive employees.
However, there are likely to be limits on what your team can decide with regard to where, when and how team members work. For example, maybe company headquarters already has decided that employees must spend 12 hours per week onsite. And maybe as the team leader, you’re quite sure you want everyone in the office together one full day a week.
This still leaves plenty of room for the team members to set additional operational guidelines that enhance their day-to-day experience: Which day of the week will they all come into the office? What about the other half-day of in-office time? What ideas does the team have that you haven’t considered?
Be sure to rely heavily on team input to create the above-recommended communication guidelines. Each of your team members will have a different situation at home, and asynchronous communication will help. But buy-in will be critical to success, so resist the urge to impose your own ideas, and establish policies only after careful consideration and diverse input.
Finally, put your new team policies in a shared document that everyone can see and revisit periodically as a group. Commit to a schedule of reviews and revisions as you learn more about what works and what doesn’t. A “start/stop/continue” exercise is a useful tool for these reviews.
5. Watch Your Feet
Whatever your company and team rules might be, keep in mind that employees watch your feet, not your lips. If you tell your employees you’re concerned that they’re burning the candle at both ends, but then you send them emails during weekends, they’ll assume this means that you really want them to keep plugging away at all hours.
Equally important, if you encourage your team members to take vacation, but you don’t take your own, they’ll follow your lead. And without meaning to, you’ll be modeling behaviors that set everyone on the path to burnout.
Intentionally Support Remote Work in 2021
Many organizations will never return to the days when everyone worked side-by-side all day, every day of the week. For some of us, this is welcome news. For others, the realization brings sadness.
However you personally experience the change, now is the time to recognize that remote and hybrid work situations are here to stay in 2021 and well beyond. To increase employee engagement and productivity, deliberately design new company policies that are based in the present, rather than the past, and that will allow you and your team to thrive.
*Maura Thomas article