3 Critical Areas That Leaders Must Navigate When Working Remotely
By Tony Ragoonanan and Edwin Martinez
As the world continues to adjust to offset the losses created by the pandemic, organizations continue to drive for results and to maintain relevance, accountability, and organizational culture. Naturally, organizational strategies and planning will continue to be important but the one element that will require continuous attention is this: Organizations must focus on maintaining quality connections between leaders, individuals and teams.
Even though some elements of work environments will remain the same, organizations will pivot to a range of flexible working options. This means that there is a lot that will be different. For one thing, working from home and the use of virtual platforms have now become the norm for a great number of people. Goals and objectives may be different, expectations will be different and how and when we communicate will definitely have to be adjusted. There will be other changes as well but regardless of the changes, there is a definite need to maintain synergy and productivity and we must do this through our people. It is through managing them correctly that we will be able to sustain whatever growth is needed. This will translate to higher levels of well-being, higher engagement and organizational loyalty.
“….culture doesn’t exist within walls; it exists within people, so you have to build culture through people, wherever they sit.”
Becky Frankiewicz and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic – “The Post-Pandemic Rules Of Talent Management” (Harvard Business Review)
Unfortunately, my experience has shown me that quite the opposite happens. The threat when pressure increases that the focus goes to results and if HOW we achieve those goals does not matter, as long as they are achieved, much damage can be done to the level of employee motivation and sustainability of results resulting in resentment, higher levels of turnover and a poor working environment.
It does not have to be this way. If management realizes the importance of maintaining strong connections with their employees and if the human side of management is kept alive and strong, the outcomes will supersede expectations. This long-term vision is a must for the growth and development of the organization as well as its people as we continue our roles. It is true that some managers are quite competent in doing this, but the danger is real, and the price is too high if others do not make the effort. Yes, a manager should strive and push for results, but how it is done is crucial.
In the report “Beyond Covid-19: Research Insights into a New World of Work,” based on 590 employees surveyed, it was found that in terms of Employee Engagement; 51% of employees feel less connected to their teams since Covid-19, 40% of employees reported feeling disconnected from their organization. In terms of employee well-being, 60% of employees feel increased levels of stress since the onset of Covid-19.
Likewise, 69% of employees would prefer a blend of working from home and being onsite. 61% of employees are concerned about their safety in returning to the workplace and 79% of managers feel this is a concern of their employees.
These findings illustrate clear evidence that employees and their managers require a new way of working.
Taking this into consideration, I want to explore 3 critical areas that leaders need to navigate in order to maintain both synergy and productivity:
One of the biggest reasons that relationships fall apart in the workplace is when we don’t have conversations. Conversations allow us to share information, express concerns, give and receive feedback. The fact that conversations are not actually face-to-face makes it both challenging and necessary. They may also be needed more frequently now. There are several types of conversations that we need to have. These fall into two categories: individual and group conversations.
The individual conversations: These include firstly, the conversation about goals and objectives. Have they changed? Of course, this would depend on the nature of the organization but still, a conversation is required so that there is clarity from the employee’s perspective because the lack of clarity can lead to resistance. Secondly, expectations from the leader’s perspective as well as that of their direct reports. What are the priorities? How are we going to deal with deadlines? conflict? etc. Questions must come freely from both sides. These are the immediate conversations that will serve to clear up doubts that many will obviously have.
There are also ongoing conversations and these will include coaching, feedback, performance conversations, conversations on employee well being and giving feedback to the leader. These facilitate continuous development and are part of the performance management process.
The group conversations: The intention of the group conversations is to encourage and achieve synergy, which is really about creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. These conversations must involve support for, and a focus on the “big picture.” This means having shared business knowledge, a shared vision and sense of direction (Vision and Strategies) through planning and organizing, a shared belief in the values that are important to the organization, and a shared feeling of support to make decisions about our life, work and the future, especially as a group. This represents the “what” we are going after, its purpose, which is “why” we are going after it, and the “how” we will do it. Together, these help to develop closer interpersonal relationships and create an empowering work environment.
This works well when team members can have open communication and there is a level of trust between individuals. Please note that getting engagement (a willingness to participate in conversations) from colleagues is absolutely crucial and one area that overlaps with trust and allows this to happen is the concept of ….
Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team (including the leader) will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up. In order for this to happen, the environment that leaders create becomes important. However, in order to build psychological safety, we must also think about what a leader should BE.
One of the greatest challenges that originates from working remotely is the fact that the natural cues that we have in person are now filtered.
This, combined with the fact that there will be varying degrees of uncertainty, fear and mistrust within teams presents a real challenge.
For this reason, leaders must BE adaptable, they must BE empathetic, they must BE team players and they must BE willing to show vulnerability because together, these play an important role in creating the environment that would encourage conversations, improve collaboration and develop trust, hence increasing the levels of psychological safety that every individual should feel on the team. One important note is that even though trust may exist between individuals, psychological safety involves the entire team. It creates the thinking that we are all in this together.
Leadership defines culture, and if leaders want to create a culture of accountability, then it starts with them. Having the right conversations and developing psychological safety can do a lot to motivate employees but even with optimal amounts of motivation, there must be accountability. This, unfortunately, is an uncomfortable word for many but it matters because of the universal truth that “what gets measured gets fixed.” When working remotely, you can’t actually see the behaviors but the fact that people are delivering on their commitments will infer qualities of their behaviors.
This is where accountability intersects with conversations. Conversations that explain goals, conversations that seek agreement on goals and conversations that monitor the progress of goals are all critical. These conversations help employees to take ownership of what needs to be done. This sets them up to be successful. Accountability is something that has to be accepted for that person to take ownership of what they have to achieve and the qualities that they have to demonstrate. The best way to get people to accept accountability is to create an environment that allows it to happen. The environment begins to form with the use of all of the types of conversations I mentioned earlier. This creates clarity, removes ambiguity helps employees to feel psychologically safe.
“The enemy of accountability is ambiguity”
– Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
Conclusion: What we have seen here is how having the right conversations, developing psychological safety and creating a climate of accountability collaborate to create an environment that would inspire employees, achieve synergy and drive performance. This is not a quick fix. It requires from leaders, a level of commitment and consistency that would send a clear and powerful message that employees will value.
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