How to lead remotely when you've never done it before

Remote working has kept businesses operational but we can’t deny its shortcomings

How to lead remotely when you've never done it before

This is the reality now: you can no longer walk over to your employee’s desk for a quick chat or an update on how work’s been going. And it looks like our current work setup is here to stay. Remote working has kept businesses operational but we can’t deny its shortcomings when it comes to the social aspect of working in a team.

When you’re a people manager, those small, five-minute chats can mean everything from collaboration to engagement. It helps build a bond that can make or break team performance as well as individual productivity.

Of course, you can ‘connect’ with team members easily now – literally at a click of a button – but if you have too many video calls, ‘Zoom fatigue’ can set in, which counters your intention to offer employees a semblance of normalcy in our socially-distanced world.

How well have leaders been managing remote teams?

Even after over a year of remote working, some leaders may still be failing to hit the sweet spot between communicating enough and excessively. At the early stages of the pandemic, many swore by ‘over communication’, believing that frequent check-ins were best to sustain engagement. Unfortunately, that leadership tactic can come across as micromanaging.

READ MORE: Want to empower your workers? Stop micromanaging them!

Fail to engage in enough check-ins and employees will feel ‘less connected’ with the team. A study mid last year found that nearly all Generation Z (95%) and millennial (93%) employees reported having difficulty telecommuting. They cited feeling ‘less connected’ with their co-workers and ‘less informed’ about what was happening in the organisation during the COVID-19 crisis.

Despite their reputation as digital natives, they said it was a hurdle collecting information and getting status updates while working remotely, according to a poll by Engine Insights. They added that the exchange of information didn’t always flow smoothly between team members.

Three in five Gen Z and millennial workers also cited video calls as a productivity killer, saying they’re convinced that conference calls don’t always serve their purpose. The study, commissioned by Smartsheet, thus highlighted a gap between leaders and their remote employees.

READ MORE: How has COVID-19 impacted managers and employees?

How to engage the team while working remotely?

To find out just how well leaders have adapted to the ‘new role’, HRD spoke with Emman Salazar, vice president HR at Concepcion Industrial Corporation, whose leadership team was thrown into completely unfamiliar, virtual territory, being in the manufacturing sector.

“What is challenging for the new generation of leaders is really making them work under this kind of environment – nobody prepared us for it,” Salazar told HRD. “We are a traditional organisation, still having a hierarchical structure, but more and more we are shifting towards empowerment [and] automation of work.”

HR was crucial to support both employees and leaders in the sudden transition to a digital way of working. The good thing was the leadership team has always been supportive of HR. During the pandemic, they were even more so and ensured that managers and IT experts worked closely with HR business partners to successfully automate internal processes.

Beyond the technical side of things, he explained that for leadership to be effective in a remote setting, they should have always been involved in engaging employees. Now the work is simply done on a different platform – though leaders will find themselves even more ‘in charge’ now.

“This is the time for leaders to step up,” he said. “HR is a line function – but the ‘human resources work’ is actually carried out by the leaders. If for the longest time they’ve relied on HR to deliver services to employees, it’s now their turn to really do it all.”

He was referring to the real-time coaching, mentoring, and planning of social engagement activities. Leaders should also be checking in on team members and direct reports ‘ever so often’ to make sure they’re still aligned with what the business is trying to accomplish.

“More and more I’m seeing that level of leadership,” he said. “Among our managers and supervisors, they have the challenge to keep their teams intact. Of course, we still continue to share our HR expertise in terms of managing behaviour and employee services requirements.”

READ MORE: How to engage remote employees

What can remote leaders remain motivated?

Salazar acknowledged that it’s a big task to manage it all without prior experience, but what’s kept the newly christened remote leaders going was an understanding that “if your employees are happy then your customers are happy”.

“If employees are digitally connected, you can connect to your customers better,” he said. “They’ll understand the landscape of the business and the new way of doing things. It’s really the responsibility of leadership, and of course, HR to ‘retool’ our employees and shift their focus to customer orientation.”

READ MORE: Mental health: C-suite struggles in the pandemic

He admitted, however, that nothing can quite replace being in a physical workplace.

“It’s sad to be digitally connected,” he said. “At times when you’re doing work from home, you’re just on your own. You talk to your computer, you talk to you phone, and you’re basically alone. That’s the challenging part – even mentally. You’re now becoming socially distant. You are connected but that’s a screen. It lacks the warmth of the human touch and face-to-face interaction that we need to develop deep, interpersonal relationships.”

Regardless, with a viable vaccine ready and an inherent optimism at hand, Salazar feels that there’s hope for a return to “normal”. If anything, 2020 has reminded leaders that employees are human beings and crucial to achieve business success.

“This pandemic also made us realise that people are still the most important resource of the organisation,” he said. “We saw what happened when people couldn’t come to work and businesses closed. This is the time to really reinforce the message to leadership, government and everyone that the human person is still at the centre of everything we do.”

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