REMOTE WORK: EXTREME EDITION
WSIA webinar shares tips for leading a remote team as more employees are required to work from home
By Christopher W. Cook
In 2017, a video of Robert Kelly, an associate professor of political science at Pusan National University in Busan, South Korea, went viral. The professor was giving a live Skype interview for BBC News when his two toddlers burst into his home office. His daughter, then age four, entered the room with a lively strut, and she soon was followed by her baby brother. Ever since, Kelly has been known as “BBC Dad” and has stated emphatically that the event was not staged—and that, contrary to what some believed, he was in fact wearing pants.
Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 outbreak. With numerous states imposing stay-at-home orders in an effort to flatten the coronavirus’s curve, many workers are finding them-selves in a remote work environment. With many schools closed, this involves plenty of distractions from kids, pets, deliveries, and spouses who are also working from home. The Professor Kelly scenario can now be considered an everyday occurrence during this time of increased remote working.
But with the increase in distractions and office camaraderie being drastically altered, how can you “lead” a team that’s now mostly (or all) working remotely?
The Wholesale & Specialty Insurance Association (WSIA) addressed these concerns in a webinar on “Leading Remote Workers,” discussing how the workplace is evolving with remote work, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“This is not normal work remotely; this is work remotely extreme edition,” explained presenter Kristen Skender, senior vice president of brokerage and director of corporate development for Jimcor Agencies. “One of the most important things we have found in working with our teams is the need to over communicate and identify for them ‘what’s next.’ We ask direct questions like ‘What do you need from me?’ and ‘How can I provide support?’ The answers to those questions can be quite surprising in today’s circumstances.
“If you show compassion, they’re going to want to work even harder for you. This is a milestone moment. Workers will remember this. They’re saying that generations will define this as their ‘I walked two miles back and forth up a hill in the snow going to school’ moment.”
For remote work to be successful, tools must be in place and employees should be trained on how to use them.
“We are using a number of communication tools in our remote working experience, like Slack and Microsoft Teams,” said presenter Leah Ohodnicki, head of marketing and producer management for the Americas at Argo Group. “They allow us to create channels so we can move a lot of communication that might have happened over email into more of a conversational format.
“Instant Messenger is another communication tool we use quite often; we use Skype for Business. I encourage my team to always be on Instant Messenger. I find that when you’re on and available, it’s a relief to be able to find the person you are looking for and get a quick answer to a question.”
Videoconferencing also has become a popular method of communication; the presenters were on a Zoom call during the webinar.
“We like to use Webex for webinars and Zoom for videoconferencing,” said Ohodnicki. “I feel that Zoom is easier from a video standpoint because we are able to manipulate the screen and view each of the faces much more clearly. There have been a few security issues with Zoom that I believe have been resolved. Make sure your calls are set up with a password so you won’t get ‘Zoom-bombed,’” she said with a laugh.
“Email is one of the most efficient ways to communicate, but sometimes it’s not the best way to communicate when you are by yourself and are trying to maintain relationships,” she added. “With my teams, if I have a question, I’m more likely to pick up the phone and ask that question opposed to sending an email to get an answer. I encourage all of you to do the same.”
For file sharing, Ohodnicki suggested OneDrive, Dropbox and OneNote.
“OneNote has been a lifesaver for my team, especially during this coronavirus time where a lot of information is being shared,” she said. “We’re getting tons of questions from brokers, and OneNote is a place where we can all share our notebooks and load in questions we are receiving when we’re having calls and getting updates.”
When it comes to project management, Ohodnicki recommended Asana and Trello. Skender praised Basecamp for messaging and Doodle for polling.
“Basecamp is a way for us to message back and forth, file and share, and have things related to particular projects or initiatives all in one place,” Skender said. “I also use it personally to organize my project list and priorities.
“Doodle Poll is a way to check scheduling for your teams,” she added. “While your team is working remotely, this could be a way to survey and quickly find out when most people are available to meet.”
“For those who are tech savvy, a lot of these platforms can be intuitive and user friendly, but not everyone on your team is going to be in the same place from a technology standpoint,” said Ohodnicki. “If you’re going to implement one of these tools, it’s important to help everyone get trained on the new platform and feel comfortable so that you’re getting the maximum value from their use of the platform. If you don’t know how to use a platform, you can ask other people at your company.”
Ohodnicki recommended seeking out the experts in the company on specific platforms and having them host a videoconference to train the rest of the team.
“I think video is one of the best ways to connect because we can see each other face to face and really show that we’re listening and engaging,” she said. “It brings people into a better frame of mind when they’re on a call.
“On a recent team call, we invited all of our family members to join the call for a meet and greet to break down some of those walls and make sure that people feel comfortable getting on video. I think it went over really well.”
Connecting and engaging
“This is one of those moments that can make or break leadership,” said Ohodnicki. She offered ten tips for connecting and engaging with your remote team:
- Know your audience. “Every one of your team members is a different type of person. It’s about knowing who the people are on your team, what are their needs and how can you help them continue to excel in this new environment.”
- Lead by example. “If you want your team to pick up the phone and call people to have conversations instead of sending lengthy emails about important information, I recommend that you do the same and pick up the phone or host calls with your team.”
- Set a regular cadence for meetings. “For us, it’s pretty similar to what we did before COVID-19, but we made some modifications. My full team [normally] meets once a month, but we decided to meet every other week during this period so we can feel more of a connection with one another. For one on one conversations, I meet weekly with some team members and connect with others when they have some free time.”
- Share news in a timely manner. “In today’s environment, things are changing quickly, so people really appreciate feeling like they’re completely up to speed with what the company is doing, decisions, and any impact we’re seeing from the external environment.”
- Check in with your team. “This is a great time for you to just make a phone call and ask ‘How are you doing?’ ‘How has the transition been for you?’ ‘Do you feel like you have what you need?’ ‘What else can I do?’ The willingness to open up and be empathetic can go a long way.”
- Be authentically positive. “You don’t want to be over-the-top positive like ‘rah rah’; right now it’s about focusing on what’s good.”
- Encourage opinions and collaboration. “Think about things you can do to get people involved and feel like they’re a part of the discussion. Let them express an opinion as you’re trying to make decisions on initiatives. On my all-team calls, I open up a calendar and everyone can ‘own’ a month and lead that call. It’s a great way to get different perspectives from the team.”
- Be available. “Right now, for your team, it’s important that they know they can reach you in whatever way they have done in the past. If there’s anything you can do to make it easier for somebody to find you, I encourage you to do that.”
- Create space for relationship building. “As I came on board as a remote leader, leading a brand-new team, I learned quickly that they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. You can’t just get down to business. Carve out some time for a little bit of ‘water cooler’ discussion.”
- Celebrate and express gratitude. “This is an important time to make sure that you’re thanking people for the work that they’re doing. Celebrate successes, anniversaries, whatever those wins are.”
Adapting to working remotely
When it comes to employees, Ohodnicki shared eight tips on how they can adapt to a remote work environment:
- Find a dedicated space. “Find that place that’s going to be your place, so when you come in the morning it’s your place to work and when you leave at night you can leave that work behind you.”
- Keep that morning routine. “Whatever it is you were used to doing, try to still do it. Maybe you don’t get in your car or commute, but shower, get dressed, and if you usually work out, do that.”
- Stay balanced. “My husband, as he was transitioning, would get up and go straight to his desk and start working. He would work through the day; after we had dinner, he’d keep working, and eventually he would start to feel kind of blah. You’ve got to make time to stay balanced.”
- If you need something, speak up. “Communication is a two-way street. We need to be asking our teams what they need, but they need to also feel empowered to tell us that they need something.”
- Be more accessible than ever. (No explanation needed.)
- Stay engaged with your team. “Some people are doing virtual happy hours with their teams to stay connected, which I think is really fun. It’s a great way to keep your team engaged.”
- Goals keep distractions at bay. “Set micro goals. What am I going to sprint to accomplish? The distractions are there, and it’s okay. I’ve stopped working and thrown a load from the washer into the dryer. It’s okay to have that moment of pause, but it shouldn’t be the thing that drives you.”
- Kids need structure, too. “They’re distracting; they need time. I’m fortunate that mine are old enough that they’re self-sufficient, but others are really struggling to get through their day. To the extent possible, help your kids have some kind of routine that’s predictable for them.”
The future of remote work
The workforce has been turned upside down as more companies implement remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. While remote work has become mandatory for some, it is giving leaders the opportunity to see how the strategy is working and decide whether to continue the practice once we’ve returned to “normal.”
“We’re learning so much about our team,” said Skender. “The companies that were not comfortable or not set up to work remotely are now set up with that infrastructure by requirement. I think it will change the future.”
“Remote working is not for everyone,” added Ohodnicki. “Once we return to normal, you need to look at those people on the team who are goal driven and don’t need a manager to supervise them. They’re self-motivated, they’re effective at communicating, they know how to pick up the phone and get something resolved, they know how to be accessible, and they know how to find people throughout the company and build those relationships.”
What about concerns regarding remote work and productivity?
“This is going to be a time when you separate the engaged employees from the disengaged employees,” said Ohodnicki. “Managers should not feel that they have to monitor the work someone is doing on a day-to-day basis. Most of your team is probably going to do great. A few people may need some extra time and attention.”
“I believe in providing the frame-work and tools for success and setting those micro goals; this environment can be a great way to see and test proficiency,” added Skender. “I think there are just as many potential distractions in an office as there could be working remotely. Even though this is a difficult and trying time, assuming that the results are being achieved, this can be an opportunity to learn more about your team and who’s really engaged.”
Will remote work still be an option when things go back to normal? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I think your kid just entered the room during your videoconference.
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