Leadership and connection in a hands-off era

We spend so much time in front of screens now, we may see everyone else as pixelated avatars, but we must remember they—and ourselves—are real people. Times are turbulent, but even when they settle somewhat there will still a lot of remote work going on. From onboarding new team members to maintaining morale to identifying future leaders, we have to adapt for a digital work environment. Alison Hill, CEO of Pragmatic Thinking, guided us through. Hill and her husband, Darren, founded their company during similar tough times in 2008 and have built their business of helping others steer through crisis.

Welcome Aboard

Whilst the unemployment rate remains high, some businesses are fortunate enough to be hiring. As awkward as a first day at a new job can be, imagine one in which you’re at home by yourself training online and meeting co-workers virtually. The whole onboarding process can be even more stilted than usual.

“There can be times when that process takes a little bit longer,” Hill said. “The first week or two, people are waiting on IT or waiting for access. The thing about a face-to-face office is you can fill the time with other catchups. When you’re a distributed or remote team, that stuff is the tool of your trade and you need it to be able to connect with people.”

Making sure the IT logistics are straightened out before your new hire reports is important, as is scheduling some one-on-one time to get acquainted with the rest of the team. It not only can make the new hire feel welcome, it’s an opportunity to introduce the new person to the company culture in practice rather than just reading a handbook.

“Whilst the conversations don’t need to be formal, I think particularly for a new staff member when they arrive on their first day or jump into work that their first two weeks are mapped out in terms of both those formal and informal catchups with their team members and their colleagues.”

Digital Learning

Virtual training will be utilised a lot more, not only to reduce face-to-face interactions but because it’s proven more cost-effective than in-person sessions. These can’t be the boring old training videos of yore, however.

“The tolerance for poor delivery is going to be low,” Hill said. “There’s going to be a requirement that we are engaging people, that we’re not wasting people’s time; that those who are providing the training are really looking at the production quality, that the lighting is top quality, the sound quality is clear as well as the content being world-class. Those that invest in these elements are going to rise above the rest.”

This training is another introduction to your company. If it’s sloppy and amateurish, what will your new hire think about how things operate?

Continuing learning and development will need the same slickly produced, engaging quality. Hill likens it to a TV host coming into your home, asking questions and imparting knowledge, with two-way accessibility.

There will still be a component of face-to-face learning and development. “When there are opportunities, there is still a lot of benefit from that. In the same way that teams will have a hybrid model where some will still come into the office or come in a day a week, I think there will be a hybrid for learning and development.”

Checking In

Two big areas that require a great deal of adjustment to digital work are productivity and mental health. Whilst it’s becoming clearer that remote work increases productivity, managers often have a difficult time measuring that and can fall into a trap of worrying more about that than morale.

The best leaders in this moment are figuring out how to talk about productivity alongside recovery and energy management, Hill said. That energy management can be as simple as a 10-minute walk in the sunshine to recharge. “The highs are high, but the lows are lower in working from home,” she said. “One of the rhythms we have with our team is we talk with the entire team every single day about how—we call it ‘seize the midday.’ ‘What are you doing to get out, to move, to just change your environment?’ We’re getting out from the desk at home and really celebrating that as a team and as a culture.”

Technology such as project or task management tools can track progress without managers feeling the need to metaphorically barge into employees’ offices. “They’re less about checking up on people and more about having the workflow visual.”

Performance reviews can still be about output and meeting deadlines, but they need to include an element of mental well-being. We’re still in a pandemic, after all, and whilst people may be adjusting now, life has still been turned upside-down.

Clear is Kind

We’re also still in a recession, which can lead to hard discussions which are normally handled in person. People often will have a sense that something is amiss, even if they’re all working from home and not in the same space with leadership. Hill recommends falling back on the Brené Brown axiom ‘clear is kind.’

“The kindest thing we can do is be as clear as possible about what we do know, what we are aware of, and what we don’t know,” Hill said.

It’s still important to have those conversations even if they can’t be face-to-face. Broad conservations about how the company is faring can take place with the whole team. These can include an overview of how the team can help move the business forward, perhaps with individual discussions about what each employee can do to add value. Following up individually to make sure the entire message got through is critical, as is setting aside a period akin to office hours when employees can text, call, or video conference with management to clarify things.

It’s just as important to bring attention to the bits of news that are worth celebrating, gathering the team together over video conference, getting a drum roll started, and building the excitement. The more fun and thoughtfulness you can bring, the better.

“A bunch of leaders I’ve been talking to use the opportunity to actually post something tangible to their teams,” she said. “Even just a handwritten card, or a letter, or a book they might enjoy, some chocolates. That helps individuals to feel valued, that someone’s actually taken the time to reach out.”

Even in a digital world, those tangible touch points can foster connection.