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Four Ways Leaders Can Engage Their WFH Teams During Covid-19

Four Ways Leaders Can Engage Their WFH Teams During Covid-19
Four Ways Leaders Can Engage Their WFH Teams During Covid-19

August 24, 2020

(This article was written by William Arruda and appeared on forbes.com.)

A recent report found that one-fourth of U.S. employees are feeling burnout due to the pandemic.

Clearly, leading is not the same from afar. Distance creates a new set of challenges that leaders must acknowledge and conquer so they can connect with and inspire their people. Maintaining relationships with your people—and strengthening relationships among your people—needs to be a primary objective.

So as you embrace this new all-virtual world, you need to set a new tone by modifying what you do and how you do it to increase engagement and connection, without sacrificing your sanity. These four actions will help:

  • Heighten the Humanity

  • Make Meetings Meaningful

  • Communicate Consistently

  • Train Your Talent

Heighten the Humanity

Human connection is limited during the Covid-19 era, and that’s creating a humanity deficit in the workplace. Video meetings can only go so far in fostering emotional connection. A recent study by Topia, a talent mobility company, revealed that empowerment and trust were the most important factors that contribute to a great employee experience.

This means leaders need to amp up their humanity—flexing the leadership styles of coaching, inspiration and encouragement. Sure, the command-and-control leadership style was required at the beginning of this pandemic to create order and calm fears. But now that there’s a new rhythm, what your people need is emotional connection. We’re relying much more heavily on technology and hardware to meet our goals; it’s important to quash the feeling that we’re robots that can be programmed just like a device. Amping up the humanity starts with you. Get comfortable being vulnerable and sharing your own feelings. It will help you build trust and give your people permission to share their feelings too.

Ann Betz, a leading expert in the neuroscience of coaching and leadership, said, “We don’t really pay much attention to how we informally care for one another as part of our day-to-day connections at work. We’re naturally cued to noticing how each other is doing, checking in, and providing emotional support even in simple ‘pass you in the hallway’ sorts of ways. Many people during this global pandemic are much more isolated than usual, having lost the social connections inherent in the workplace.” A Workhuman survey found that 42% of workers felt a sense of loneliness and isolation once a week or more since the pandemic began.

Betz adds, “The main connection for some workers has become not each other at the water cooler, but you, the leader during regular check-ins. In the past, some of the emotional aspects of a healthy, connected team and workplace were naturally taken on by fellow team members. But now, you must pay even more attention to how people are doing and provide that social connection that mitigates against depression, anxiety and more.”

Make Meetings Meaningful

To uncover the crucial factors that influence the overall effectiveness of meetings, the scheduling tool Doodle analyzed over 30 million meetings booked globally on its platform during Q2 of 2020.

They learned that virtual one-to-one meetings jumped 136%, driven by an increased demand for frequent check-ins during Covid-19. They also found that meetings are taking up most of the workday and beyond. “There is no time in the workday when Americans are less likely to have meetings, except for the lunch hour, when there is a slight dip to 9 percent.”

Most organizations have done things to make the WFH experience resemble the WFO experience as much as possible. But Zoom meetings can only go so far. Sure, video is the next best thing to being there, but video meetings are not the same as sitting in a conference room with your colleagues where you can engage all the senses. Meeting collaboration company PGI highlights these four key differences:

  • Uninterrupted Presence: Online meetings facilitate simultaneous interaction, but you’re not in the same physical environment, which means environmental stimuli will cause distractions on one end that the other side does not see.

  • Full Body Language:Facial features reveal more than what you say, but there are many more types of body language that aren’t visible through a webcam.

  • Interpersonal Trust:If time is built in for pleasantries and personal small talk before and after meetings, we make investments in professional relationships.

  • Engagement:Distractions are a major annoyance for online meeting participants, creating a problem to solve regarding the way we run meetings; technological limitations are only half the battle.

To counteract these deficiencies, make 20% of all meetings focused on interaction, check-in and connection.

Communicate Consistently

A Microsoft study found that managers increased their communication with their people to nurture connections and manage dispersed teams from home. For example, they sent 115% more IMs in March, compared with just 50% more for individual contributors. An “Organizational Communication White Paper” by Limeade, an employee experience software company, found a positive correlation between increased communication and a favorable employee experience. They learned that when employees feel that information flows freely throughout their organization, they’re 3 times more likely to feel included and 4 times more likely to trust their organization.

Communication is key but remember speaking’s overlooked cousin: listening. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit and The Advice Trap, cautions, “In a time of crisis, the brain craves certainty. But the discipline of staying curious longer—just a little bit longer—means you’re more likely to focus on the real problems and generate better solutions. Being coach-like means slowing down the rush to action and advice.”

Train Your Talent

The Topia study referenced above found that after trust and empowerment, employees want development opportunities. These learning opportunities are more valuable than perks like a cool office space, free food and games, the study found. Although each member of your team has individual interests and learning needs—and they should be encouraged to pursue those—you need to identify a learning opportunity your team can go through together. This will help them feel the connection that was lost when they started WFH, and it will give them the opportunity to interact with each other on projects outside your team’s primary mission.

Choose learning programs that are empowering and that allow them to get to know each other on a deeper, more emotional level—addressing deep-dive topics like emotional intelligence, diversity and inclusion or my specialty, personal branding. And to entice participation, make sure the learning experience is fun, engages all your people and provides a double dose of real human connection. To implement a program without adding any stress to your people, choose something that’s asynchronous so they can go at their own pace or in pairs, and include team milestone activities (like live group Zoom sessions) for everyone to connect with each other to deepen learning, bond and have fun. And if the learning program allows for team members to go through it in cohorts, all the better—anything that helps spread the glue.

We’re living in a new world of work, and leaders are being called to venture into completely uncharted territory. This presents you with an amazing opportunity to prove that you’re the right person to guide the organization through the most turbulent, transformative business environment we’ve ever experienced.

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