Successfully Managing Remote Workers Requires a Return to Basics

By: Lou Quinto, Leadership Speaker & Executive Coach, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

 

Virtual Leadership: Trust Not Control

We are eight months into the ramifications of COVID-19’s shelter-in-place and work from home and most business leaders, managers, and supervisors are grappling with “How do I manage a remote workforce to keep everyone engaged?”

For many of us who have never managed remote workers, the last eight months have been trial by error management. We have that feeling of being in a dark room searching for the light switch. Not only are we trying to keep things together at work, but we are at home trying to keep our personal lives in order as well. The mental and physical toll is devastating. We’re nervous, frustrated, scared, and confused. Despite this roller coaster of emotions, we still have work responsibilities. And, most importantly, we must manage and be an example to those in our charge.

We are all trying to find our cadence in this difficult time and its unsettling, as we are at the beginning of a steep learning curve. Even in circumstances, such as when we start a new job or task which we have never done before there is a sense of uneasiness and anxiety. During these last eight months those feelings of doing something new or different are magnified – and to many, paralyzing.

The solution? Go back to the basics. Return to what we know or have been taught about being an effective manager. It is our safe space in this turbulent storm. It provides an area of comfort and certainty in this ambiguous and uncertain time. You can’t rely on the mindset, “That’s the way I’ve always done it.” If you do, it will be like trying to put the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Things are changing rapidly and so must you. The old norms don’t exist anymore… and they may never return. Change is hard. But these times demand that you change – and fast. So, let’s begin our journey by refreshing ourselves on some principles of Management 101 to help guide us to being better leaders for our remote workers and the companies for which we work.

 

Communication

Now, more than ever we need to be great communicators. We must ensure that messages, task direction, and coaching is understood and clear. Once you hang up the phone, get off of a chat, or end a video conference people will run with what they believe they heard you say. If your communication was vague and thus misunderstood, your employees will spend precious productivity time doing something wrong which will require rework and cause frustration – an emotion nobody needs to experience now. Rely on these communication basics:

  • Know Your Audience – Is this a seasoned employee, or someone who is new to the company? What is their level of knowledge and skills? Are they self-motivated or do they need regular guidance? The answers to these questions will guarantee that you give proper direction or information.
  • Keep it Simple – Short and concise communication is best. Don’t make your conversations data dumps. Separate large tasks into individual issues and prioritize them.
  • Be Consistent – What you tell one person, tell all. Avoid “need to know” situations. At this time assume everybody needs to know everything. The trust you have developed with your people will quickly erode if they find out you said something different to other team members. Keep your messaging the same.
  • Repeat and Seek Clarification – We laugh at using the phrase, “So let me see if I understand what you’re saying…” It sounds trite, but it does clear up misunderstandings before tasks are done incorrectly and then rework is required and productivity time is lost. Get in the habit of asking for clarification of others and demand others repeat what they believe you asked them to do.
  • Listen – More than You Talk – Listening is a key skill in communicating. Listen with an open mind. Don’t listen for the solution, listen for the problem, issue, concern, and facts. Remember, leaders who don’t listen eventually find themselves surrounded by people who have nothing to say!
  • Be Available – In a normal work setting you may have said, “My door is always open.” Today, you need to make clear that you want people to message or text you at any time with small questions or observations, and that you will get back to them quickly. Gone is the time when people could just poke their head into your office and ask a question. Be available to chat or jump on a video call. Schedule regular 1:1 meetings with all of your people.

Delegation

Getting things done through other people is always important. You need to rely on individuals on the team that have subject matter expertise or skills to get work done. You should never burden yourself by trying to do everything. Your employees want to feel valued and needed, and the best way to do that is to assign tasks to them that allow them to flex their well-honed knowledge and skills. You can delegate efficiently when you:

  • Select the Right People – Apply good critical thinking skills in delegating. Study the task and outline the knowledge or skills required to complete that task. Then select the best person – or people – based on that criteria.
  • Set Clear Goals and Expectations – Set parameters and agree upon deadlines by breaking the goal down into tasks or milestones. Paint a picture of what the final product should look like.
  • Give Responsibility and Authority – Allow him/her to pull in other people to accomplish the task. Give them the authority to make decisions that are needed to accomplish the goal so that they don’t have to waste time running back and forth to you to get things done.
  • Communicate “Why” – Explain “why” what they are doing is important. Expound on the effects it will have on the project, customers, or sales.
  • Provide Support, Guidance, and Instruction – Don’t delegate and run! Provide support and guidance with regularly scheduled “check-ins” to confirm deadlines or milestones are being met. Don’t micromanage. Keep your instructions at a high level – the work product – avoid getting into their processes of achieving the end.
  • Praise Progress – During your check-ins, identify positive achievements – things they are doing well, applied ingenuity, and improvements – and take the time – right then and there – to heap praise and confidence onto them!

Coaching

This is the time to hone your coaching skills. People are experiencing uneasiness – even your most seasoned team members. Help them regain their confidence and “footing” with good coaching. The coaching and support you give to your people during this crisis will be remembered long after we have emerged from COVID-19. Your relationships will be stronger and the inspiration you provided will build enormous trust. Practice these basic coaching skills:

  • Recognize What is Going Right – Start your sessions by focusing on the positive aspects of the work that they have done. If you start negative, it kills motivation. Positive feedback enhances, motivates, and instills confidence so that when there are negative issues to discuss you have “thrown some positive shade” on those issues and the person will want to tackle those problems immediately and implement your coaching suggestions.
  • Ask Guiding Questions – Don’t give them the answers even when you believe it will help accomplish things faster. Your answers may not be the best answers. Ask questions to help them get to the best answer. It’s a learning experience and skill developer that you should not overstep or shortcut.
  • Listen/Understand Their Perspective – They are in the trenches and on the front lines. They have a more current perspective than you do. As a leader and coach, you must maintain a 30,000-foot level of the situation. Don’t get in the weeds with them. They have a better view of the immediate hurdles, challenges, and details. Listen to them describe the issue(s) so that you both share the same perspective of what is going on.
  • Talk Next Steps – Help them keep their focus on the future and toward the end. Wrap-up all of your coaching sessions with next steps or “where do we go from here?”  This keeps the ball rolling and helps to establish new deadlines.
  • Coach in the Moment – Coaching isn’t just done just in scheduled coaching meetings. Always look for coaching opportunities that may pop up in one-on-one check-ins. A great leader is always looking for chances to coaching to develop leadership skills or help increase productivity, motivation, and ownership!

Meeting Management

Meetings are an essential medium within every organization to share information, develop new ideas, make decisions, solve problems, and to agree upon the direction of work. Alas, meetings have a bad reputation because many consider them as unproductive time and nuisances. When managing a remote workforce, you will find you need more meetings than usual – both group meetings and one-on-one meetings. It’s necessary to keep your team up-to-date and in the loop. As a leader, this crisis gives you the opportunity to change meetings as usual. Get back to the fundamentals of meeting management to make meeting time productive again. Do:

  • Have an Agenda and Distribute in Advance – Successful meetings don’t happen without proper planning and that starts with a written agenda. Take the time to identify the objective of your meeting. Then apply good critical thinking skills by separating and prioritizing the issues that are necessary to discuss in order to achieve your objective. Once you have done that, distribute the meeting’s agenda to the invited participants in advance so they can properly prepare – especially if you want them to give an update or present information. A good rule of thumb is to distribute the agenda at least 24-hours in advance (when possible.) This may sound like a long lead time but when people come to a meeting prepared it pays dividends. Decision making becomes more accurate and problems are solved with facts, not assumptions and guesses.
  • Have a Start Time and End Tine – People need to plan their day, as do you. Video conferencing has become the norm during this crisis and people report meetings are starting on time compared to when everyone was in the office and people would drop in when it was convenient for them. Use this crisis to create a culture where meeting start times aren’t open-ended. Do the same with end times. When you have reached the scheduled end time, end the meeting! People are appreciative of meetings that start on time and don’t go past their published end time – especially if it was because of poor organization and planning, or numerous non-relevant discussions. Staying within time limits will result in increased productivity and happy employees!
  • Have a Facilitator – Every meeting needs a leader to follow the agenda, referee disputes, and to monitor participation. Additionally, there is no rule that says you have to be the facilitator of a meeting for which you called and planned. Pass that responsibility around to different team members. Give them a chance to flex and practice their leadership skills. More important, letting someone else run your meeting gives you a chance to actually listen and hear what the people you have gathered have to say!
  • Distribute Action Items and Recap ASAP – Be sure to have a notetaker in the meeting and ask them to prepare a recap of the results of the meeting, data gathered, and agreed-upon action items as soon as possible after the meeting so that the momentum isn’t lost!

Practice Empathy

Great leaders are remembered long after a crisis for not just what they did, but for how they demonstrated empathy and made people feel during tough times. In his book “Leaders Eat Last,” Simon Sinek writes: “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is caring for people who are in your charge.”

You have an opportunity to create the image of a strong and caring leader. Seize that opportunity! Begin all of your one-on-one meetings by asking how that person is getting along. Ask about the family. Ask about their health. Share your personal struggles with them as well. Laugh with them! Then get down to business. Empathy goes a long way during a crisis. It helps people to not feel isolated and alone. It allows them to dump their bucket. And it helps to create community and trust which are catalysts for productivity, collaboration, and engagement. Some techniques you can use to reveal your empathetic side, include:

  • Understand Their Point of View – We are all going through this at the same time. Yet, each of us is coping differently and our circumstances are unique. Some of your employees are dealing with the distraction of homeschooling their children. Some may have a spouse that may have been furloughed or laid off and personal finances are keeping them up at night. Some may not own the most up-to-date technology to do their job effectively. There is a myriad of issues you need to be aware of that will affect a person’s ability to deliver work products on time and efficiently, or to perform at the level you expect of them. You may not be able to solve all of their problems – in fact, you won’t be able to solve all of their problems – however, you can make adjustments to their workload, schedule, and deadlines to alleviate unnecessary stress.
  • Don’t Be Apathetic or Sympathetic – You obviously don’t want to be ignorant to the emotions or situations your employees are experiencing, but at the same time you can’t be totally sympathetic to them either. I know that sounds awful, but if you embrace or justify their feelings and anxieties you could be setting them up for failure. They may interpret your sympathy as a crutch they can fall back on, or worse yet, permission to not get things done. By being empathetic you are acknowledging their situation and feelings. For many people that goes a long way toward motivating them to succeed because they believe that you understand and heard them.
  • Deal with Facts – A good leader must always try to see through the emotional fog of each situation and focus on the facts. For instance, if during a one-on-one meeting your employee is angry or frustrated, call out the emotion you are sensing that is standing in the way of professionally discussing an issue or assignment. Simply say, “I see that you are angry.” When they affirm that they are angry deal with the facts and not the emotion by asking, “What about this situation is making you angry?” That’s when they will start talking about the specific reasons or causes of their anger. Then by addressing each reason or cause with a solution or explanation, you will find that the level of the emotion will be greatly reduced or eliminated. This will add to your image as a problem-solver and a supportive leader because you helped their concerns go away.
  • Don’t Be Argumentative – Your anxiety is high right now too, and if the right button is pushed, you might easily become angry or want to defend your position on a topic or decision. Remember it takes two people to argue. Good leaders don’t take the bait and engage in an argument no matter how many verbal punches the other person might throw. Take the high road and demonstrate empathy in the situation. Acknowledge the emotion and identify the cause for that emotion. Break the problem down into individual concerns and calmly address each one, one at a time.

There’s no magic formula to managing a remote workforce. It requires effort and diligence. But you have gotten this far in your career because of your leadership and management skills. Use them. Clear away the haze and focus on what got you to your current position – basic management and leadership skills. In this time of uncertainty and turmoil, we all have to go back to fundamentals. The way we used to do things will not be the way we do things in the future. Throw that mindset out the window. You will survive! You will be successful!  And you can adapt in this time of crisis by simply returning to the principles of Management 101. Carpe Diem!

 

 

About the Author:

Lou Quinto has over 20 years of experience in employee development, management training, executive coaching, and consulting with expertise in teaching managerial skills, critical thinking skills, professional presentation skills, and motivational speaking. His style of training and consulting is described by clients as engaging, motivating, and productive, making him a popular choice for conducting seminars, management retreats, and executive coaching sessions.

Lou is also the co-host of a weekly video blog and podcast called Q&A on Breakthrough Leadership that provides leaders with the latest insights on leadership, business planning, critical thinking, communication and developing teams. He is a graduate of Purdue University and resides in Indianapolis, IN.