Leading Remotely Requires New Communication Strategies

Amid persistent pandemic stressors, it’s crucial that leaders stay closely attuned to what employees need.

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Managing a team remotely during COVID-19 has presented its own set of challenges, particularly for business leaders like me who are used to having open-door policies at work. We know our employees are facing new struggles and fears. They have all sorts of questions about the direction of the company, what’s expected of them, which projects are on hold, and more.

But with the added prospects of caring for sick loved ones and kids at home while still trying to get their work done, many don’t have as much time to address these questions. This is especially true for workers who are putting in extra hours to try to help some of the most vulnerable people during this crisis.

Meanwhile, managers’ schedules are much tighter as well. Together with executives, they’re tasked with transforming daily operations and keeping the business afloat in unprecedented circumstances. And in some cases, as layoffs are on the rise, businesses are trying to get more done with fewer employees.

All this can make it especially difficult to give necessary attention to employees’ concerns. Over the last few months, I’ve begun a new system that has proven extremely productive and works particularly well with remotely located employees. This system has led to concrete changes that have resolved problems and advanced our corporate culture during the pandemic.

15-Minute One-On-Ones in a Compressed Time Frame

The system begins with scheduling 15-minute individual meetings with each team member. I try to do all of these short one-on-ones within two weeks.

As Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings (and MIT SMR contributor), explained at TED.com, “A 10- or 15-minute meeting is a great tool that every leader should consider. Done effectively, short meetings with a focused agenda can have tremendously positive effects. Plus, they align with the existing research on limited human attention spans and fatigue.”

While these benefits can apply to group meetings, I’ve found that they’re just as powerful in individual sessions. We get straight to the most important issues that are forefront on my employees’ minds.

Holding these meetings individually, rather than in small groups, helps me ensure that I hear from everyone. Some businesses do group meetings with a round-robin approach, in which each person is given a chance to speak. But some people are naturally less inclined to be talkative when others are listening. By setting aside one-on-one time, I maximize each individual employee’s psychological safety and ensure that they know they’re heard.

By packing these individual meetings closely together, I quickly identify common themes raised by employees across the organization so I know what issues need to be addressed right away. If I were to spread these meetings out across a month, the similarities among what my employees say would be less striking. And I’d be showing them that I’m in no rush to mitigate the challenges they’re facing.

I then repeat this process every six to eight weeks.

The ‘Traffic Lights’ Emotions System

I begin each meeting with something I learned through executive coaching organized by Flourish Ventures (a venture of Omidyar Network, an investor in my company).

I first ask the employee, “How are you feeling? Factor in everything going on around you, both personally and professionally.” I ask them to answer using a traffic lights system. “Green” means everything is good; “yellow” means overall OK, but some things are causing consternation; and “red” indicates great, pressing concerns.

This system has been used to help children understand and regulate emotions. But it’s useful to adults as well. In executive coaching sessions, I’ve found it to be an opportunity to check in with myself and really consider how I’m feeling. Then, through my answer and our discussion, I’m able to think through why I’m feeling this way — and what can be done about it.

When I use this system in one-on-ones with my team members, they open up about their professional and personal challenges. While some (like me) are dealing with kids at home, others are more immediately concerned for the health of older parents they live with. Some are feeling great stress over family members’ lost jobs, while others who live alone are battling a sense of isolation.

These short meetings have helped me find ways to streamline our operations, provide employees the flexibility they need, and perhaps most important, find new ways to enhance our culture in a virtual context. I discovered that employees were missing the camaraderie they experience at our offices in Atlanta and Los Angeles. (Our remote staff generally travels to the office every month or two, so they have those interactions as well.) We implemented a Thursday social Zoom call and sent snacks to people’s homes so they could simulate a workplace happy hour.

The pandemic shows no signs of abating anytime soon, and the challenges will continue to mount. It’s crucial that leaders and managers stay on top of what our employees need in order to meet those challenges — and show our teams that their voices will continue being heard.

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