Whether you want to go remote or not, it’s becoming increasingly likely that someday you will. What might have been a temporary, ad hoc situation may become more permanent. If you’re not used to managing a remote team, you might worry-
We can learn from professionals who have been working remotely long before the pandemic hit. If you can bring empathy to your team, you can support them, communicate effectively, and keep up morale and productivity. But how do you create an empathetic team? This article will talk you through setting up and managing an empathetic remote team.
Empathy is about putting yourself in your employees’ position and encouraging your team to do the same with each other. Working remotely makes it more difficult to know what people’s particular concerns are. Especially during a pandemic, it takes empathy to fully appreciate each team member’s situation. Empathy can be difficult and it requires greater effort and investigation to be empathetic remotely. In addition to the trying circumstances, Covid poses, we should be empathetic to cross-cultural and national sensitivities, especially for global remote teams.
Hassan Osman, PMO Director at Cisco, Author of “Influencing Virtual Teams,” “Don’t Reply All”
Empathy is essential to running an effective remote team because understanding your employees means you can anticipate challenges and address them, keep your team on track, and most importantly, create a sense of belonging. When they feel heard and their struggles are met with empathy, they are more engaged, committed, and motivated to perform.
The main aim in deploying a successful remote team is to be able to communicate effectively and cooperate productively in a virtual setting. Communication is essential to building empathy and there are some key strategies and processes you can put in place to make sure you’ve got empathetic communication covered.
When setting up your remote team you need to lay down expectations from the start, especially as to how you will communicate. Allow team members to participate in laying the foundation. Work out a formula, for example, whether you’ll use daily video calls plus emails, or instant messaging and a video calls every second day. Use all platforms at your disposal and make it clear when you’ll use them - for example, email for non-urgent information and updates and instant messages or texts for urgent issues.
Regardless of what kind of communication formula you devise, the key is to keep your team on track despite the distance. Check up on them daily with a message like, ‘Anything I can help with?’ or ‘Is everything OK on your end?’ so that team members are supported, and you have a good overview of how projects are going from day to day. Err on the side of more communication rather than less.
If it’s the first time you’re deploying remote teams, look into Microsoft teams, Slack, Zoom, Google hangouts, and Skype to explore what resources will suit your organization. You want to use video meetings wherever possible to simulate physicality as much as possible and be able to read non-verbal cues.
Set realistic goals as to daily workloads and have resources available to assist staff who need it, for example, time management and productivity tools.
Managers need to make themselves available, but also be clear on how and when to be reached. If you’d prefer instant messages for urgent issues, specify this and save video calls for meetings.
Look into screen-sharing and recording software like Loom or Camtasia which will allow you to record explanatory videos for your team. This can be a great time saver. If you need to disseminate information or feedback, this is an effective, personal way of doing so, without having to schedule a meeting.
Appreciate that working hours might be different and set up expectations from the start if you need staff to be contactable during any specific window. Remote teams will have to be more flexible with work hours, as they juggle working from home. Where you have global remote teams, working hours will necessarily be different across time zones and you can schedule meetings with apps like worldtimebuddy.
The cornerstone of your remote communication protocol should be daily meetings. Managing an empathetic, remote team relies on having regular, structured forums where concerns can be addressed. This allows all team members to gain an empathetic understanding of each other's situations.
Leaders deploying remote teams are often unsure of how much communication they need. Experts advise that over-communication is preferable to under-communication. Daily meetings are recommended best practices for virtual teams for a number of reasons. Firstly, when employees are out there on their own, it’s easier for them to become fearful and insecure. Nobody wants to be out of sight, out of mind. Employees need reassurance they will have access to the information they need - especially from other colleagues. Bringing the team together daily gives everyone a chance to touch base and be able to connect with whoever they need in the team, just as if they were physically present in the office.
Manage projects and deadlines
Assign task owners
When you’re unable to touch base with staff at the coffee machine, it’s important to build this function into the virtual team.
Touching base with staff personally is not just a courtesy, but an important empathetic strategy. In order for staff to feel heard empathetically, you need to know what challenges they may be facing, personal as well as professional. Checking in with staff is essential to keep your finger on the pulse of how the staff is coping with their workload and if there are any impinging factors you need to be mindful of and/or potentially address. It’s equally important that team members are able to check-in with each other and appreciate their respective challenges. This leads to less conflict and more productive collaboration. Particularly during this pandemic, the need for empathy has never been more pressing. So how do you check in with staff in a virtual context?
One method is to make check-ins standard in all meetings. It’s a good way to open a meeting, before hitting the official agenda. The aim here is to check employees’ mindset and feelings, so you can raise any red flags that could be affecting employees’ wellbeing and performance. You can prepare some opening questions to allow for this kind of sharing to make sure participants don’t veer into talking about the weather.
Some prompts could be:
People might be reticent at first and this might be awkward the first couple of meetings, but when it becomes part of a process and routine, staff will start to open up. The manager or meeting host can model the process by sharing first and then opening up to the rest of the team.
Make it a ‘round’ where each team member says a few words, so it doesn’t become a general discussion. It’s about individual experiences and building an understanding of differences.
Managers take note of pertinent points during this part of the meeting as it’s here you can note issues to be sensitive to and preempt problems. The sooner a leader can be aware of team members’ trials, the quicker they can find a solution for the benefit of not only the employee but the organization. It could be something really simple, for example, a team member having difficulty attending a meeting or delivery time slot due to managing things at home. A manager could take this on board to find a more suitable time frame. Or it could be that someone is struggling with virtual project management and needs a bit more training in new tools or how to adapt their processes to working from home.
It’s also much better to be aware of potential problems and issues with staff early. It will help you to better plan your workloads and allocate resources ahead of time when you can identify team members who might need leave, an extension on a deadline, or further assistance to complete a task. Better you know these things early and can plan for them, rather than having them sprung on you at the last minute by staff that perhaps weren’t even aware of how much they were struggling.
When conducting check-ins, it's good to use video, because it better enables you to read non-verbal communication. Often in challenging situations, it’s not the words used, but the look on someone’s face, that can really tell you what’s going on.
In addition to the ‘how are you?’ check-in, another round where team members briefly speak to what they’re working on today, enables the team to maintain an overview of any project. It also enables managers to identify if there’s anything impeding progress.
To conclude the meeting, consider initiating a team gratitude practice by starting or finishing the meeting with a question:
This might not be something you do every meeting, but is a nice way to finish up positively and tie in the personal and professional.
Meetings are also the right context to reinforce the team’s goals and purpose. If the team has recently gone remotely, it’s an opportunity to discuss shared values and how you’ll apply them in this new virtual context.
Apart from getting your communication set up right, there are a few other things you can keep in mind as a team leader to maintain managing your team empathetically.
When you can’t communicate face-to-face, you need to listen harder.
The trap of online communication is the ability to multi-task at the same time. This is a real danger. When you check in with your virtual team, it should preferably be on video so you can all see each other and thereby communicate non-verbally as well. You need to give the staff your full attention to be empathetic to their situation. You should be listening not just to what they are saying, but the context and meanings behind their words.
Should staff sniff out that your check-in is superficial, that you’re not really listening and don’t really care, they too will check out, detach, and their engagement and commitment to the team and organization will plummet Not good.
The same parameters of conduct in physical meetings should apply to a virtual one. Conduct yourself in any virtual meeting in the same way and with the same attention as you would a physical one and expect your team to do the same. If necessary, set up some guidelines that you expect that staff will not be on any other devices, taking calls, on social media etc during the meeting.
There’s a difference between running a team of experienced remote workers and deploying a new remote team who, for example, were not remote before covid. If your team are new to working remotely, you have to acknowledge and expect challenges upfront as those employees adjust to a remote work setting.
As much as possible, it helps to anticipate these challenges and have some resources available when you deploy them remotely. For example, it could be resources on time management and how to deal with distractions working from home. It could be mental health resources on loneliness and isolation. It could be software training or just referring them to a HR consultant or team leader whom they can call to talk through their difficulties.
Consultancies that work with virtual teams often provide a number of online seminars and networking events for their staff.
When there’s no physical workplace, it’s important to create a virtual hub where staff can connect and seek out resources.
Some companies that work significantly with remote teams do this through offering online seminars and workshops, which are a great way to bring people together. You can also consider offerings for your team that aren’t directly work related such as mindfulness or online yoga classes.
Organizations can also effectively use tools like blogs or email newsletters to address relevant topics to working remotely. Check-ins at meetings can give managers the empathetic insight to find common concerns that could be addressed with a helpful blog article, email newsletter or explanatory video. Especially during the pandemic, a forum for sharing tips on addressing common challenges is a useful resource.
And since there’s no water cooler and no Friday evening drinks, consider how you can create community and social outlets online. In addition to blogs, newsletters, workshops and other resources, you can have some fun by running lighthearted competitions like photos of people’s home decorations for Christmas, sharing a pumpkin recipe or fun challenges. The more you can make your team feel like a team who know and support each other, even if they may never have physically met, the happier and more productive they’ll be.
Implicit trust goes hand-in-hand with empathy. Employees understand that working remotely, is not time off, so you don’t need to remind them. You need to show them that you trust them to get the job done. Be outcome driven. Set expectations, clear milestones and deadlines, and then it’s up to staff to manage their home and work life to meet those outcomes. Simple. If your team are new to remote work, of course they might need some support with managing distractions, maintaining work life balance and their mental health. Be empathetic in providing resources addressing these issues while indicating you trust they can do the work.
During this pandemic, we need an extra dose of empathy. Team members may be in very different circumstances, but also have different perspectives on the C-word. It’s essential to be respectful of any one team member’s circumstances and not project your own experiences or politics on them.
You and your colleagues should be aware of each team member’s situation. Make time to understand:
Keep in mind that just because someone was OK last week, doesn’t mean they’re OK this week. If your team members are spread throughout the country, or even the world, their situation could change rapidly from day to day.
Don’t expect the challenges you’re facing are the same as others or that your team members are coping in the same way you are. Beware of catchphrases like ‘we’re all in this together’ which overlook the fact that some people are having a much rougher time than others. We’re not all facing the same challenges and need to be aware of that.
To combat isolation, you can consider coupling up team members to work on a project, where appropriate. Giving them a buddy in the trenches will help them feel less isolated and improve accountability. They don’t necessarily have to have shared responsibilities, they can work on separate elements and use each other as a sounding board or schedule brainstorming/ planning/ update sessions to keep each other on track.
When deploying a remote team, it’s important to acknowledge that the key challenges you’re going to face are your team member’s fears about accessing information, feeling isolated, or lacking belonging. Your success in tackling them depends on how much you can empathetically support your team and meet their concerns with substantial effective communication which is just as good as if they were working on site. When you run a team empathetically, you can navigate through conflict and insecurities more smoothly as you understand the unique context of each individual worker despite, in some cases, never having met them in person. Moreover, instilling a culture of empathy means it’s not just about the leader taking responsibility, but about team members extending empathy to one another. This is a give-and-take relationship where each team member feels fully supported by their colleagues and are freed to do their best work and collaborating fully rather than holding their cards close to their chest. Empathetic teams are the way forward in the virtual workplace.
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