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Tuesday August 11 2020

COVID-19: How to Lead, Drive Engagement & Maintain Culture While Working Remotely

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Written by Kiah Madden

May 13, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world, many of us have begun working from home for the very first time. Though there are a lot of things about this that people are enjoying, eg, not having to commute or get dressed up, there is an integral part of the ‘normal’ working day that is missing – workplace culture and engagement.

Culture and engagement in the workplace is a central element of business – 88% of employees believe that a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. But how do you maintain culture and engagement when everyone is separated and at home?

We checked in with some leaders of companies that have shifted to remote working in light of COVID-19, to see what they are doing to maintain workplace culture and handle the ‘new normal’.

Challenges of Remote Work 

The idea of working from home can be very appealing. There’s no commute during peak hour, no spending money on lunch and you can wear your pyjamas all day. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. In fact, 33% of people surveyed said that they feel they lose significant professional and social interaction when working from home for extended periods of time. 

Melanie O’Halloran, Head of Customer Partnerships at Generation Health, says that while the challenges of working from home vary from person to person, they can broadly fit into three main categories, which she has broken down for us as follows;

  • “Environment: This includes everything from making sure you have a good ergonomic workstation, with natural light and ventilation to appropriate equipment, to the ability to shut out other noises and distractions.
  • Mental Health: Covering issues of isolation and feeling alone, to frustrations managing children, housemates or partners who are with you in a confined space. Specifically with the current health crisis, feelings of fear, anxiety and trepidation are all common.
  • Maintaining connectivity: Feeling connected to life and work is also a challenge. With distance comes a sense of disengagement and lack of inclusion. The lack of connectivity from a work perspective means less social interaction, more team dysfunction and often issues festering.”

Jason Fischer, Chief Technology Officer at Humanforce, agrees – “Everyone would have a very personal answer to give, especially in today’s climate. Ultimately though, I think the same overarching challenges are still there, namely:

  • Isolation, feeling alone, disconnected from your team. Potentially leading to or feeding depression.
  • Distractions. This used to just be deliveries, but currently, it is more extreme with having to manage your kids while homeschooling or keeping little ones entertained. 
  • Some people are just not used to WFH so need more effort to stay focused and have the sense of still working.”

David Read, Experience Manager at Optus shares that the key to maintaining separation between work and non-work boundaries in his own remote working situation has lain in establishing a routine. “With the office now so close, it took me a period of adjustment to maintain separation. For me, the answer lay in a solid routine. Incorporating a regular wake-up time, dressing for work, daily fitness breaks, healthy meals and mentally ‘shutting’ the office.” 

As touched on by Fischer and O’Halloran, he also discusses the challenge of maintaining the quality of interpersonal conversations with your team. Here, he says that “ weekly one-on-one catch-ups with my team members are all the more critical, as is our end-of-week team knock-off drinks!” Virtually, of course!

Crucially, Optus is also addressing the emotional impact of isolation mentioned by all of the leaders we spoke to, by rolling out a mental health and wellbeing project to ensure their whole workforce, especially team leaders, are equipped with skills to help colleagues who may be struggling. This includes things like how to have supportive conversations. 

Says Read – “We’re realistic enough to recognise that some colleagues find working from home particularly challenging due to personal circumstances.”

How to Lead Teams Remotely 

Though it can be difficult, there are many ways to manage the current climate. We are fortunate that a lot of work today can be done from home. The challenge now is how leaders can efficiently manage their employees and maintain that important office culture.

Fischer is of the opinion that it is all about keeping up communication.

“Maintaining the human touch is key. Small things like doing video conference calls with the video on. Encouraging social banter and to a degree, some storytelling. Ensuring all team members have a regular one-on-one conversation with their line manager that is focused on them and their personal growth.”

“When you are in an office scenario, you have a lot of impromptu chats while walking around, getting coffee and things like that. When you are not face-to-face, you need to ensure you make time for those types of chats.” 

So, how is Humanforce building in this type of interaction between employees while everyone is remote?  “At Humanforce, we do company-wide all hands three times a week, weekly one-on-ones, daily team stand-ups and a weekly departmental update”, Fischer says. “We also encourage sharing feedback with each other via CultureAmp. All of these are to ensure everyone is aligned and able to be heard.”

“Team leaders and managers have never been more vital in this current time,” states O’Halloran. “Regular check-ins with team members are crucial. Depending on your workplace and situation, utilising a variety of modes and methods of communication can be useful.” 

“Keeping expectations clear and well communicated, as well as holding team members to account for their KPIs is essential during this time to maintain the momentum of the business. Run a group virtual meeting each week with mandatory attendance and video conferencing on.”

She continues – “Individual phone calls coupled with the occasional text check-in are great, as well as group WhatsApp, slack or other messaging platforms. Ensure you keep up team cohesion by organising regular “facetimes” or other video conferencing meetings. It is important to also host “social” events, such as Friday afternoon Zoom drinks or similar. Setting up small competitions or novelty challenges may seem trite, but they’re really important for retaining team togetherness.” 

Like Optus, Generation Health has placed a strong focus on tending to its staff’s emotional wellbeing. Carolyn Bell, the company’s National Manager of Innovation and Best Practice, described to us the benefit of mental health first aiders engaged within the business who are giving significant support to staff and helping everyone stay happy and healthy. As she explains, “it enables our employees to manage their situations and any issues, while at the same time continuing at work in some capacity.”

And says Optus’s Read -“There’s a whole program of online events we’re running ourselves, from online trivia, recipe competitions and a countdown of uplifting songs as voted on by employees, and many more exciting events in the pipeline.”

“Furthermore, through the optimism in the language and attitude embedded in our company culture at Optus, we’re keeping morale and motivation high.”

Although it can be inconvenient, and sometimes boring too, staying at home right now is simply what needs to be done. The best and healthiest thing you can do is try to make the most of your new remote working situation and find the silver linings. When all of this is over, we will return to our offices and have our usual working environments and colleagues back. In the meantime, take advantage of the digital technologies available to keep you connected to others, remember to keep an eye on your emotional wellbeing, and of course, stay safe and keep on washing your hands!

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Written by Kiah Madden

May 13, 2020

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