Whether employees are working in the office or at home during the pandemic, managers and their direct reports may be struggling with communicating and setting clear expectations of one another. That struggle is intensified with remote and blended workforces.
“A lack of expectations is huge,” says Alissa Carpenter, workplace expert and communications consultant. “Are people supposed to be logged in to their computer from 9 to 5? Are people expecting an email back by the end of the business day? What projects are important and when are they due?”
Without the structure that a shared physical workplace often provides, these questions become harder to answer.
“It’s difficult to coordinate with others, bring them together and motivate them,” says Martin Lanik, psychologist and author of “The Leader Habit.”
A successful remote relationship requires a new approach from both manager and employee. Follow these tips to thrive in this dynamic.
Best Practices for Remote Communication
Schedule more frequent conversations. Make a conscious effort to connect regularly in lieu of the organic chats and office visits that happen in shared spaces. Daily check-ins, particularly those scheduled for mornings, can help you connect on a consistent basis.
According to a study from Mercer about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the way people work, 68% of survey respondents said organizations should keep people informed with daily updates throughout the crisis. Employees value consistent communication; during check-ins, managers can relay important updates, in times of uncertainty or otherwise.
During these 10-to-15-minute video chats, managers and employees can also touch base on upcoming deadlines, the day’s agenda or general thoughts about work. A conversation through messaging apps such as Slack can substitute if Zoom fatigue has set in.
“Those quick conversations can help set the tone for the rest of the day,” Carpenter says. “That constant lookout to see what’s going on is crucial.”
Be conscious of different time zones when scheduling these discussions. In a blended workforce, remote workers should be sensitive to office workers’ more fixed schedules. For example, a remote manager should avoid scheduling a 5:30 p.m. discussion if direct reports have long commutes ahead of them.
Strive for clarity in communication, since managers and employees are mainly communicating through writing. Before sending an email, remove potentially confusing or irrelevant items, since written messages can be misinterpreted.
“Take a couple of minutes cutting out unnecessary words or sentences so that you are narrowing your message down to the main point,” Lanik says.
Clarity is especially important in a blended workforce, or any working condition in which employees’ frames of reference aren’t the same. For example, when referring to a co-worker in your office, mention that person’s full name when speaking with remote workers to avoid confusion.
Don’t hold back information. Transparency helps bridge the communication gaps that come with physical separation.
If managers receive relevant information from higher-ups about strategy or the future of the company, they should share it with their employees. In the Mercer study, 72% of participants said that organizations should provide more reassurance around pay and continued employment during the pandemic. No matter the situation, managers should be clear about the state of the company and provide updates when they can.
In turn, employees must be willing to voice their needs, since managers can’t see employees struggling at their desk. Speak to them about concerns over hours, expectations or extra time needed on an assignment.
Mimic the social etiquette of the office. Ask each other questions like “How are you doing today?” or “How was your weekend?” just as you would at the watercooler or when swinging by someone’s desk. Putting work on the back burner every so often will show that you have each other’s support.
“You assume that your team knows that you have their best interests in mind, but if we’re not saying it, people’s minds go to the worst-case scenario,” Carpenter says.
Do this by sending an instant message and catching up during daily check-ins or the start of meetings.
Dedicate time for casual conversation. Schedule a virtual happy hour or quick hangout. Having fun further builds a connection even when in-person meetups aren’t available. Just set two guidelines: 1) Attendance is optional and 2) no work talk allowed!
“You need to have a point where people can be more personal,” Lanik says. “That helps build relationships.”
Opt for face-to-face communication. “Sometimes we forget that there’s an actual person on the other side,” Carpenter says. “If we’re sending the feedback through email, somebody might take it one way when you actually meant something else.”
Managers can hold video calls when they want to discuss employee performance or how a project is going. A lot can be picked up from body language, Lanik says. The face-to-face format also makes it easy for employees to provide clarification and ask questions as soon as they come up. With that in mind, such arrangements shouldn’t be mandatory — be flexible if someone is feeling “Zoom fatigue” or prefers audio-only conversations. What matters is that everyone has an opportunity to share feedback.
Take advantage of shared documents. Beyond face-to-face feedback, programs such as Google Docs and Microsoft SharePoint let managers and employees work together in real time, making immediate updates in a file and allowing everyone to work in the same version. Shared files speed up the editing process and give users the ability to insert comments at specific points in a file, making the context of feedback even clearer.
Assigning and Monitoring Projects
Don’t micromanage. With remote workers less visible, managers might be tempted to ask for a status report on every detail of a project. To avoid this, focus on the desired outcome instead of the process.
“When you assign projects or tasks, specify what you want employees to achieve, but let employees figure out how to actually do it,” Lanik says.
Break projects into key steps. That way, managers can check in regularly without overwhelming employees. And if an employee is taking a project in a different direction, a manager can catch it in the early stages.
Project management tools such as Trello can help everyone clearly define the phases of a project, assign tasks and track deadlines.