Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Lead a Work-from-Home Workforce

Dear Crucial Skills,

Working in the “new normal” is challenging since we have to fundamentally rethink how we work and how we communicate in a hybrid work environment. Can you share any insights, best practices, or strategies?

Signed,
Coping

Dear Coping,

A relatable, personal anecdote: Two years ago, I was told to temporarily relocate my office from our headquarters to my home. I thought, “Well, this will be an interesting few weeks.” A few weeks later, with no end in sight and a sore back, I decided it was time to stop working from my bed and set up a home office. Now, almost two years later, I’m writing this response to you from that home office. At Crucial Learning, the pandemic changed us from a fully in-office workforce to a completely remote workforce and we will stay that way indefinitely—it is our “new normal.”

Like everyone else, we didn’t receive any training on how to work or manage remotely. But when faced with a challenge, we did what we do best. We launched a study to identify best practices and positive deviants who were getting it right.

In our August 2020 study, called “How to Lead a Work-From-Home Workforce,” we gathered data from 212 senior executives and 2037 front-line and middle managers. We wanted to know how they were thinking about organizational culture in light of work-from-home and whether working from home was destroying social capital—the stuff that makes networks and relationships strong and that enables people to function together successfully.

Surprisingly, the data wasn’t all doom and gloom. While 54% of leaders felt their culture had suffered since working from home, 25% felt it had improved. And employees felt similarly: 43% felt culture had suffered, but 28% said it had improved. So, we took a closer look at the data from those who reported an improvement and uncovered some excellent insights.

The Manager Matters

Surprisingly, many reported their relationship with their manager had improved after switching to work-from-home. And improved relationships with managers correlated with every positive outcome including increased commitment, engagement, and teamwork. On the other hand, those who said their relationships with their manager had suffered reported lower commitment. They also gave less discretionary effort, responded more slowly to requests, assumed the worst of others, and worried more about their own interests than organizational goals.

Just Do Something

While the first finding might feel overwhelming, as though success in a virtual environment rests solely on the shoulders of managers, the findings also offered some encouraging direction. It doesn’t take much for someone to feel their manager has their best interest in mind. Employees said they felt buoyed and supported by simple interactions with managers, whether it was a conversation about how their kids or partner were holding up or more frequent one-on-one check-ins.

Ultimately, leaders who did something were far more effective than leaders who did nothing. In fact, employees in organizations where leaders did nothing were 200 percent more likely to report feeling substantially less committed to the organization. The bottom line: any sincere effort to reach out to your remote employees will go a long way. Don’t overthink it.

If you’d like more practical advice, we asked about that too. When asked what builds social capital, people who reported a strong organizational culture suggested the following contributed to that culture:

Fun Virtual Events

Believe it or not, events like virtual cocktail hour, online games, and eating contests can provide the casual connection your people are missing and seeking. On our team, we’ve utilized Kahoot! and other gamification apps to keep people engaged at events and celebrations. Our mission committee also adapted our monthly “munch and mingle” activity to a virtual event. They’ve organized minute-to-win-it games, held cookie eating contests, and hosted opening ceremonies for the Olympics. Anyone can join, and those who do get to enjoy a casual connection with their colleagues.

More Frequent Team Meetings

To counteract the impact of physical distance, connect more often. Our team holds a weekly team huddle. The agenda is simple: share good news (personal, work, anything goes), look back (what happened last week), look forward (what’s coming up), personal spotlight (virtual show-and-tell from a different member of the team each week), and high fives (impromptu public thanks to recognize people’s efforts). These 30-minute meetings strengthen social capital and culture. They are fun and light-hearted, and they keep us informed and connected.

Casual Team Meetings

Because we’ve lost water-cooler chats, group lunches, and hallway banter, we must create these moments virtually. In addition to the meeting described above, I also intentionally spend time during each one-on-one to simply talk about life. I ask my direct reports how they’re doing and we chat about our favorite NBA teams, life and politics, recipes and weekend plans—anything to build friendship and connection outside our to-do lists.

Virtual Learning and Development

The research shows that of those employees who said they received at least as much professional training since working from home as they did before making the switch, 33% said their culture had improved, 22% felt more connected to the organization, and 52% felt more committed than they did before they started working from home. A good virtual professional training course involves both structured and unstructured interaction, where teammates can not only learn important skills but also have candid, vulnerable moments in virtual breakout sessions. This type of team building is invaluable.

People from organizations that took the above actions were three times more likely to report rich social capital and healthy cultures than those from organizations that limited their measures to things like flex-time or increased benefits. Common sense also tells us that, because we’re social creatures, facilitating quality social moments is key to engagement and well-being.

Be intentional about your outreach. It doesn’t have to be formal; it just has to happen. I imagine you’re doing better than you think you are, but if you’re concerned, then ask. Ask your teammates what more you could do to facilitate culture and communication. I’m sure you’ll find a few good ideas. You can also download our ebook for the research and tips.

Best of luck,
Brittney

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7 thoughts on “How to Lead a Work-from-Home Workforce”

  1. Dave Barnard

    Greetings.

    Thanks for sharing some insights on new hybrid work place that has evolved. I appreciate the focus of the article and research seems to me to be more tilted towards social/mental aspects of the team, a balanced part of the peace pertains to crucial conversations accountability. While no-one could have prepared for the duration of the events du jour for health and wellness, etc., likewise many are perhaps not street-wise or aware of how to be accountable and visible in a distributed, virtual environment I would suggest. For managers/leaders, they have no way of monitoring productivity or presence and often resort to arguably draconian defaults such as onerous time tracking/reporting. This of course completely communicates, no matter whether corporate values state “people are their biggest asset”, that the organization does not trust it’s people!

    So people need to know how to communicate amongst team members in a different, visible and regular way that provides a sense that all members pulling their weight; getting things done; being productive self-starters. Not everyone is a self-starter with a guiding compass of “ownership”. And yet we know no-one wants to be under the thumb of someone. So they also need some training, guidance, mentoring in being a self-starter because if we don’t learn how to manage ourselves, someone else will. Which one do we want?

    Ultimately this highlights that many crucial conversations could be avoided by team members learning how to be accountable and self-starters in this new world. Learning these will improve happiness and morale at very least. Managers and Leaders would expect to be far more supportive and pleased with this hybrid and resultant productivity.

    Eat the meat and spit out the bones.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thanks Dave – some really good insights. There could be several ways to respond to this question, I went a bit more tactical. However, I agree a culture of dialogue and accountability is paramount. We’ve learned to speak up quickly and often when or if we have concerns with our colleagues, and not in a punitive or untrusting way, more of a “hey, wanted to check-in on something,” approach. It’s proved useful for us. Best of luck.

  2. Eva Szabo

    Thank you, Brittney for sharing results and insights from the study. I really like the eBook you shared as well. Very helpful! – Coping

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Eva – I’m so glad it was helpful. We are all learning by trial and error – but we have put some of these ideas into practice with success. I hope they can help you and your team as well. Best of luck.

  3. Darcie Caswell

    Thank you for this article, I especially appreciate the practical tips. The survey you sited was conducted in August 2020. For most of us that was five months in to the COVID work-from-home shift, which at that point many of us believed would be temporary. I wonder if responses to the survey now, two years in and knowing it will be permanent, would differ from the original responses.

    1. Shana

      Excellent question. I’m curious if responses may have changed as well as we’ve moved towards work-from-home that has less of an end in site.

  4. How to Lead a Work-from-Home Workforce

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