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Leading virtual teams with empathy

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How team leaders can be sensitive to the needs of remote workers

Show your authentic, personal, and compassionate side

It’s easy to say, ‘We are all in this together’, but the truth is that some members of your team are facing much bigger challenges than the rest. Many are facing total isolation, or having to home school children, living with partners who’ve been furloughed or made redundant, or caring for a sick family member. These challenges can add pressure to an already stressful situation, and that is why it’s important for managers to get a sense of which colleagues may require a bit more flexibility.

For instance, the classic nine-to-five schedule may not work for a team member who is caring for a sick grandparent, home schooling two kids, and trying to find time to walk the dogs in the morning. Scheduling flexibility can give them the breathing room they need to ensure that their home life is in order while also finding time to accomplish their work.

Additionally, it may be helpful to make the lunch hour sacrosanct, in order to allow people to literally step away from their work for a moment. Even the most enthusiastic team members will burn out quickly if their life is an endless stream of video calls. On that note, it is also worth considering having a ‘video-call-free’ meeting from time to time, again to reduce the pressure on team members.

Gain an understanding of your team’s motivations

It’s not just workspaces and processes that have changed. There’s a good chance the work itself has changed as well. We are all being asked to take on tasks that may not exist within our natural comfort-zone or job specification. This is uncharted territory for all of us, but a thorough understanding of the emotional needs of our colleagues can help us to encourage their productivity (and maintain their well-being). A good place to start is by examining the motivators that drive us and adjusting for this new reality.

When it comes to motivation, especially at work, the impetuses that drive us can be divided into two categories: external and internal. External motivators include recognition, avoidance of emotional threats (such as stress or anxiety), receiving rewards, or avoiding punishment. Internal motivators include things such as enjoyment of one’s work, personal development, or the satisfaction of seeing our work have an impact on the real world. While the former is about satisfying the perceptions of others, the latter is about finding personal fulfilment.

For a remote team trying to ‘keep calm and carry on’ during a global pandemic, internal motivators are more likely to have the desired effect in helping our colleagues avoid burnout and find purpose in their day-to-day tasks. Moreover, it is important to have a common purpose and a shared notion that ‘we’re all in this together’, which helps to retain a sense of community even in isolation.

It's all about a sense of accomplishment

There are a few techniques that can be used to maximise internal motivation. For example, during informal communications such as routine team and 1:1 calls, try to remind yourself to reflect on moments when your team members made an impact and discuss this with them. Ask them to share a moment where they felt a personal sense of achievement during the week. Did they learn something new that they enjoyed? Did they feel like they made an impact of some kind on the world? What sorts of things would they like to achieve for themselves next?

As a leader, in addition to providing a good source of emotional stimulation for the team, these moments also provide managers with a good learning opportunity about their colleagues. The truth is that in a modern work environment, we tend to judge performance based on what it looks like people are doing. It’s a behavioural metric. In a remote system, it’s helpful for us to downplay this type of judgement and focus more on output- or task-related measures. Research has shown us that when objective criteria like goals and measurable targets are used, employee morale goes up.

It's up to us to create a healthy virtual workspace

There is no doubt that anxiety has increased during this mass isolation. We are all going to have good days and bad days. Our kids will get bored. Our parents will get lonely. Our pets will get restless. Our partners will get irritated with us.

In a situation like this, work can actually provide a bit of a distraction, but what it shouldn’t be is another pain point in the lives of people who may already be stretched to their emotional limits. This is where we, as managers, can provide the support our teams need. We need to embrace this new reality. There has never been a greater need among the modern workforce for understanding and a sense of humanity. 

As leaders, it’s our job to give our people the tools, resources, and support to continue to earn a living and not crack under the pressure of a world in quarantine. As it turns out, all it takes is a little compassion and a little empathy.

For more insight, visit our Manager’s checklist, or view our webinar on Leading virtual teams -powerful ways to keep your people motivated featuring Victoria Entwistle, the Director of People and Purpose, and Adam Flitton PHD, Behavioural Scientist at Hill + Knowlton Strategies.

 

view manager's checklist