It's been one year since businesses in the United States first went into lockdown following the initial outbreak of Covid-19. For most companies, the transition to working remotely was abrupt. But even those that already employed a remote workforce had to change how they conduct business.
Navigating this new world of work requires different communication and leadership styles. Companies that already had a remote workforce were ahead of the learning curve. Others had to pivot quickly with little experience to guide them. Many leaders still struggle to manage and communicate with their remote workforce a year later.
But what can we learn from those who have navigated this transition well?
I interviewed fifteen CEOs at various sized companies across several industries to learn how they adapted to having a remote workforce. While many of the challenges they faced were similar, the way they met those challenges varied. Regardless of their approach, five themes stood out as essential to working with a remote team.
1. Set your team up for success.
The first challenge for companies transitioning to a remote workforce was setting up their teams to work from home successfully. "When lockdown started, I made sure that everyone had a laptop that was configured correctly," says Maria Haggerty, CEO of Dotcom Distribution. "It's been a little bit more of a burden on IT to manage, but it was worth it. And now, I'm always thinking, 'what does that person or position need to have in place to be successful and feel connected as a member of a team.'"
Mitch Tobol is the CEO of CGT Marketing, LLC. Like many of us, when the pandemic first struck, he enjoyed the extra time at home, but once the novelty wore off, he struggled to find a sense of balance. "At night, if something was bothering me, I'd go right to the computer and start working," says Tobol. Eventually, he added more structure to his daily schedule and recognized that "we all need space for ourselves to decompress and have time away from work."
Many of the CEOs I spoke with agreed that time away from work is critical. "A vacation, even if you're staying in your house and binge-watching Game of Thrones for the third time, that's still time that someone needs for themselves," says Dan Maccarone, CEO of Charming Robot. "Equally important, especially if your team is spread across several time zones, is building flexibility into the workday by having a small number of set meetings and letting people work whenever it fits their schedule. I don't care when you do the work so long as you're meeting your deadlines."
2. Modify your workflow and be deliberate.
CEOs not used to a remote workforce had to be flexible once their team started working from home. Edmond Nassim, the CEO of Crescent Properties, Inc., was skeptical at first. "But as the weeks passed, I saw that everything was getting done," says Nassim. "And even if they needed to address something after work hours, they were available." Although the workflow changed to allow people to work on their own schedule, it also allowed for more focused work. "It was liberating to find out I could work remotely with my employees."
Stephan Ramerini, CEO of COMPEL CEOs, restructured his peer advisory meetings so they wouldn't have "Zoom fatigue" from sitting on a video conference for an extended time. "Everything had to be shortened," says Ramerini. "If a group was used to meeting four or five hours each session, we chunked it down to half as much time twice a month. Now there's no travel time, and we have shorter, more efficient meetings." This more frequent but less intensive schedule has served his clients well as they navigate the challenges associated with the pandemic.
But to be successful, these workflow modifications also need to be deliberate. "We make a conscious effort to stay in touch by phone or Zoom at least once a day," says John F. Lauro, Principal of the Lauro Law Firm. When you don't share an office, it's a lot more difficult to see when someone is struggling or overwhelmed. "I think leadership has to demonstrate--credibly and genuinely--that you care. You have to check in more because there's a tendency to isolate working virtually," says Lauro. "That's been a significant change for me, personally, but it was a very deliberate decision."
3. Structure your communications.
"You have to be a lot more thoughtful, structured, and strategic with respect to how you operate and how people need to work together," says Deepa Kartha, CEO of Journyz. "The whole camaraderie, the whole personal aspect of face-to-face meetings is often missed, and it's important. The work will get done, but you have to think and be strategic about bringing in the personal connection piece."
Office banter doesn't just impact personal relationships. It also serves as an informal way for teams to anticipate one another's needs and fill the gaps. "Remote workers don't necessarily see all the opportunities, nuances, or potential needs," says Brian McAuliff, CEO of Bri-Tech, Inc. It's a lot harder for a remote team to be proactive, so you need to manage their work and priorities more directly. "That's really the difference."
One benefit of structuring communications is that it is easier to set aside uninterrupted time for focused work and training. "I'm trying to get my team involved, to encourage them and give them the confidence they need to succeed," says Rakesh Bhargava, CEO of MangoTree Real Estate Holdings, LP. "I'll use Zoom and share my screen so they can watch me as I work." By walking people through the process step-by-step, it becomes an ingrained behavior. "When you trust people and encourage them, you motivate them, and then you give them the responsibility."
4. Take time to build rapport with your team.
Building rapport with a remote team can be challenging, especially if you're not used to working remotely. James LaSalle, CEO of Keen Insites and author of Unified Marketing Strategy, was already working with a remote team when the lockdown started. "It's a lot easier to build your team and that sense of camaraderie in an office," says LaSalle. "When you're working with a remote team, you have to consciously create that sense of belonging."
Melissa Facchina, General Partner of Siddhi Capital, LLC, and Siddhi Ops, agrees: "We knew how to be remote before Covid. We have connectivity, 100% transparency, and we also make time to connect on a human level and not only about work." Last year her team held a recipe swap and cookie baking contest that ended with a video call where they could eat cookies and hang out together. "If you're willing to put in the extra effort, it makes a big difference. And I burnt my cookies if you were wondering!"
Jennifer Malcolm, CEO of Jennasis & Associates, has virtual happy hours and an online book club for her team. Every year, they also donate their time to a nonprofit organization. "We're working with a food bank this year," says Malcolm. In addition to these planned efforts, she believes it's essential to acknowledge the everyday struggles and celebrations by sending flowers or a card or simply touching base. "Those touchpoints allow people to feel involved and included."
5. Use the lessons of the past year to propel you forward.
The world of work changed markedly in the first few months of 2020. The most successful companies are willing to adapt as circumstances change. "We were deemed essential and work with a lot of essential service providers, including childcare and mental health services," says Christopher Coluccio, CEO of Techworks Consulting, Inc. "Some of our clients were really scrambling to change the way they did business, and we were trying to help them. Technology that normally took a company three years to adopt was adopted in two to three months, so it was important to pick the right technology and train the staff so they could use it."
Blake Hanson, CEO of Industrial Oil Products, agrees: "I think Covid is putting a dent in complacency; it's driving creativity." It's also a potent reminder of the importance of connection in the workplace. "We still need to value the importance of human relationships, trust, and confidence," says Hanson. "It's finding the balance between the importance of being together and the efficiencies created by technology."
One of the greatest lessons from the past year is to be intentional in your communications. Eric Schurenberg, the CEO of Mansueto Ventures, used to host highly-produced town hall meetings every quarter: "Now I do them monthly, and they're a lot more informal." Thoughtful but less formal communications--from dropping in on team meetings held by your direct reports to inviting employees at all levels of the company to one-to-one meetings--proved incredibly valuable. "I think it's important to be seen when you're a leader," says Schurenberg. "A really difficult aspect of leadership is communicating what you mean in a way that the people who need to hear it can actually hear it."