Managing for Peak Performance In a Remote Worker World

Author: 
Paul Nolan

On the first Friday in March this year, Jeb Ory led an employee appreciation celebration at the Arlington, Virginia, headquarters of Phone2Action, a provider of advocacy software that enables organizations to create grassroots marketing campaigns. The following week, the company’s 90-plus employees were told they would be working remotely indefinitely, as it became clear the global COVID-19 outbreak made office settings unsafe.

Ory, CEO and founder of the company, says his executive team immediately began forming a strategy to maintain their corporate culture, which promotes collaboration and team spirit. Phone2Action employees were appreciative of office breakfasts and all-hands happy hours that had become a staple of the company’s team-building efforts.

“We have people who tell us they joined the company because of our mission and our culture. People really liked the co-workers they met in the interview process. It has been a challenge for our team to not see the people they enjoy working with every day,” Ory says.

The shift to WFH

Like Phone2Action, businesses across the U.S. and worldwide have overhauled their processes to cope with the pandemic. A global survey by Gartner found that 88% of organizations made it mandatory or encouraged their employees to work from home once COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, 3.4% of the U.S. work force worked remotely.

Managers face challenges keeping employees engaged, informed and accomplishing objectives. They are attempting to balance the desire to maintain close contact with remote workers with a consciousness of virtual meeting fatigue.

For their part, employees are reporting mixed emotions about working from home. Some say they are more productive than they were in the office and they appreciate the time savings of not having to commute. Others confess that working from home has been challenging. Many are juggling parental duties that are complicated by a large percentage of children who continue to attend school remotely. And not every home environment is spacious enough to accommodate ample working space.

A survey of more than 3,900 U.S. workers by Digital.com shows that 70% of employees prefer to work onsite once restrictions lift. Nearly 47% of workers cited social interaction with coworkers as their main reason for going back into the workplace. The second popular reason to work in-person is structure and normalcy, which was cited by 44.6% of respondents. Other motivating factors include more productivity, fewer distractions and access to workplace amenities like gyms and restaurants.

Maintaining productivity is a key concern among managers, and an important element of that is keeping workers engaged and motivated. Leaders believe their corporate culture goes a long way toward inspiring employees, but building the esprit de corps they rely on has proven to be challenging in an officeless environment.

Phone2Action hired a new head of human resources just a few weeks before the pandemic hit. Managers at the company remained in close contact with their team members while a companywide approach to the WFH situation was developed.

“Once we hit work from home, we realized it was important to keep connective tissue,” Ory says. They created virtual drop-in lunches that workers had the option of joining to simply chat with colleagues. Phone2Action also shifted happy hours and other celebrations that would have occurred in the office to the new virtual world.

“The biggest concern when we sent them home was around employee well-being,” Ory says. “There is a whole host of non-work-related challenges that everyone was suddenly faced with. There are things that are much bigger than a job going on right now. We expected it to affect productivity, but this is our team, and the most important thing was to make sure people were going to be OK.”

Technology’s role in team-building

Companies that increased their reliance on technology to keep operating remotely also turned to tech tools to maintain their corporate culture. Many businesses are deploying technology such as Donut, a program that helps remote co-workers connect serendipitously using Slack or other communication platforms, to replace the chance meetings and water cooler conversations that occur in the office.

Virtual team experiences such as cocktail mixology classes, trivia contests and even a ukulele building class have replaced in-person corporate celebrations. The pandemic has forced managers to make a more intentional effort to keep workers connected with each other.

“One of the unique challenges of a remote work force is maintaining a culture of being part of a team,” Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and chief operating officer of Chargebacks911 told Sales & Marketing Management via email. The company helps online businesses prevent chargebacks and minimize losses. “It’s all too easy for employees to slip through the cracks and feel isolated from their peers, which in turn leads to low morale. It’s become increasingly important to recreate community wherever possible, even in small ways.”

Like many companies, Chargeback911 has encouraged its managers to make personal check-ins with workers and has created chat spaces where employees can discuss non-work-related topics, such as parenting challenges or personal interests. “Giving staff an outlet like this shows that you value their well-being and happiness, and that you trust them not to abuse the outlet in lieu of getting the job done,” Eaton-Cardone says.

The rise in virtual team meals has spurred increased use of food delivery services such as GrubHub, Door Dash and Uber Eats. Lee Burbage, a human resources manager at The Motley Fool, says his HR team has tried to keep the “surprise and delight” aspects of office life at the online financial and investment advice company going in the COVID-19 WFH era. The Motley Fool, which employs about 500 people, replaced its monthly pizza day with a pizza lottery, sending 40 to 50 pizzas each month to workers’ homes for lunch.

A personal touch is critical whenever employers express gratitude and recognize workers. In a company-produced podcast, Burbage said taking the time to know what ingredients each employee likes on their pizza makes the delivery that much more special and reflects well on the company. “We’re not just sending out 50 cheese pizzas. We’re pretty well-known for getting the people the pizza they want.”

Gift cards to the rescue

Another recognition tool that is proving invaluable in the WFH environment is gift cards. Use of digital gift cards in the incentive division of Blackhawk Network, a leading gift card provider, is up 200% in 2020, according to Blackhawk’s Vice President of Marketing Theresa McEndree. Restaurant gift cards for virtual team get-togethers and gift cards designated for home office supplies have been among the most popular, she says.

Scotty Greenburg, marketing director of Tango Card, a provider of e-gift cards, says some clients that have pivoted to virtual trade shows and online presentations are using gift cards as a thank-you to prospects that attend — a virtual swag bag of sorts. Companies are also using Tango cards as incentives to complete training. One company awarded cards worth $1,000 to replace an incentive travel program that was canceled due to the pandemic. The money could be used to book travel in the future or put toward home improvements, which many people who are stuck at home are tackling.

A thousand-dollar gift card is memorable, but many we spoke with emphasized that keeping employees engaged in the remote-work world is about continuous and genuine communication, and less about spending large amounts of money on rewards.

“I found that honest praise is one of the most efficient incentives leaders can give,” states Chris Kaiser, founder and CEO of Click A Tree, an organization dedicated to sustainability by planting trees around the world. Kaiser works in Germany. His full-time and freelance workers have always been virtual, and the company works with tree-planting partners in a number of countries.

The struggle to replace personal contact

What Kaiser misses most during the COVID era is the reforestation projects that bring his team together in locations around the world. “Motivating each other is much easier in person. Going out to plant trees together is great fun and results in wonderful memories that tie the team together beyond the work,” Kaiser states in an email. He has promised to take the team to a reforestation project in 2021 if they hit their goals.

Jake Rheude is also anxious to get his team of contract content marketers together when it is safe to do so. Rheude is vice president of marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce order fulfillment provider with warehouses in Tennessee and Utah. In his current position, Rheude has always managed a team of remote content creators, so the pandemic did not change his daily interactions with them. However, it prevented him from bringing the team together this summer for an annual strategy and team-building event.

Rheude says there is a human element that comes even with his company’s compact, two-day gathering that cannot be replaced virtually. His content providers are contract workers. Having them visit Knoxville last year to tour Red Stag’s warehouse operation, meet with various team members and complete some workshops together was invaluable, Rheude says. He planned to repeat the experience at the Salt Lake City warehouse this year, but the pandemic prevented that.

“When you work remotely, it’s easy to stay in your own silo, working away with minimal external input or output. But to collaborate effectively, you need to know where everyone else is in the project,” Leigh Smith, people manager for UK-based Anywhere Works, told us via email. “We’ve ramped up the number of video calls we host each day. We try to recreate the feel of an office as much as possible, and collaboration tools like video-call software play a fundamental role in that. That’s been vital to minimizing silos and building a more cohesive team.”

Until that time when in-person gatherings can safely occur, it’s important for managers to remain connected with each worker on their team in an authentic manner. A 2019 survey of more than 3,000 U.S. employees by the performance improvement company One10 shows that 42% of workers are more likely to remain with a current employer when they feel the company tries to meet both their work and personal needs.

“When you are physically removed from one another, you really want to have that connection with the people that report to you,” says Richelle Taylor, vice president of strategic marketing at One10.

Show genuine concern

What we heard more than anything else during our reporting is that showing genuine concern for co-workers is the most important gesture a manager can make. “One key thing we found that helps build a trusting relationship with a supervisor is the notion of well-being. Does the supervisor really understand and care about the employee’s well-being, and are they able to effectively communicate that understanding?” says Jeff Weiner, senior director of analytics at One10. “In a global pandemic, where we are working very differently, this takes on even a deeper meaning.”

“If this period of remote working has taught us anything, it’s that communication has always been key,” says Claire Short, chief of staff at upUgo, a digital marketing agency specializing in search engine optimization. “You may not be able to afford lavish gifts, but there are plenty of other cost-effective ways to remind your team you’re thinking of them – ones that are far too often overlooked.”

Sarah Danzl, head of global communications and client advocacy at Degreed, an education technology company, says recognizing workers one-on-one and publicly is critical. She also stresses the importance of being conscious that people’s lives are complex. “Work doesn’t exist in a bubble,” Danzl says. “It’s vital for managers to understand and accept that their team’s motivation and engagement is impacted by things happening outside of work, and to support them as holistic individuals with families, fears, ambitions and other commitments.”

When managers do check in on team members, it should be done carefully. Employees can be conscious of the supervisor-subordinate dynamic and be nervous about revealing too much or presenting the notion that their performance is negatively impacted.

In some cases, even asking if someone is OK, “depending on how, where and when it’s posed, could be seen as an affront or even something where a case is being built to dismiss that person,” Phoenix Jackson, a licensed marriage and family counselor told The New York Times. Reassuring the individual that your concern is genuine and you want to help in any way possible is important.

Monica Eaton-Cardone at Chargebacks911 advises managers to be forgiving with their team and themselves. “We’ve never dealt with something on this scale before. Because of that, there’s room for the typical rules to bend and for more leniency when measuring performance. I think we need to remember that we all have jobs to do and we should be committed to making the best of a difficult situation.”