Remote workforces are not new. In fact, as of 2018, 63% of companies had remote employees. For years, articles offering tips and tricks on how best to manage remote teams have popped up in search results.
The problem is that the majority of that advice applies to standard work-from-home situations—and there’s nothing standard about the mass shift to remote work due to COVID-19. When you’re under pressure to build remote teams quickly, it’s tempting to focus entirely on logistics.
However, what your employees truly need from you during this difficult time is empathy.
As you coordinate with your team members to settle into working from home, use the emotional framework outlined by the Kübler-Ross Change Curve to put your people first.
Using the Kübler-Ross Change Curve to Build a Remote Workforce
The Kübler-Ross Change Curve is a proven change management model, but you probably know it best as the five stages of grief. All around the world, whether people realize it or not, they are experiencing grief in response to the COVID-19 crisis—and the expectation to immediately become a productive part of remote teams isn’t helping.
Start by acknowledging that this situation affects you as well. It’s tempting to put on a brave face, but honesty makes you relatable. Gail Marie, lead editor of a fully remote team at Animalz, says, “I must show a willingness to be vulnerable before I expect others on my team to do so.”
She takes it a step further by adding a “feelings” section to every team meeting agenda. “I share my feelings and, if so inclined, they share theirs. Then we support each other.”
Your remote team-building activities include being candid and open with your team members about the challenges of making sudden changes. Then, recognize your role as their guide toward acceptance.
Denial: This Remote Workforce is Temporary
As recently as a few weeks ago, many teams thought they’d be working from home for a couple of weeks and then heading back into the office. Now that the end date for quarantine has been postponed—perhaps indefinitely—many employees may still be in denial about the new set-up.
As people come to terms with working remotely, provide weekly updates, and increase daily communication.
“If you already have a standing once-a-week check-in, make sure your team knows that this can be increased as their circumstances change. Consider having daily ‘office hours’—20-minute blocks anyone can grab for some check-in time if they need it.” — Maria L. Alvarez, senior talent acquisition partner, Internet Creations
Your updates should provide as much transparency as possible. Talk about how the company is handling profitability issues, what you’re doing to protect and support employees, and any other pertinent operational information.
When creating weekly updates, steer away from fear-inducing announcements that lack actionable information. Instead, focus on being direct and helpful.
For example, “At the moment, we don’t know when it will be safe to return to the office, but here’s what we’re doing to help you transition to working from home” is more useful than, “It could be months before we return to the office so you’ll just have to adjust to remote work.”
New remote teams are also at high risk of technostress — stress caused by technology — due to the rapid increase in virtual team meetings and the large number of remote team tools needed to keep up with daily work. Remote team members are likely to experience techno-uncertainty and techno-overload due to all the new tools and processes.
Moreover, if your team members believe this situation is temporary, they’ll be less motivated to truly engage with new tools. Using a Digital Adoption Platform can help address these stressors by providing self-guided, in-app guidance for new software. Allowing employees to pace themselves while onboarding helps prevent burnout caused by being asked to learn too much at once.
Transparency is the key to combatting denial. When you leave employees in the dark, fear and suspicion will compound and create a tense working environment. Communicate often and keep reinforcing work expectations by documenting them in a central place.
Anger: I Cannot Work Like This
Once your employees come to terms with the semi-permanence of remote work, they may experience anger—toward others, world leaders, and even you as their manager. It’s essential to take this in stride and help your team members move past it.
Many remote workers cite visibility as a top challenge.
Employees feel that if their bosses can’t physically see them getting work done, the company won’t trust that anything is getting accomplished at all. This lack of confidence (perceived or real) often causes employees to resent their managers and resist change.
Get ahead of those feelings by showing your team members that you trust them. Ultimately, if your employees can get their work done in the office, you should feel comfortable with them doing it at home as well.
As Chris Zaugg, the co-founder of Uptick, puts it, “At the end of the day, if I can’t trust my team members, then they shouldn’t be on my team, remotely or otherwise.”
While you won’t be able to control everything, you do have the power to address frustration stemming from the new work environment. Sending out anonymous surveys is a good way to gather frank feedback and identify ways you can help your team.
For example, if employees are struggling to be productive in a makeshift office, tell your team what you’re doing to alleviate that stress. In this case, you might consider allowing team members to borrow equipment from the office or submit expense requests for home office equipment.
Bargaining: Maybe I Can Find a New Routine
After a while, your employees may begin to bargain with themselves, believing that they can adjust to this “new normal.” But there is nothing normal about dealing with grief while also changing your entire daily routine. Reaching the bargaining phase is important, but leadership should help employees set realistic expectations.
Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO of Honey, shares her experience of virtual team building during a crisis: “By Day 10, it became pretty apparent that this remote work situation wasn’t going to end anytime soon . . . Part of what got us through this challenge was accepting that it’s not business as usual and that things may feel a little strange. Being able to admit that together helped us push through.”
Remember that there is no “right” way to work from home effectively. Instead of trying to force a specific routine for virtual team building, provide a range of suggestions, and help individuals find what works for them.
If your surveys reveal that employees are struggling with deep work because of distracting messages, emails, and news, don’t just tell them what you do to stay productive—give them options. Providing recommendations—like using the Pomodoro technique, muting Slack notifications, and using block scheduling—further reinforces your trust in your team while also giving them actionable advice.
Of course, virtual team building and quick transitions to remote work require a lot of trial and error. Dominic Collard, head of content at GoCardless, encourages flexibility: “Understand that these situations can, and probably will, change more than once. So, have an informed and agile approach to everyone you manage.”
Depression: I Will Never Adjust to Remote Work
Even with ideal working conditions, feelings of loneliness and isolation are a major challenge for virtual teams. Sudden transitions due to a crisis can take an even greater toll on your team’s mental health.
Checking in on your employees more than usual and driving conversations is the most essential part of remote team building activities.
“Don’t get lazy. As a manager, YOU need to initiate with your team. None of this ‘You good? Do we need to meet?’ Meet with your team regularly and ask them real questions. It makes a HUGE difference!’” — Chris Zaugg, co-founder, Uptick
Making time for socialization and connection is crucial as well for virtual team building. It’s easier for employees to suffer in silence when they can hide behind their computers at home. As a leader, it’s up to you to keep your employees engaged.
“Fun, mental health and physical wellness are just as important to a successful team as productivity. It’s just as important to build in times to the calendar for social hanging or exercise breaks as it is to schedule team meetings.” — Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO, Honey
Alvarez of Internet Creations adds an important caveat: “Ask first. Don’t assume people want a happy hour, or that everyone wants the same type of community . . . At IC, we have a few social options: a daily Coffee Talk for virtual teams at 9 a.m. ET to simulate our kitchen water-cooler traffic time, team happy hours, individual virtual team lunches/tea times, weekly Moments of Movement with push-up and plank challenges for those looking to stay active, weekly check-ins with our Family Talk affinity group for parents looking to share resources, etc.”
Shying away from mental health issues isn’t good for you, your employees, or your company. Connect your team with mental health resources and do what you can to support them.
Acceptance: I Can Trust Leadership to Support Me
When you build your remote workforce with empathy, you show your team that you care about the people behind the work.
Reaching acceptance is a significant milestone, but it’s important to understand that people don’t always move through the grief process in order—they may even move backward. No matter where they are in the cycle, use your words and actions wisely to prove that you’re available to your team.
Efforts such as increasing check-ins and committing to weekly team updates make your remote teams feel heard and supported. You can reinforce those feelings through actions like getting your team the proper work equipment, being open to flexible schedules, and responding to the feedback you solicit.
Most importantly, strive to be a stable resource for your team during an unstable time.
Supporting Your Remote Workforce Is Crucial
Your employees are the driving force that keeps your company running. Now more than ever, they will look to you for the support they need to do their best work. Seek out ways to bring humanity, understanding, and assistance into every aspect of your remote work policies.
The Whatfix Digital Adoption Platform has been helping teams learn new tools through self-guided, on-demand training for years. Sign up for a demo to see how we can help you get your teams up-to-speed on all the new tools they need for their daily work.