How HR Can Help Managers Lead Virtually

Working from home is the new normal, and it is affecting how organizations manage and retain talent. That’s where HR comes in.

No one is quite prepared to take the overall emotional temperature of a company quite like HR, and it’s hard to imagine anything that has impacted your company culture more than the abrupt and necessary shift to virtual work. Frankly, it’s left us all a bit…is “exhausted” still adequate to describe how we’re all feeling? 

Working from home probably isn’t going anywhere. With an organization as large as Dropbox announcing that it’s making a permanent shift to remote work, something is happening, right? Sought-after candidates with the skills you need could start demanding the option of staying closer to home. Also, it’s partly HR’s role to make sure that your most important talent doesn’t jump ship due to stress and burn out. 

How does HR fit into this? If your staff feels shut down and marginalized at a time like this—when they should feel able to voice their concerns and be heard—then the minute there’s an opportunity to explore new opportunities, you could hemorrhage talent. You can “nudge” your results and authority-driven leadership to give some other approaches, and agile, a try.

Even if you weren’t quite ready to define your company’s virtual culture, as of right now, you don’t have a choice. Let’s define it—and the role HR has to play in that process—-before it defines, and defies, you.

First Things First: How to Identify Your Leadership Culture

Not every leader responds to virtual work (and therefore leadership of virtual workers) in the same way. Traditional leaders may have been accustomed to learning outside the office door, feeling confident that if they saw what looked like productivity, they assumed the team was being productive.

There could also be leaders that have always been a bit too hands-off, and now that they aren’t in everyone’s face, productivity could be slipping. Before you figure out how to support leadership, and this massive transformation that’s unfolding in front of all of us, let’s take a look at the most common leadership styles. 

You can probably easily identify those styles within your leadership. (You are likely already well aware how those trends are causing fissures within your teams: employee satisfaction, stress levels, etc.)

For example: A leader who lives and dies by their authority and control above all else may find themselves struggling to lead when they don’t have regular onsite interaction with their direct reports. They actually need to become more coach-like and get comfortable with a more hands-off approach. 

Why? Because good virtual leaders have high emotional IQs. We strongly believe that virtual work isn’t just a trend. It’s a shift. You probably have people working from home right now in risk groups that dictate they won’t be able to interact safely with folks for some time.

The qualities that drive a successful and open virtual and IRL culture are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we think that they are basically the same. 

Six (Somewhat Predictable) Management and Leadership Styles

The Director

Defining Value: Process

Directive leaders like oversight, and need to keep a thumb in every pie. They tend to need to know what’s going on at all times and can be seen as being micromanagers.

The Boss

Defining Value: Results

You always know where you stand with a leader that throws around their weight. Firm, believes in standards, and clear, concise instruction.

The Peacemaker

Defining Value: Morale

This leader prizes harmony above anything else. It could mean that in a virtual moment, if productivity slips, they’re struggling to know how to rally the troops.

The Participant

Defining Value: Equality

A leader who believes that everyone at the table has an equal voice and will seek input from every member of the team all the time, on all matters.

The Time Keeper

Defining Value: Deadlines

These folks are impatient, but get things done. They are drivers who measure everything based on results, whether those results are meaningful or not.

The Coach

Defining Value: Satisfaction

Coaches tend to like balance in the force. They love employee development and skill improvement. Performance is as important to them as satisfaction.Distance working does create natural challenges that are not obvious factors when everyone can sit across from each other regularly. We also believe that if you strive to match these challenges now, when everyone is back in the room together—however your company defines work spaces in the future—you will come back together a more holistic and well-functioning organization. 

Where does HR Step In?

  • Ask employees about their boss’s leadership styles. The leadership style of someone you like isn’t always evident to a colleague, but it’s always plenty clear (and sometimes painful) to their staff.
  • Let them do this anonymously. The more someone feels like they’re not being called out, the more they’ll open up and share.
  • Be open about the process with everyone, even leadership. How are you going to attract or retain talent without knowing what your company’s challenges are?

Bring Agile Principles into Your Leadership Styles and Do it Now

Let’s look again at the handy chart we put together above and consider how each leader emphasizes and prioritizes process and production. Those personalities—and the behaviors that go with them—are unquestionably good at delivering highly-specified results. Now, ask yourself, how well are those styles functioning when they’re unable to see folks face to face?

Agile prioritizes individuals, interactions, and responsiveness over the rigors of “the plan.” The more and more your virtual culture embraces collaboration (and a more coaching-like leadership style) the more you are likely to build trust and openness. 

Define a Virtual “Open Door” Policy

Management should have discrete and private channels available where staff can track them down and have a sidebar just as they may feel open to popping into an office or a conference room for a quick chat. It’s one thing to have a weekly check in and tell team members that they are welcome to share difficult feedback and pain points during those meetings. What if that team member is frustrated, or isn’t feeling up to the challenge of opening up on demand? 

Where does HR Step In?

  • Formalize the virtual work process. Help them set up those virtual private channels and formalize that process (private Skype accounts, restricted Zoom rooms, etc.). 
  • Define policies so no one is guessing. Work hand-in-hand with leadership to establish a formula or a template for one-on-one meetings.
  • Prioritize individual interactions and feedback. Remind your management that every single member of the team is entitled to unscheduled face-to-face time.

Leadership Needs to do a Lot More of…This

Coaches know exactly how to deliver tough love along with praise. If the only feedback the team gets is criticism, especially when they’re physically isolated from each other, that could cause further withdrawal and frustration. 

Your leaders who are results driven need to be reminded of this regularly. (They may also need some training and a skill set to give them the emotional IQ they need to do it sincerely.) The more passive leaders (the peacemakers and the participants) are more likely to lavish the praise openly. They could need a push in the right direction to know how to direct the praise specifically so the most productive members of the team don’t feel like their colleagues who are slacking off are getting away with murder. 

Where does HR Step In?

  • SHOW them when and how to lavish praise in an effective way. Not everyone is a great communicator, and it shows. This may be where training is needed so leadership is aware of just how to be both impactful and sincere.
  • Remind managers and leadership that praising productivity creates role models and positive examples in the company. If others see you doing it, they’re more likely to do it, and the entire company slowly shifts. 
  • Help leaders develop a metric for personal success in their teams. Personal success could include skill development and isn’t necessarily always tied to company success.
  • Develop programs and company-wide celebrations (even if they’re virtual!) to recognize excellence. Yeah, those happy hour Zooms are getting old but there are other ways to get together in a low-key way as a group to share in the company’s wins.  

Create Opportunities for Meaningful Employee Check-In

Remote collaboration is tough when you’re not used to it. Some of your team is probably thriving right now, free from the drudgery of daily commutes. You don’t know who is doing well and who isn’t until you ask. 

Virtual environments tend to work very well for folks on the team who were already pretty good at self direction. Where that’s not true, the sudden shift to a virtual environment lays bare exactly who was able to “fake it” in the office. (Even if someone is at their desk, they could easily be shopping for new furniture and look like they’re being quite productive.) 

In a work-from-home situation, it’s abundantly clear who is, and isn’t, sticking to the plan, turning in work, and contributing an equal share. There’s a good chance that everyone around the “faking-it” folks were well aware of these issues prior to COVID. You want those productive folks to feel like they’re not pulling that dead weight around with them, so this could be the ideal time to cut it loose. 

When you’re clear about prioritizing retention and satisfaction (and it should be, especially if you’re trying to avoid brain drain or burnout), the HR team is the greatest resource to measure and improve effective online collaboration.

Tools like employee satisfaction surveys help. Use quarterly reviews as a constructive feedback loop instead of a perfunctory check in. 

Where does HR Step In?

  • Redefine your quarterly review/employee review feedback loop. If employees assume that reviews are perfunctory and meaningless, they’ll never have the opportunity to share material, substantive feedback. When they feel empowered to tell you what’s working (and who or what isn’t) and be heard, your top talent may start actually shaping the direction of the company positively. Win/win!
  • Use tools like anonymous surveys to uncover where there are gaps in the collaborative process. Maybe a simple one-time investment in new cloud resources will go a long way.
  • SELL this to leadership. As an HR lead, it’s up to you to inform your leaders what employees need so they can work together and collaborate in a frictionless way, especially when they don’t have the advantage of proximity. 

Culture Isn’t Static

Organizational culture is the most important fuel that drives your products, and it’s often the most difficult thing to categorize and measure. (But you knew that already.) It’s massively difficult to get buy-in from the top down of how to treat your most valuable asset when it’s also nearly impossible to define. 

There has been a lot of discussion about how the COVID-era is introducing a new era in business culture. We’ll build on that and say that the pandemic has emphasized the importance of your company’s culture and values.  

Agile does more than preach about the acceptance of change. It provides a framework and a behavioral structure to discover how harnessing change becomes an asset. Using Agile principles to foster and reinforce employee satisfaction results in motivated employees who have the support and environment they need to produce and deliver products for your customers.

Tag(s): Agile , HR , human resources

Rebecca Rutherford

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