HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development, Talent

How Managers Can Humanize Their Interactions with Remote Teams

After a large portion of the workforce switched to working remotely over the last year, organizations and managers are still scrambling to keep up with the reverberations of a massive change. 

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First came the communication and productivity software. Then came equipment upgrades and new processes and features. Next, training, onboarding, and learning and development kicked into high gear. Building culture among remote teams grew into a chief concern, with added touch points and more intentional communication. Video calls quickly evolved into video calls about video calls. 

By now, nearly every remote worker—managers included—has grown thoroughly exhausted with the larger project of making things work for the “new normal.” 

It’s clear to us that the current state of remote team management is in need of a pendulum swing—from an overreliance on technology such as video call software, team chatter platforms, and workflow management systems back to a more human approach to managing workplace relationships.

If you agree, try the following best practices.

Communicate with Intent, Flexibility, and Vulnerability 

Without quick in-person checks to resolve issues, schedules can fill up and in-boxes can lengthen. What used to be a 20-second conversation about the status of a project has become a 15-minute meeting, a 3-minute e-mail composition and response, or a chat question that can sit unanswered for hours.

Within these expanded timelines for communication, remote managers also miss the personal touch that comes with noticing a new picture on a colleague’s desk. If you’re not intentional about learning informal personal details, it can be difficult to relate to remote team members on a human level. 

Rather than forcing new interactions to make up for the difference, we recommend drilling down a level with any communication that’s already earmarked for teambuilding. Where in-person team meetings might have included a call for weekly “shoutouts,” try a more specific prompt such as “Who or what are you grateful for this week?” 

Allow people to express themselves in different ways other than a forced “round robin” through methods such as the chat function or emojis.

Flexibility is important. As long as all team members are clear on vision, mission, and values and understand the operational philosophy behind these, the next step to a more human remote workplace is to translate these into each individual’s way of working. If a core group prefers to work in a series of scrums but a key contributor works better with a series of one-to-one checks, leave room for that possibility, and find ways to make it work.

Leaders also need to be vulnerable about the difficulties of working from home and being remote; otherwise, team members may be more reluctant to share their own challenges.

Level-Set Without Overwhelming 

As remote team managers strive to be more intentional with communication among and between remote teams, it’s worth remembering that not every piece of information needs to have the same priority. Organizational goals are all vital to building and maintaining remote team cohesion, but aligning on them doesn’t always warrant a separate meeting cadence.

A more humanized approach to communication involves respect for the time and effort required by team members to complete each touch point.

Physical reminders of team vision and goals are one aspect of on-site workplace culture that organizations have struggled to reproduce in remote settings. Core values displayed on a video wall or team achievements listed on a physical leaderboard have always been great ways to remind team members of their role within the business without requiring a separate meeting or touchbase.

We recommend reintroducing these in digital settings. 

Finding low-impact ways to realign on vision and goals can be as simple as displaying relevant information in multiple areas. Get creative in how you maintain that sense of immersion, even if it’s as simple as a pre-call loading screen, an e-mail sign-off, or a Slack status.

Engage Your Team in the Project 

Managers seeking to humanize the remote workplace don’t have to do it all alone. Your team members also want to feel valued, heard, seen, and connected—and they can be your best resource for making it happen. 

Experiment with different methodologies, such as a week (or day) of only old-fashioned phone calls, and seek regular feedback on what’s working and what’s not working. Ask where the need is that has to be fulfilled to make sure you’re not introducing new technologies just for the sake of it. 

You may also have people on your team who are already conversant in digital culture through online communities and interest groups. Seek their advice, pair them with less fluent team members, and open your mind to opportunities to connect through apps and other nontraditional channels.

Digital community-building outside of your team, without any explicit goal of productivity, can also help make remote workflows feel more natural. Thinking in terms of cohorts is helpful. Encourage and promote resource groups for new hires, like fitness or interest groups, with the understanding that informal chatting helps people build relationships they can rely on when deadlines approach. 

Trying to have a little fun on the job doesn’t stop when work goes remote. Your teammates see each other more than they see most acquaintances, so making that process as enjoyable as possible is the key to a more humane work environment. Find more informal ways to connect based on what comes naturally to you and your team, such as sharing funny screenshots, giving out goofy awards, or setting up silly video call backgrounds.

When joy is encouraged, it opens the door for other emotions to be expressed and processed in a rational and productive manner. We could all benefit from a friendlier, more human work environment, whether we’re working out of the living room or not.

Mary Rafter is the Senior Manager of Learning and Development at Aerotek. Andrew Wolbach is the Director of Market Operations at Aerotek. For more advice on how to adjust your approach to remote team management, reach out to Aerotek today