As leaders, how do we maintain trust and rapport with our team members when we need to keep our distance and can no longer connect with them face-to-face?

This is a question and a challenge many business leaders are facing in these unprecedented times. Working from home has been part of many areas of America's workforce for decades. Nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce work at home in some capacity, reaching higher levels in metropolitan areas where commuting becomes an increasing challenge for employees. The COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated telework trends, possibly keeping it up for the long term. Companies which have not been accustomed to telework, or have been on the fence about allowing employees to work remotely, are now having to quickly shift and adopt new policies and guidelines on how to best engage with employees when they are not in the office. Telework is now the new normal, and a necessity for operation of businesses across America.  

Teleworking undoubtedly offers many advantages for workers and employers, however, it requires much more effort from managers and leaders to engage and connect with their team members. No longer is a passing by to say 'good morning' sufficient to check in with your team, nor is a smile from a distance to show acknowledgement, or a thumbs up for recognition. When all in-person meetings are replaced with virtual meetings, and the core of human connection through face-to-face interaction is no longer there, leaders must overcompensate for that loss. Leaders need to be more purposeful, and put in more energy and effort to create the human connection to sustain and increase employee engagement. 

Telework strategies are least effective when leaders heavily rely on technology and lose sight of the human connection. To create and maintain human connection with your team while social distancing, consider these practical approaches:   

  1. Setting Routines: Humans are creatures of habit, and developing routines around how and when you connect with your teleworkers is a key to success. It can be something simple such as daily morning check-ins, and saying good night before you log off. It's not much different from stopping by your employee's desk to say good morning and good-bye. However, when we are at home, it's easy to lose sight of little rituals like these. In times of uncertainty, the attachment to rituals is increased. Therefore, maintaining rituals and routines is a key to increase comfort and connection with your employees.  Establish and maintain daily, weekly, monthly schedules to connect and follow through with your employees. These can include daily check-ins, weekly one-on-ones, monthly performance feedback, etc. Once you establish these routines, ensure you follow through as consistency is critical to help employees feel at ease during these challenging times. 

  2. Meaningful and Purposeful: It's common for managers to fall into the trap of compensating the lack of face-to-face connection with endless, tiring meetings. But meetings can be useful as an opportunity to socially bond with employees, in addition to addressing business needs. Focus on fewer meetings, and ensure meaning and purpose with human connection in mind. Consider adding some creative fun touches, such as allowing pets or kids to join the last 5-10 minutes. Instead of sitting at your desk for a virtual meeting, try walking or an outside setting. For those who are really into creative fun, suggest non-business themes such as morning coffee, lunches, or happy hour. Many organizations who have done virtual happy hours find them very effective in bonding employees on a personal level. For example, Zappos invites their employees to a weekly virtual happy hour as a way to connect with employees before the weekend starts. Some of these activities may feel strange to you at first, but they are worthwhile to try. 

  3. Recognizing the Whole Person: An effective way to show your caring toward employees is to respect and empathize with the environment they are in. During shelter-in-place orders, when employees are at home, they are likely with their family. For many managers, it is the first time seeing an employee in their home environment. Be open and flexible to accommodate interruptions when they occur. Rather than expecting employees to be completely isolated and focused on their work, many may be working with kids running around and spouse sitting nearby. To acknowledge your employee's whole work environment and be mindful of it, you can say hi to the little ones passing by, or to the spouse sharing the office. As the CEO of Limeade, Henry Albrecht, suggests, "As global economies are pummeled and work routines disrupted, employers need to communicate with employees in a manner that makes them feel supported and cared for."

  4. Humor Works: Stress levels have peaked, and it is arguably the most stressful time in America since the Great Depression. In addition, people are increasingly lonely, with no avenue to connect with others outside of their home. While businesses are striving to maintain continuity and stay afloat, employees are struggling to manage work from home, staying healthy, and for many, home schooling their children. Consider using humor as an effective coping mechanism, for both yourself and your staff.  Sharing a silly quote or fun pictures with your team can brighten their day and make a world of difference. A manager at First Choice Health shares silly pictures twice each day, such as an employee who ages about 20 years after home schooling her child for just one day, to get a good laugh from the team. He believes these simple, fun messages lift spirits in times of hardship, and increase connection with his team members.  

  5. More Versus Less: More communication does not necessarily mean more conference calls and virtual meetings. More communication can mean better explanations of expectations, in order to avoid gaps or misinterpretations. For example, you shouldn't rely on a single long email to adequately outline an entire new project. Follow up with additional communications, and check for understanding before you move onto the next task. Frequent and clear communication is necessary to maintain positive rapport. Balance the channel you communicate with, and add variety and frequency to ensure your message is received and understood. 

  6. Stay the Course: As employees are adopting to new ways of working, it's important to uphold the same process you have been using to manage employee performance. Rather than putting in new processes or structure in place, maintaining familiar processes is more effective in times of change. Continuing to measure and track performance where feasible the same way you have been doing it prior to working remotely. Chances are some goals may shift and timeline could change. However, preserving similar processes will provide employees with a level comfort that some things are staying the same in midst of the many changes surrounding them.

  7. Authentic Recognition: Employees want to be recognized for they work that they do. This is particularly important when they no longer see you on a daily basis. While the desire for feedback and praise is heightened during times of stress, recognition can be easily forgotten when there are many competing priorities. Purposefully create opportunities to recognize employees. Call out individuals for recognition during your next virtual meeting. Celebrate important milestone such as a birthday or anniversary with a phone call, small gift or gift card, or a traditional card in the mail. Don't forget that a little thank you goes a long way. 

    Remember these phrases and try to use them generously: "I really appreciate you did it this way, what you did really matters, I thought that was great because..." As Mother Teresa said: "There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread".

In short, managing teleworkers can be much more challenging than managing workers in the office. In a time of heightened stress and uncertainty, it's even more difficult for managers to connect with their team members. Trust and rapport are the bedrock of work relationships and engagement in the work place. To ensure a high level of engagement, managers can purposefully connect with employees through creating structured routines, increased communication and recognition, and exploring ways to add humor and personal touches when reaching out to employees. After all, it's the little things that matter most.  

Posted In:  Behavioral Health Health and Wellness

About Tina Nguyen

Tina Nguyen is the HR Manager for First Choice Health. She is a devoted social and human services professional with over ten years of experience in coaching and training managers for companies of any size. Tina is passionate about helping managers increase their connection with employees, as she believes human connection is the key to strong leadership.