If I don’t say this often enough in this column, let it be known, once and for all: I love my job.
I genuinely feel so moved that I get to help others in their careers and self-actualization journeys, be it through my books, my podcast, my courses and even this blog… I love the work I do so much that sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve been a career coach for over nine years.
Back when I started, I could hardly find any career coaches on the internet. Can you believe that?
Just last week, I caught up with my old client Rosie. She came to me about four years ago fresh out of undergrad with a ton of drive and ambition. It didn’t take long to discuss her core skills and realize that she is a complete math wiz, and shortly after we connected, she got hired as a junior financial analyst at a medium-sized firm.
Your zone of genius is often so obvious to others—but not to you! I was so glad to see her pursue a path with her natural gifts.
Suffice to say Rosie is a natural finance phenom. She moved quickly up the ranks, and before long, she was managing a huge portfolio and her own team. What she didn’t ask me about, or prepare for, was how to effectively manage a team. And believe me when I tell you, she was struggling!
Rosie is definitely not alone. While the pandemic and the resulting shift to remote work has been tough on everyone, it’s been particularly challenging for managers who have to somehow enforce team collaboration without being in the same room.
A December 2020 survey found that middle managers were 91% more likely to report that they were struggling with remote work as compared to executives and individual employees. Another study found that 40% of managers were not confident that they had the skills to lead a team through remote work.
Those are some pretty striking numbers. And yet, it’s totally understandable that all the unknowns and changes of the last year would leave managers doubting their leadership throughout the ongoing flux of day-to-day remote work.
So, what are some ways you can still be a good manager while leading your team remotely? Of course, every workspace is different and provides unique challenges to managers trying to keep up the morale and productivity of their staff. Still, there are some great ways to renew employee engagement and to be a good steward of your work culture while working remotely.
Step 1: Find ways to break up the monotony of endless video meetings
One of the biggest ways in which remote work is impacting employee engagement is the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue.”
All over the world of work, we’re seeing signs that all of this screen time is wearing on employees. Recent data shows that remote workers are spending up to one third of their workdays on camera. All this time on video conferences is wearing some people out, with 38% reporting that they are experiencing video call fatigue. What’s worse, 24% find video calls to be “exhausting” and “inefficient” and prefer to communicate via other means.
What’s a manager to do? After all, we’ve become dependent on videoconferencing platforms to take the place of the office in maintaining ongoing communication and productivity. You may have to get creative, but with the data in mind, consider some ways you might be able to limit the mandatory hours that employees have to be engaged in virtual meetings, or change up the pace to make video meetings more engaging and interesting.
Again, everyone’s workplace will be different, but here are a few strategies that might help limit the amount of time that staff needs to be staring into their webcam.
- Designate “Zoom-free days.” Consider if it might be possible to group meetings, or subjects together for certain days of the week, leaving your employees with a day in which they can take a break from video meetings or collaborate in smaller groups with colleagues.
- Utilize the technology. If there are meetings that a staff member will not be actively contributing to, but that contains relevant information to their role, consider recording the meeting and making it available to them when it fits best into their work schedule. Zoom also offers an audio transcription feature. If you’ve noticed an executive assistant nodding off while taking the minutes of a meeting, give them a break by utilizing this feature. You might be giving them the opportunity to reengage with the material and contribute above and beyond their pay grade.
- Consider the conference call. There was a time when conference calls were the norm, and it was video meetings that seemed to have the novelty. Now, it feels like the reverse is true. Set your clock back a few years and schedule a good old-fashioned conference call, or encourage employees to take a break from video and discuss projects on the phone. Who knows, you might even notice people listening a little more intently. This sort of break in patterns is so good for your brain! Ask yourself when you initiate a video call: does this have to be a video?
- Remember the 80/20 rule for productivity. Spontaneity can be crucial for productivity. When clicking endlessly on Zoom from one link to another, it can feel like we are sorely lacking some new energy and creativity in our worlds. Consider the ratio of 80% of structured work time, including video meetings, with 20% “free working” or unstructured time. With staff working remotely, increased oversight is to be expected, but couldn’t we all use a little extra time to get organized and focus on our individual productivity? Your staff will likely respond well to having more free time to focus on their individual roles and goals.
For some managers, especially in highly collaborative and project-oriented workplaces, it may be more difficult to limit the necessity of video meetings. If that sounds like your team, and you can’t envision limiting time spent on videoconferencing, consider a few of these ways to mix it up.
- Try using an alternate platform. You might be thinking that this sounds like adding novelty for the sake of novelty, and they’re all the same, right? Well, actually, you may find that trying a new videoconferencing platform offers your team a better and more engaging experience of virtual meetings. A recent product created at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, called Minglr, aims to create a more natural and spontaneous conversation tool for videoconferencing. The goal is to restore some of the “watercooler banter” that is often missing from the formal space of videoconferencing, and to encourage the kind of out-of-the-box ideas that often arise when employees have the opportunity to chat amongst themselves before and after meetings.
- Take a cue from your favorite TV anchor. Mmhmm is an exciting new startup that aims to transform Zoom presentations from dusty screen-shared Powerpoints, a la high school science class, to the dynamic visuals from your favorite TV news show. Mmhmm is an add-on that works with a number of videoconferencing platforms and offers users many professional backgrounds and the ability to create compelling presentations that appear on screen along with your video feed. Their presentation tools even allow the slides to be controlled remotely by a partner, allowing you to focus on conveying the most compelling narrative for your presentation.
- Zoom costume party. Okay, depending on the formality of your office setting, you can read on or just skip to the next section. But actually, this can be a really fun way to mix it up, provided that you have a comfortable and casual relationship with your team. This doesn’t have to be a virtual Halloween party; consider asking staff to wear a favorite T-shirt and share the story behind it. This idea may not be your speed at all, but it’s worth considering ways in which we can add some excitement to our day-to-day lives on Zoom, and find opportunities to connect and get to know one another better in a space in which we often feel stiff. If this feels like an edge for you, perhaps do a screen background contest for your meetings, so you can all laugh and lighten before you go into your meeting crunch mode!
Step 2: Make sure that you are providing resources for employees’ mental health
This has always been crucial, but has become especially important in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent research has found that one in three adults have Covid-19 related psychological distress.
Covid-19 has been a challenge for everyone, and for many, it has meant a greater struggle to find balance in mental health. In fact, since the start of the pandemic, 41% of Americans have reported experiencing anxiety and depression, a figure that is up considerably from 11% in 2019. Another survey which surveyed the self-reported wellness of U.S. and U.K. workers found a 27% drop in overall mental wellness.
Managers and executives are noticing the strain the pandemic is causing on the mental health of their staff, and this is even trickling into their relationships at home, with a recent study by FISHBOWL showing that 23% of survey takers stated that their relationship is worse off, strained or even destined for divorce due to the pandemic.
An October 2020 study of leaders in business believed that team morale was declining due to the ongoing challenges of Covid-19.
So what can you do to make sure that you are providing resources and support to staff who may be dealing with challenges in their own mental health?
- Conduct an audit of mental health resources in the company health coverage
If you are not aware of where your company’s health insurance policy stands with regard to mental and behavioral health coverage, start by gathering as much info as you can about what resources are currently available to your staff. As a manager, it’s key to know this information because it really serves them to feel supported by your awareness!
Be sure to share this information with staff and speak directly about the available mental health options. Often, the stigma around mental health can prevent people from seeking the help they need. You can help to reduce this stigma by making it clear that it is a priority to provide mental health resources.
If you find the company insurance policies to be lacking, now is a great time to go to bat for your team. Many companies have made it a priority to provide additional resources to support the mental health needs of staff during the pandemic. In fact, 32% of U.S. employers have indicated the intention to increase funding for mental health resources.
If your company is behind the ball on taking care of the mental health needs of staff, this is something that it would be worthwhile to address with HR, or with whoever is in charge of employee benefits.
- Make sure that you are encouraging strong work-life boundaries
Without the normalcy of a commute, and of working outside of the home, the boundary between work and life can feel more tenuous than ever. Overall, remote workers are logging more hours… a lot more hours. When workers transitioned to remote work, they found themselves putting in an average of 48 more minutes per day. That’s equivalent to a part-time hustle each week!
For these reasons, it is crucial that you encourage your staff to set good boundaries. Try to be attuned to the members of your team and to their energy levels. If anyone seems to be burning out, or appearing fatigued, take note. A burnt out employee is often an unhappy and disengaged employee… You don’t want that—and candidly speaking, their disengagement costs the company money! If you’re constantly receiving work-related emails from a certain employee at all hours of the day and night, pay attention and shamelessly encourage them to set boundaries around their hours.
You can connect with individuals directly, and let them know that you appreciate their hard work, but you don’t want them putting in more hours than necessary. You can also adjust workloads accordingly, and if this is noted, let staff know that you want to make sure that everyone has optimal space to execute their work effectively.
The best way you can address boundaries and work-life balance, however, is by the example you set. A manager is the leader of the team, and whatever example they set, their team tends to follow.
This might be a difficult question, but ask yourself, have I been modeling good work-life balance, and showing my staff that I encourage boundaries and taking time to take care of oneself? If not, consider some ways you set a good example:
- Let your team know that you’ll be taking a personal day, or even simply that you will not be in contact over a weekend or holiday for non-emergency work-related matters.
- Make it clear in your communications with your team that you encourage them to prioritize their need for rest and their mental health, if they should be feeling that their workload exceeds what they can reasonably accomplish.
- Consider a team day off. Sometimes we all just need a day off. Make this feel “okay” by giving everyone a break.
With so many of us overworked, and suffering for it, it’s important to normalize work-life balance, and normalize self-care.
- Provide mental health screening and seminars
One final way you can make sure that your staff is aware that you are prioritizing their mental health and providing meaningful resources is to sponsor mental health screenings or educational seminars on mental health.
Many who are struggling may not have the tools to understand their own mental health. Providing screenings and training on mental health can provide invaluable resources.
Make it clear to your staff that they can be open about their mental health. If you are comfortable, make yourself available, or make sure that there is another safe space for members of your staff to be open and seek help for any mental or behavioral health concerns.
A great starting point from screening and resources is HelpYourselfHelpOthers, an anonymous mental health screening tool.
Step 3: Do something to boost morale
The most important way to provide support to your team is to ensure that they have access to mental health resources. However, when it comes to the simply mundane day-to-day or the regular Monday blues, you can try to boost team morale by simply trying to create some fun.
We’ve all been missing the after-work drinks, the holiday parties, heck, I’d even take a stale break room donut right now! Studies show that 63% of employees spent less time socializing with their co-workers after going to remote work.
I get it, not everyone likes to socialize with their co-workers, and I’m a firm believer of separating personal life from professional life. But, the fact is that having friendships at work can be an integral part of team culture and productivity. Data even shows that it can help with retaining long-term staff, showing that workers with friends at work are less likely to leave their job. The more friends someone has at work, the lower the chances they will exit their current role.
So how do you bring socializing back into the work mix, especially these days when everyone is feeling a bit weary of those Zoom happy hours?
Unfortunately, it seems that for now, socializing at a distance is the safest practice. So, here are a few ideas that will get your team actually excited for a chance to reconnect outside of work, even if it means they have to do it from behind their computer screens.
- Virtual Happy Hour: I can almost see your Zoom-fatigued eyes rolling at me from here. But here’s the catch: you provide the “happy.” Check out these fabulous “It’s Five O’Clock Here” happy hour kits to send to your team. Have a volunteer come up with a great cocktail or mocktail recipe that the whole team can make, and surprise them with gourmet nibbles and mixers! As a spokesperson for SoFi, I get so excited when they host online event mixers for their members. It is generous and creates a sense of connection and culture around their brand… I’ll usually give a 45-minute webinar training, and they’ll move attendees into a Zoom room with a mixologist, all for free, to register on their app under “member experiences.” Don’t underestimate the power of this sort of human connection and levity during this time!
- Virtual wine or beer tasting. Of course, this one would be dependent on your company’s policy, or company culture. But what better way to say thanks to your co-workers than to send them all a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and a nice dry Riesling for everyone to share their opinions on. Wine tastings may seem stuffy, so here’s a prompt: Everyone shares a tasting note about the wine that reminds them of a kid’s food from their childhood. It might sound crazy, but, honestly, Beaujolais taste like banana yogurt to me. City Winery hosts awesome virtual wine tastings.
- Host a viewing party: Here’s a great way to get everyone together to share in a common activity that doesn’t involve having to make small talk over Zoom. Pick a trending new film or TV show, and host a viewing. Teleparty is a super fun way to watch Netflix with a group, and includes an awesome group chat function.
- Create a sports or TV bracket. Me and a few friends have a Bachelor bracket going, and the group chat banter between my psychologist friend and her marketing exec cousin is honestly way more entertaining than the show. You can make anything into a fantasy league these days, if you’re willing to get creative enough!
This past year has been challenging, and it takes a great leader to shepherd their team through the tough times. I have all the faith that you are such a leader. It’s not rocket science; being a great manager in these strained times requires a finger on the pulse of technology, a good support system for your team and perhaps the occasional company sponsored bottle of bubbles. Best of luck helping your squad through to the finish line of the pandemic.