The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the way companies view working from home. Employers had to flex quickly to adjust to a remote workforce, many with only a weekend's notice. Some employees have now cautiously returned to their offices, while others never left. Another group remains working at home with no return date in sight. Other companies have taken a blended approach – some have returned to the office, while other team members are still telecommuting.

As a leader, how can you effectively manage all the different office configurations that represent today's environment? How do you keep your work-from-home employees engaged, and feeling like part of the team? 

This pandemic has redefined the way teams communicate and work. Here are seven tips for staying connected to your work-from-home employees, including advice from some of our very own ICB managers:

Give Employees a Sense of Belonging

One of the most crucial factors that set successful companies apart is fostering a sense of belonging among employees. This is especially important for those who are working remotely. Amid growing divisiveness in public life, a sense of belonging at the office is increasingly valued by employees and is a major component of driving growth and innovation. 
Informal check-ins are one way to foster togetherness. Virtual coffee chats or happy hours are a great way to bring employees together to catch up. 

"Every Monday morning, we have virtual coffee together and talk about anything BUT business," said Cari Larsen, VP-Controller at Investors Community Bank. "We only allow work talk the last five minutes of the call to set up the week. This meeting is to just stay connected on a personal level." 

Define Goals for Remote Workers

According to research, 39% of people working from home complete their work faster than those working in offices. However, to set them up for success, managers should set clear and measurable goals for their remote workers. With teams working remotely, communication is more challenging, and things can get lost in translation. It's crucial to be crystal clear about duties, responsibilities and deadlines. 

Communicate Regularly 

Holding regular virtual all-staff meetings helps everyone stay on the same page and understand core company values. This is especially true for remote employees who do not have the opportunity to communicate with their co-workers daily.

"Weekly team meetings keep our loan operations team engaged," said Susan Van De Hay, VP-Loan Operations at ICB. "Additionally, as a manager, I pick up the phone and call or create spontaneous individual Webex meetings with the team to provide positive feedback while allowing them an opportunity to discuss their individual needs. Email and chat messages are fantastic tools for communication, but they aren't always enough. Talking, sharing and laughing together keeps me personally engaged and creates necessary cohesiveness to sustain a work from home environment."

Empower Your Remote Employees 

Employees working in the office generally know and understand workflow processes and why they are necessary. 

Remote workers don't have the same constant feed of information from supervisors coming by their desks or general updates through the cubicle telegraph. Giving remote employees continual access to project updates, company performance records and more data helps the remote worker understand how their role contributes to the company's overall success, resulting in a more engaged employee. Remote workers want to be a part of the decision making in their companies. They want their voices to be heard. Employers should strive to empower remote employees to make their own decisions and implement new ideas whenever possible. 

Be Thoughtful with Written Communication  

Remote communication can distort the typical pace and verbal cues of in-person communication. Have you ever written an email and felt concerned about how it would be interpreted or if it even would be read? Have you received an email and completely misinterpreted the intended tone behind the message? It's easy to quickly become overwhelmed by the number of emails received in a day. Email is a great tool, but should not necessarily be the primary method of internal communication. Consider making a quick phone call, using video chat instead, or sending an instant message. 

Avoid Micromanaging 

For companies that are accustomed to a more traditional office environment, it can be tempting for leaders to check in frequently to make sure employees are on task while working at home, or try to monitor their hours on the computer. However, that could lead to employees feeling as though they aren't trusted. Engaging remote workers requires a high-trust culture. Achieve trust by being transparent and avoiding micromanagement. The best way to achieve this is by maintaining open communication and allowing team members to work independently.  

Be Available and Be Proactive 

While it's important to avoid micromanaging, at the same time, managers who lead remote teams need to make themselves available. Frequent check-ins with remote workers is a great way to help them overcome challenges that come with remote work. Waiting for an employee to speak up might come too late. In fact, many will never decide to bring up issues themselves. A simple question, like "How can I help you be more productive and feel more connected?," can go a long way. 

Emotions are high right now, and your team may still be having trouble adjusting to the constant change, especially with school right around the corner. If you're concerned that people are hesitant to share, consider setting up a more formal employee engagement survey that your team can respond to in confidence or anonymously. This method will help you understand the general mood among your workforce and adjust as needed.

"It's important to keep in touch with your team's emotional and mental wellbeing," said Jennifer Foote, VP-Compliance Officer/CRA Officer at ICB. "I stunned my team the other day when I kicked off a meeting by asking them, 'How are you feeling?' rather than the typical question, 'How are you doing'? … to which everyone answers 'Okay,' and we all move on.

I recently saw a video of Simon Sinek talking about emotional intelligence and how we have difficulty putting our emotions into words, and words to our emotions. My team also had a hard time putting words to their feelings. One team member said it would be easier to put a number to how well she was feeling, so we went around the room and stated how we were feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. I shared that I had a challenging moment earlier in the day and had felt around 3, but seeing them and interacting with them increased that number significantly! 

I told them I was at least at a 6 or 7, and thanks to them, I was feeling better and better. It led to a short discussion that it's okay to have those moments during these times, it would not be normal not to."

Don't Forget About Yourself

Finally, as you consider the seven pieces of advice above, remember that if you're not also taking care of yourself, you're not going to be able to take care of your team. Come up with a self-care strategy, whether you decide to take a long walk, read a chapter of a book, or even walk away from your desk and eat lunch outside. Don't be afraid to reach out for help when needed. Your leader or your employer's Employee Assistance Program can be an excellent resource to increase your emotional wellbeing.

Written by Melissa Schamburek

Melissa is Marketing Specialist at Investors Community Bank. She holds a bachelor's degree in communications/public relations from University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, and is a member of the Chamber of Manitowoc County's marketing committee.

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