HR Leaders Share Insights on Navigating the Remote Work Environment

October 13, 2020

For many organizations, keeping employees engaged and productive during the COVID-19 pandemic with its sudden work from home requirements has been like trying to thread a needle by candlelight during a hurricane.

While some organizations already had technology, processes, and procedures in place, few were really prepared for a prolonged absence from the office environment. Yet as they always do, HR executives found a way to make it work, and work well. Their success stories were shared by HR and talent acquisition executives in the HCIT industry during a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Chasm Partners.
Addressing  “Zoom Burnout”
The "outsized" impact that social connectivity has on employee engagement, which impacts productivity, was quantified by a recent Boston Consulting Group survey of more than 12,000 professionals post-COVID-19. Respondents said employees are two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks when they’ve reported being satisfied with social connectivity versus their colleagues who are dissatisfied.

To no one’s surprise, the survey also confirmed that employees miss “being able to spontaneously walk to a coworker’s desk and discuss an issue” and “social gatherings at work.”
Assuming expanded remote work options continue once the pandemic has passed, organizations will need to offer comparable options for human connection regardless of employee location. For example, they might implement or authorize apps that make it easy to do quick face-to-face chats or arrange to have treats delivered to a team to celebrate a birthday or business achievement during a video conference.
At the same time, organizations must recognize that these activities need to be incorporated into the workday, not offered as an extra meeting for employees to attend. While the idea of increasing cohesiveness and connections between remote co-workers is well-intentioned, if handled incorrectly it can increase the stress and sense of burden felt by employees, creating the opposite effect.
The downside is that this need to connect has brought a sense of “meeting overload” that has the potential to negatively impact work-life balance. The “Zoom culture” one participant described led to the creation of an employee council on meeting etiquette tasked with identifying when a meeting is really required.
Even more critical is for managers to find a way to connect with their employees on a personal level while working virtually. Asking how the start of the new school year is going or how a family member is doing, one participant explained, helps build relationships that drive a greater sense of team.
Roundtable participants also detailed a particularly difficult challenge that is unique to the current environment: helping working parents achieve work-life balance now that many have taken on the added role of educators for their children. Employees’ sense of connection to the organization, as well as their resiliency, grows stronger, they said, when employers provide community-level support for employees with this additional burden. Innovative approaches include technology subsidies for employees to purchase computers for their children, educational pods with company executives reading books to the children, access to parenting Slack channels, and a child psychologist to offer parenting support through this crisis.
Overcoming the Barriers to Remote Onboarding
While much of the focus tends to be on current employees, transitioning to a remote onboarding process for new hires continues to be a challenge for HR leaders and managers.
“We have hired executives and others sight unseen, and there are definitely onboarding issues,” one participant noted. “We’ve been putting together guides and best practices on how to onboard. There are no easy answers—we just need to figure out how to do it virtually.”
Strategies that are having a positive impact on the virtual onboarding process include a virtual lunch with a leader on day one, exposing new hires virtually to lots of people in the organization, and pairing new hires with a cohort group to create shared experiences.
Several participants have embraced the use of surveys to monitor effectiveness with onboarding. New hires should be asked if they feel supported in their new role. Surveys on manager effectiveness in the onboarding process have allowed one organization to hone in on who’s doing things better and why, and then use that feedback to continue to refine the process. Onboarding can’t be only HR-driven, one participant said. “There has to be accountability on the manager or leader’s part.”
Maintaining a Culture of Trust Remotely
One of the most significant concerns in virtual work environments, as with other online interactions, is the lack of availability of non-verbal cues that give context about intent during conversations. Roundtable participants agreed that misunderstandings and issues with tone have increased during this period. HR leaders have a real opportunity to guide their management in addressing this issue and maintaining a culture of trust among employees.
One roundtable participant whose CEO’s in-office leadership style was to manage by walking around, was concerned about losing these personal connections and employee trust in a virtual world. He’s now conducting weekly recorded Zoom meetings, on topics as varied as customer issues and the company’s response to social unrest as a means to maintain employee trust. 
Going forward, what will be required of managers with a greater percentage of employees working remotely? Roundtable participants agreed that organizations will need to give managers additional training to help them become more flexible and display empathy in a virtual setting. They’ll also need greater education around how to have disciplinary conversations in virtual formats.
As for assessing manager performance in relation to remote employees, keeping a pulse on employee perceptions of those managers is a good first step. A survey software linked with Workday® that gives managers insights into the status of their team has been a “game-changer” for one organization. It provides managers with clear action items for needed improvements.  Managers must understand that “people work for managers, not for companies... managers need to actively manage”— even in virtual environments.
Applying Lessons Learned
Clearly, many lessons have been learned since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The key now is to apply them effectively so organizations are set up for success once its effects subside. The likelihood of another disruptive “storm” occurring in the future is high. But organizations can take comfort in the fact they are now better prepared than ever to weather it.

Panel Participants:
Elizabeth Chrane, Chief People Officer, One Digital
Caryn Ciaio, SVP, Human Resources, CareCentrix
Sam Crumley, CHRO, MacroHealth
Kristy Lindquist, Partner, Chasm Partners
Beth Newman, Partner, Executive Talent, Andreesen Horowitz
Gavin Pommernelle, Org Development, Chasm Partners
Debra Somers, Director, Portfolio Recruitment, Warburg Pincus
Laura Tomaino, VP, People & Culture, HealthEdge

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