The COVID-19 pandemic radically shifted not only the way we work, but also the way we connect at work. The past year has highlighted the need to focus on employee engagement for remote teams—something that leaders must continue to prioritize even as many businesses reopen long-shuttered workplaces. 

Seema Farazi, who has led pandemic response at the global professional services company EY, was a key speaker at the Human Capital Institute’s Engaging Remote Teams virtual conference. Rather than plunge right back into every routine from the “old normal,” she recommends that organizations take a thoughtful approach to invent a more effective future.

That means taking stock of practices that have proven unnecessary—such as the need to hold every meeting in person—and permanently adopt new, more people-centric practices. 

“It’s safe to say that going back to [physical workplaces] will not be a case of just picking up where we left off,” Seema says. “The pandemic has created an opportunity to transform and reimagine not only the physical workplace, but also relationships with people for years to come.” 

Human connections support employee engagement

Connection, she says, has been at the core of not only getting through the pandemic, but also being able to rise to new challenges and flourish. During the past year, successful leaders have been able to be open, vulnerable, and empathetic, connecting with their employees on a human level. They’ve also painted a compelling, shared vision of the future, aligning their team to work towards the same priorities.

“The worst of times has really challenged us to be at our best and connect, care, and really deepen our relationship with others,” Seema says. She offers three insights to establish a sustainable “new normal” that can engage remote teams and enable them to thrive:

1. Revitalize regular check-ins.

Even as more physical workplaces reopen, not all employees will return right away—if at all. Frequent, consistent check-ins are key for staying in touch and building trust between managers and employees. But with “Zoom fatigue”—and overall fatigue from the need for constant phone and video calls—it is easy to slip into less frequent communication. 

Managers can’t let that happen. “It’s more important now than ever to make sure that we stay connected and that we do it in the right way,” Seema says. 

What’s the right way? It helps to have focused conversations, ones that keep everyone’s priorities aligned, including an individual’s development, personal purpose, and mental well-being. Make clear to all members of the team how they are contributing and where they can deliver more impact. The highest performing teams have a shared vision, Seema says, so that everyone is committed to pulling in the same direction. 

As the pandemic has worn on, managers have had to keep employees motivated. Having future-focused conversations allows employees to explore how they’d like to grow, the kinds of experiences they’re seeking, and how they can be supported. 

“This encourages open communication, honest feedback, and effective collaboration,” she says. “It’s a virtuous cycle.”

2. Fix your feedback model.

Done right, feedback drives employee engagement. It generates trust and builds habits and practices that serve you and your organization long after a crisis is gone. 

But the notion of feedback—particularly outdated performance reviews—tends to put people on edge, whether they’re the ones giving feedback or the ones receiving it. 

Seema recommends using this transformative time as an opportunity to establish a new feedback model: Reset your team’s history and relationships. Learn each other’s feedback styles, needs, and preferences. Create a team feedback agreement, and identify the roles each employee must play in order for feedback to be effective. 

Giving effective feedback can be challenging, so take the time to practice conversational feedback skills, she adds. Try peer coaching through structured reflection between two or more team members. Tone, word choices, and messaging really matter. 

3. Communicate through dialogue, not broadcasts. 

Leveraging technology has certainly helped bridge the gap created by remote work. Video calls connect employees, enabling everyone to still see each other. But video calls can also be exhausting. Leaders need to know how to blend technologies—such as emails, surveys, meetings, and webcasts—to ensure the right mix of engagement for the team. 

Leaders also need to know the right time to switch off technology and focus instead on building human connections. This means developing soft skills to put humans at the center of your decisions. Empower managers to make decisions. Show empathy and understanding. When remote, pleasantries are even more important.

Another way to build more connections is to create informal interaction opportunities for employees. This may require management and structure, rather than spontaneity. However it happens, what’s important is creating an environment for interaction. Remember that building connections between unconnected teams and individuals drives collaboration and innovation.  

Final thoughts: Good conversations go the distance  

Tough times like the COVID-19 pandemic, with physical distance separating a team, make it more important than ever to be proactive in building trusted connections. Much of that comes down to managing conversations. Good conversations build trust. Trust, in turn, lowers fear, empowers employees, and enables the entire team to reach its full potential.

“Connectivity is really the key that unlocks all of the potential in front of us,” Seema says. 

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