Leading Remotely – 6 Ways to Increase Connection and Engagement

Leading Remotely

Will half of people be working remotely by 2020?” That was the title of a prescient article written in 2014. Another report stated that between 2005 and 2018 remote work increased 173%. Still, no one could have predicted what the business world is experiencing right now.

When it comes to the current work from home (WFH) reality, many are enjoying the change. However, working remotely, especially when sudden and required, comes with challenges. For example, one report noted that face-to-face requests are 34 times more successful than email. And while many employees are saving on commute time, they are missing in-person interactions and the sense of belonging that comes from social connection.

While we long for normalcy after this earth-shaking event, the trend toward working remotely is likely to continue to some degree or another. A 2019 survey revealed that about 75% of workers consider flexible working to be “the new normal.” That was in 2019! Now, more than ever, leaders need evolving strategies for leading remotely.

Our DecisionWise research of more than 40 million employee survey responses has shown that “connection,” which we define as “a sense of belonging to something beyond yourself,” is one of the five keys of employee engagement. In fact, it is the key found to have the greatest impact on the overall employee experience(as well as engagement outside of work—in community, family, social groups, etc.).

So, that raises the question: assuming we will see a greater push towards a WFH population, how do we continue to ensure connection? Based on our research into engagement, we have found that a few baseline items must be met.

Ensure Baseline Communication

Leading remotely for high performance certainly includes enabling healthy communication. Communication goes beyond simply issuing an email memo from the top of the organization. Communication also serves a social purpose, especially when leading remotely. In other words, communication propels connection and collaboration but also is needed for basic efficiency. When face-to-face interaction is limited, communication can suffer. Below are three suggestions to help keep information flowing for remote teams:

1. Encourage Proactive Upstream Communication

Reduced communication, especially in terms of frequency, means that understanding who is contributing to which initiative can be challenging. What’s more, leaders who want to understand how employees are doing now lack the time to reach across the wider “digital hallway.” Similarly, employees may feel that their individual efforts go unnoticed. They may also wish to share findings from the front line but lack the structure to do so.

Encourage your team to proactively communicate with you and their team. In addition to social updates (well-being check-ins), help them report relevant and timely operational information on progress, roadblocks, and weekly lessons learned. There are technology tools that can help. For example, DecisionWise created the Manager Weekly Check-in Tool. It’s a free tool based on the 5-15 framework developed by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard. Technology can be a valuable tool in upstream communication, but whether the solution involves technology is less important than the idea that information (and, therefore, trust) is a two-way flow.

2. Cultivate Organic Information Sharing

Basic communication often flows organically—up, down, and across the organization. Colleagues encounter each other in the hall or stop after a meeting to collaborate on projects. These interactions are generally unplanned and unintentional, although extremely valuable on many fronts. Many of those informal interactions are now suddenly non-existent in a remote setup. Without these natural interactions, employees may hold onto questions and concerns or delay sharing ideas until the next structured encounter—or not bring them up at all.

In order to mitigate this loss of organic information sharing from direct reports, managers must make these previously unintentional interactions intentional. For example, we know of some leaders who hold “virtual open-door hours,” which involve optional call-in times, held on a regular basis. These managers leave a conference or video line open so that team members can easily hop on and share their feelings.

There is also something to be said for peer-to-peer touchpoints –– one author called it “serendipitous collaboration.” Recently, a colleague scheduled a short remote call with me to catch up on projects and maintain social connection. We shared ideas, benefited from connecting, and then went back to the day’s tasks. There are simple ways to reach out to colleagues in a spirit of “What are you working on? How can I help?” We often discover the solutions to our own issues just by talking them through with another person. This is not to say that we should drastically increase the count of weekly meetings. It is simply that a little effort to touch base can go a long way.

3. Lower the Social Cost of Speaking Up

“Does everyone agree?” We often hear this phrase just before the close of a meeting. This approach for building consensus and getting the best ideas may work when everyone is physically present and contextual clues and body language are easy to identify. When leading remote teams, however, louder voices will likely dominate those who exhibit a stronger preference for introversion. Additionally, managers can lose track of who hasn’t contributed to a conversation because team members aren’t within their customary line of sight. Without a prompt, some employees simply won’t risk “taking over the screen” and speaking up.

The concept of psychological safety play into all of this. Our current DecisionWise benchmark database suggests that one-third (34%) of employees indicate that they are “hesitant to speak up for fear of negative consequences.” That, in itself, is a problem. Compound this concept with the idea that online meetings tend to reduce interaction, and you can see the problem. Managers must be intentional in lowering the social cost of speaking up and be mindful that remote communication may naturally stack the deck against openly contributing to meetings.

To lower the social cost of speaking up over digital media, managers might encourage individuals to post comments in simultaneous text chats. Online voting and polling tools offer anonymous solutions for those who prefer a low-key approach. Keep in mind that more time for silence may be needed after asking a question to a remote audience than would otherwise be the case.

Encourage Energizing Connection

Leading remotely doesn’t just mean efficient information sharing. With basic communication in place, leaders can interact with teams in a way that drives a sense of belonging to something beyond one’s self. That sense of connection leads to greater engagement in the workplace. In fact, a Decisionwise analysis revealed the positive correlation between connection, as defined above, and employee engagement to be .83 (which, in layman’s terms, means that there is a strong relationship between feeling I belong to the organization and my overall engagement). This also means that employees who experience a sense of connection are far more likely to be productive, innovative, and remain with the organization. Here are three aspects of belonging and engagement to consider for leading remotely.

1. Maintain Regular Recognition

Without regular face-to-face interactions, and while in the throes of the current pandemic, employee recognition is more likely to slip. For remote teams, and especially those operating at high speeds, the communication that does take place is often limited to issues surrounding the work itself. Just as organic communication decreases in remote environments, so does the habit of recognizing the work and efforts of others.

Letting recognition slip can slow things down. One classic study showed a strong link between recognition and motivation, claiming it to be the second-highest intrinsic motivator for employees. Recognition is important from supervisor to direct report but may be of more value when coming from peers. Recognition is also closely tied to those core feelings of belonging and engagement mentioned above. Consider how a phone call only to offer recognition might help an employee feel engaged.

2. Manage Workload and Engagement

“Meaning” and “Impact” are two additional keys to engagement, as found by our engagement research and recent book, Engagement MAGIC (spoiler alert: these keys spell “MAGIC”– Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection). Engagement will drop when teams don’t feel their work has purpose or impact, or when there simply isn’t much to do. On the other hand, many employees report feeling over-stressed and near burnout.

Recently, a colleague shared the story of a client who, in an overwhelmed state, abruptly phoned his supervisor to say, “I quit!” Although the client ultimately chose to remain, the pressure had built up and exposed the underlying issue: severe stress, to the point of burnout. Such are the current circumstances of many who are silently suffering. Current pandemic concerns are hitting employees in their personal, non-work roles as well. In addition to wearing us out, such stress can lead to reduced effectiveness in our decision-making functions (when we need them most)! Being afraid of stress is not the answer, but managing severe stress is vital.

So, we have a bit of a conundrum to be aware of; too little meaningful work means disengagement, but too much can mean burnout. Being aware of that line between challenge (the “G” or “Growth” key in MAGIC) and stress is a critical skill for today’s leader, particularly with the inability to physically interact with employees multiple times a day.

Here’s Where to Start

While there are things we can do ourselves, in order to positively affect this aspect of engagement, supervisors play a decisive role. The right help begins with awareness of each team member’s current state. Compassionate awareness will lead to empowerment, delegation, reshuffling of tasks–whatever helps achieve rebalancing. Sometimes simply listening is the answer. When burdens cannot be lightened and tasks simply must be done reminders of the meaning of our work can help us find the wherewithal to press on.

But managers do face barriers to even being aware. Consider (1) the common fallacy that a supervisor’s most important contribution is his or her individual contribution (rather than working through the team); and (2) the remote status of teams, which can breed fewer one-on-one meetings and far less attention paid to overall engagement and workload. These and other forces can draw managers away from the people and mentoring dimension of their roles. Nevertheless, deliberate work to compassionately be aware of the workload and emotional states of employees will lead to a state of engagement and flow, not to mention longevity.

3. Trust Versus Command and Control

Finally, amidst the chaos of the present COVID-19 pandemic (and even before), some are asking whether old-school directive leadership models are more relevant than ever. We have heard this question arise in circumstances of confusion as teams adjust to new environments. Many current employees face completely novel issues; many are yearning for direction.

Leaders should consider providing more explicit instruction while facilitating quick decision-making to move things forward. Nevertheless, a command-like approach has potential long-term consequences. After all, who likes to be controlled? If employees perceive managers as mistrusting, they will likely not feel that they belong and consequently not fully engage in their work. On the other hand, our research tells us that trust and autonomy (the “A” in MAGIC) energize employees to use more of their discretionary thinking to accomplish their work.

Keep in mind, however, that autonomy fails without clear boundaries and expectations (on both sides). We refer to this as Expectation Alignment. Autonomy is not anarchy. Trust is not simply laissez-faire. Both trust and autonomy come via clear expectations. The goal is to grant autonomy while requiring accountability. To strike this balance we have seen instances when the aforementioned Manager Weekly Check-in Tool has helped. Another group we know of relies on daily check-in and coordination calls with the whole team (for which the team has been grateful). Whatever the approach, make it routine and direct (vs. subtly checking on employees to see what they’re up to). An indirect approach can communicate I don’t trust you—we have seen this approach lately too.

With more frequent check-ins, supervisors may feel they are bordering on micromanagement, but if done with transparency and in order to empower your team with direction, increased structure need not be mistrust or micromanagement.

Empower Success

Besides getting results, leading remotely calls for fresh thinking around how to get those results. Such thinking will include how to mitigate new barriers to communication. Remember that communication is also for spurring engagement and that managers will greatly benefit their teams as they cultivate belonging and connection. We have found repeatedly in our research that connection unlocks engagement, and thus increased innovation, organizational citizenship, and productivity. We are confident that success in our current circumstances will be achieved by the everyday work of individuals, working remotely, but empowered by their managers to solve our current challenges.

Podcast: Navigating Employee Burnout in a COVID-19 World

Employee burnout

Has living in a COVID-19 world left you or your team with emotional exhaustion, a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, or a sense of ineffectiveness?

On this episode of the Engaging People Podcast, we’re joined by DecisionWise President, Matt Wride, and Senior Consultants, Charles Rogel, and Spencer Taylor. As champions of caring leadership, they share 10 questions that we use on employee engagement surveys to measure employee burnout and workload.

Webinar: Managing the Employee Experience While Returning to Work

Date: Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Time: 3:00 pm Eastern / 12:00pm Pacific
Presenters:  Matt Wride, President; Dave Long, VP of Assessment Services; and Christian Nielson, VP of Consulting Services
Cost: Free

As the world economy begins the process of reopening, the question arises:

How can we strengthen the employee experience while simultaneously bringing back a significant part of the workforce?

In this webinar, we’ll share practical ideas and tips to ensure a smooth transition, as well as best practices for implementing surveys to make sure your employees’ concerns are heard and everyone feels safe in these trying times.

This webinar qualifies for SHRM and HRCI credit.


White Paper: The Manager’s Guide to Winning with the Employee Experience

The Manager's Guide to

Winning with the Employee Experience

“Engagement is a fundamental human need. It is a power that resides in most people, waiting to be unlocked. People want to be engaged in what they do. If employers build the foundation, employees will do the rest.” -ENGAGEMENT MAGIC

In this guide, we walk through solid concepts for managers to create a winning experience for their employees. You will learn how to:

  • Engage employees in times of chaos
  • Communicate effectively with your team
  • Understand your personal leadership type
  • Set clear expectations
  • Develop an effective listening strategy
  • Act on the insights and get the business results you want

Download the Guide

Get Out of Your Head – Start Leveraging Feedback

Get out of your head

Have you ever had the uncomfortable experience of hearing your own recorded voice played back to you and thought, “Yikes, do I really sound like that?” We go through life hearing ourselves from the inside of our own heads. Yet, when we listen to a recording, we realize that we experience ourselves differently than those around us. It is helpful to expand this realization beyond just our physical voice and to consider how our entire approach is experienced by others. Left to ourselves, we often inaccurately assess how we impact the people around us. Da Vinci once said:  

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

When we rely too much on our inner voice and our own opinions of our self, we lose our grasp on the reality around us and, essentially deceive ourselves. To overcome this deception and to truly develop, we must step out of our own opinions of ourselves and seek the truth as it is reflected off the world around us. To improve, we need feedback.

Woman reflecting on feedback

How To Leverage Feedback, Build Greater Self-Awareness, and Get Out of Your Own Head:

  1. Build healthy attitudes about feedback. Learn to seek, recognize, and appreciate feedback. You are a human being. You have ego and emotion that will try to protect your sense of self. This can make you resistant to feedback. Learn to recognize and manage your own defensiveness. At DecisionWise, we often use the SARA model to help those we coach recognize their emotions during feedback. SARA stands for Shock, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance – stages that we see people pass through as they receive feedback.
  2. Regularly gather feedback through a 360 degree feedback instrument. The 360 approach helps you compare your perceptions with those of your supervisor, peers, direct reports and others. It is a great way to build self-awareness and provides unique opportunities for meaningful discussions afterward. In particular, 360 feedback is at its most powerful when it is effectively debriefed by a coach.    
  3. Learn to be present. One of my favorite self-coaching questions is, “What experience am I creating?” You can apply this question in general, or in the current moment. For example, “What experience am I creating for my team this year?” or “What experience am I creating for the person I am talking to right now?” These questions can help you be present and give you the opportunity to create a deliberate experience. 

It can be uncomfortable to step outside the comfort of our own opinions of ourselves and to understand the experience we are creating for others.  However, it is necessary for real development. To grow we must be willing to hear our voice through the ears of others and to understand how they experience our interactions with them. If you aren’t getting the outcomes you were hoping for in your interaction with others, it could be time to step out of your own head. 

360-degree platform

When Businesses Think “Thrive” Versus “Survive” in the Midst of Crisis

Manager encouraging team

In today’s environment, many organizations are simply focused on survival: “How do we keep our doors open for the next six months?” And, rightly so.  According to a CNBC report, more than 30% of small businesses are at risk of closing if the status quo persists for more than two months.

But, while most organizations are thinking, “how do we survive and come out of this?” it may pay off to also start thinking “how do we thrive once we come out of this?”

Surviving by Thinking Thriving

Investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald lost two-thirds of its employees in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Whole divisions were devastated. Out of 960 employees in New York, 658 were killed — no employee in Cantor’s offices at the time survived.

That devastating event could have cost the company everything, shutting down the business for good. But what happened on September 11th, and the company’s reaction to that day transformed the company forever.

CEO Howard Lutnick vowed to distribute 25 percent of the company’s profits over the next five years to help the 658 families affected by the attack and ended up giving more than $180 million to those families. Lutnick himself received the highest honor granted by the U.S. Navy to nonmilitary personnel, the Department of the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award.

The company had to think not only on how to survive physically and financially, but how to thrive if they were to honor their financial commitments to their employees and clients.

“We all had to commit to doing something different,” Lutnick said. “It changed our outlook about what was important about business.”

Few are thinking ‘thrive’… but need to be

It has been interesting as we have worked with organizations over the past 45 days to help them best use their employee resources to paddle through troubled waters. We find most conversations immediately beginning with “we just need to survive the next few months, then we can focus on (fill in the blank).”  In times of crisis, the natural reaction is to focus on survival. But successful organizations aren’t solely focused on “how we survive.” They also focus on “how we thrive,” despite going through turbulent times. Organizations that are able to not only survive but have plans in place to thrive coming out of the crisis, are often catapulted well past competition that merely have plans in place to survive.

A Thrive Plan

In times of crisis, an organization should develop two parallel plans—a Survive Plan and a Thrive Plan. Most organizations are well into their survive plans, but few have thoughts about the second.

A Thrive Plan has three primary components:

  1. It takes advantage of underutilized resources to prepare for the future. These resources could be people who are not as busy yet are still needed through the crisis and beyond. Resources might also include underutilized equipment, assembly lines, know-how, unique skills, relationships, or processes. The list may be endless but will be unique to your organization.
  2. It involves employees, not just the senior team. Often times, with the C-suite laser-focused on survival, it takes a different perspective to identify innovative solutions. As employees are closest to the work, they are often in a position to identify solutions to problems that may not be seen by the top of the organization. Critical during this time is taking the pulse of employees in order to understand what they see (and how they feel).
  3. It asks questions before it proposes solutions. Here are some questions to consider:
    • What glaring holes in our organization has this crisis exposed?
    • What resources can we channel elsewhere in order to address the current situation (survive) or prepare for the future (thrive)?
    • Which products or services have we been unable to fully develop in the past, but might now have some time and resources to address during this slower time?
    • How can we give our customers something that will help them through this time? What may help solidify this important relationship in the future?
    • What is our organization uniquely positioned to offer that no other can (and how could that be useful after the crisis)?

Today, Cantor Fitzgeralds and its affiliates operate in more than 60 offices in 20 countries and have more than 8,500 employees. But that kind of success doesn’t happen through merely surviving. And although one of the most important things a company can do is to survive, thinking “thrive” is what distinguishes between those that merely make it through and those that leave better and stronger.