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Leading Remotely in Times of Crisis

Over the last week, my inbox has been flooded with questions from students, clients and colleagues. The biggest questions involve how to lead employees remotely in times of crisis. There’s plenty of research on how to lead remotely, most of it concentrating on quality over quantity of communication, establishing norms, building trust and monitoring goals. We can still do that in times of crisis.

Most of the problems in the workplace (maybe as much as 80%) are caused by poor communication (low quality and/or not enough). I always tell clients that face-to-face communication is best because that way you get the entire message; only 7% of our message is in the words we say. The rest is tone and nonverbal communication. Really, it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

Dr. Jenell Wittmer, associate professor of management, leads a UToledo Staff Leadership Development class.

That immediacy is lost in email and text messages. Communication is going to be more difficult when leading remotely, especially in times of crisis. So here are some tips for communicating remotely in times of crisis to establish norms, build trust and monitor goals:

1. Acknowledge that you are communicating remotely and thus are losing some of the message. Do not try to add tone or nonverbal communication to email. Using emojis or putting something in all caps (“Why are you YELLING at me?” your audience will wonder) is likely to lead to misinterpretation. Best to just use email for its intended purpose: objective, factual, non-emotional information (with no praise, blame, persuasion or otherwise).

2. Acknowledge that people have other responsibilities when working from home. In our current crisis, parents with children are playing the roles of employee, teacher, parent and playmate. Many leaders are facing the same challenges. Let’s just acknowledge that this is going to be tough — for example, my kids are fighting over cereal at the present moment. Establish norms and a schedule; perhaps parents want to work at night, or maybe they want to work in smaller blocks of time throughout the day. Discuss how this will work for you and work for them. Do not assume that they know what you want and vice versa. We are all in this together.

3. Acknowledge that you are going to lose some control. For all you micromanagers out there, this is going to be a crash course in letting go of control. In the office or out of the office, when you ask too many questions about how, when and why to your employees, it leads them to feel like you don’t trust them. Empowering your employees to make decisions and keep their own schedule helps you to build trust in them and them to build trust in you. Win-win. Again, establish norms — how frequently are you going to check in? What is the expected output? How will you measure performance during this time? Establish this up front and then let them figure it out. Freedom and flexibility become the name of the game in leading remotely in times of crisis — trust them.

4. Acknowledge that it is not business as usual. Back to No. 1: If we cannot communicate face to face and we can only use email and text for factual, objective, non-emotion information, how do we communicate the rest? Many leaders are going to be tempted to take full advantage of all the technology we have available. I had one leader tell me that he planned to have a video conference call with each of his employees each day. That’s overkill — and it may feel like micromanaging. If I am going to be a teacher, parent, professor and consultant, I am not going to take time for hair and makeup. We are encouraging comfortable clothes and a relaxed atmosphere at our house; don’t add the additional stress of making employees feel like they need to look professional and have a professional backdrop — this is not business as usual. If there is an important meeting with a client, it may require a video call. Don’t spring this on employees. Give them time to prepare and find somewhere to hide the kids. It’s not business as usual, so again, be flexible on deadlines and day-to-day expectations. When monitoring goals, reassess if they need to be daily goals, weekly goals, or are they goals where you can provide a little more flexibility. Overall, there are going to be many situations where you are just going to have to tell yourself (and probably your employees), “It’s not business as usual.”

5. Acknowledge that some employees are going to be better at this remote thing than others. Currently, students around the globe are being told that they are going to be online learners, but we constantly tell students that online learning is not for everyone. Not everyone is created to be a self-paced, self-managed, self-learning, self-motivating employee. Not only personality and communication style differences make some people better at this, but personal circumstances at the current time also are going to play a big part in remote performance. The best leaders are those who know that not every employee needs the same support, same motivation, same direction or same communication. Now is the time to have a conversation about how much support, what kind of support, how much communication, how much daily, weekly accountability, etc., an employee needs. Be open, be supportive, and be a good listener.

When responding to emails from students, clients and colleagues, my usual response is “We are writing this book together.” None of us knows exactly how to lead in times of crisis. Let’s lean toward each other and be open to the needs of others. Ask for help. It’s OK not to have the answers.

Wittmer is an associate professor of management at The University of Toledo College of Business and Innovation.

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