Navigating Remote Work: Q&A with Suzi Wear

COVID-19 has the business world spinning, so I figured you’d enjoy hearing from Suzi Wear, VP of Culture and People Development at Xenium HR, about how to manage remote work and effective communication through all the chaos. Check out the discussion below from our live webinar, and find some advice for some of the issues that may be impacting your organization.

This new normal is out of control, and there’s a lot of uncertainty for all of us. In light of that, how do I respond to employees who are uncertain about the future? From an HR perspective, how are you answering questions about what lies ahead?

This is really difficult because we don’t necessarily have answers. I have noticed a tendency to hold off on communicating until leaders have decisions or answers, and I think this is a little risky. What I have discovered—despite my best efforts—is that in the absence of frequent communication, people often assume the worst-case scenario. Even when I’ve thought I’d done an excellent job of touching base with employees, they are still spinning and worrying.

In this time of change and uncertainty, it’s best to communicate frequently, even if there are no updates to share. So you may say, “Here’s what we know today.” I would advise communicating with all of your employees every week. Of course, we can’t necessarily make statements like, “We don’t plan to do any layoffs,” because we can’t guarantee that, but it is helpful to be transparent about the business. For example, you may communicate that your company has applied for the PPP loan with the intent to retain employees.

You may also communicate that if cost-cutting measures become necessary, company leadership will be evaluating multiple options to minimize the need for layoffs. There are numerous ways employers are looking at managing expenses such as scheduling, salary reductions, or negotiating temporary holds on vendor agreements.

Again, I recommend that employees get updates from leadership weekly. Things are changing so fast, and people are feeling anxious about the future.

Is there a particular method of communication that you prefer for the weekly updates? What have you seen that’s worked?

I think that having an opportunity for employees to ask questions is essential. So, either a call or a video meeting is probably optimal. Or if you’re communicating via email, allow people to submit questions to you after or even before your meeting. Nonverbal communication is important too because that’s how we understand each other, so I think video is probably the first option, and then phone, and then email after that. Share any new information, and then make sure people have comfortable avenues to ask questions.

How do you support staff when it comes to using new technology for remote work?

Well, I think we’ve all had a crash course in some of these platforms. I know I have. We’ve had to react pretty quickly, so training hasn’t been readily available. I would say, as much as employers are able, it’s important to provide employees with the tools to use at home—making sure they have the right equipment and technology, whether that’s allowing them to bring equipment home from their office or working with them individually to see if you can arrange something for them. They need to have a functioning workspace if they’re teleworking.

Also, Zoom and Teams are probably the most used platforms, and their websites have video tutorials and live training sessions. It’s also a good idea to check with employees regarding their comfort level and potentially offer some one-on-one instruction. As with anything new, practice builds confidence and capability. Look for low-risk opportunities to test out or practice the latest technology. It could be practicing a meeting or even using the tools for fun team-building opportunities where employees can connect.

Here’s another idea: We have a couple of employees who are more tech-savvy in our organization, and their workload has shifted or dropped a little bit. And so we’ve leveraged them to provide some one-on-one instruction and to put together some training aids that we send to employees.

The last thing I think I would say is that establishing guidelines and norms for how and when technology is used is helpful. So, for example, tell your employees when they should be using email to communicate versus chat. The more you can establish those norms around how you’re leveraging these tools to communicate, the more efficient it will be.

Managing remote work is pretty challenging. When it comes to measuring performance and coaching, what sort of metrics should we be looking at to make sure that people are completing all of their tasks effectively?

Even though there aren’t productivity numbers associated with an employee’s performance, you can still set objectives and measure results. It comes down to creating action items and setting agreements. For example, if someone is working on a project, break down that project into tasks, and have a conversation with the employee about a reasonable timeline for completion. This will allow you to follow up regarding progress and, ultimately, completion.

The more challenging work to supervise is client service. A lot of employees are still connecting with clients and providing direct client service. As supervisors, we might not have visibility to see what that looks like. In these cases, it’s important to lead with trust that the employee is delivering timely and quality service. To stay informed about this, I would use weekly touch-base meetings to discuss how the employee is managing their workload and to ask what support they may need to do their job well. If they’re demonstrating competence and commitment, I would trust them to lead with that. And if you have concerns about their performance, I would ask some open-ended coaching questions to uncover barriers that might be present. Is it that they’re not feeling motivated or confident? Or is it that they’re not feeling capable or they don’t have the right tools to feel effective? We need to ask questions to understand what those barriers are before we can start exploring some options.

And if they’re not following through with the transparent agreement you put together, it’s okay to review and audit their work. Also, I think now is a good time to proactively reach out to and touch base with your clients, not only to connect from a relationship standpoint but also to understand how you can best support them right now. Doing so might also be an opportunity to obtain some feedback about the service that they’ve received from your employees.

Live Audience Q&A

While communication with internal employees is undoubtedly very important, small business owners only have so much time in the day. We’re so focused on protecting financial liability and analyzing endless pages of government loan programs that it’s hard to craft communication that flows from the top down and that people can rally behind. What is your advice for small business owners who are struggling under all of this pressure?

There’s a lot going on, and while business may have slowed down in some ways, we’re busier than we were before trying to keep up with everything. I would suggest doing what’s natural for you. If you’re someone who is a better communicator through writing, then take some time to jot down your notes. Or if it’s easier for you just to have more of an informal conversation, or just have a quick Q&A via video, I think that’s fine too.

Another option is — if you have someone in your organization or even an outsourced partner like Xenium, someone who is good at crafting employee communication — having them craft a draft for you to review and provide your edits, and then all you’d have to do is deliver it to your employees.

Need More Info?

For more information about navigating remote work, watch the full webinar.


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