As a leader or manager, how do you keep the ‘pulse’ of your team in a virtual environment when you’re used to working in an office?  

It’s our role as leaders and managers to bring out the best in our teams so they can get things done. As a manager, some of the most important skills in your arsenal are your ability to observe people, listen, and pick up on those little signals and signs throughout the office. Heck, it’s how you stay ahead of problems and keep everyone rowing in the same direction. You had all this stuff figured out in the office, but now that you’re in a virtual environment, you’re suddenly feeling blind. 

Let’s face it: the habits, behaviors, and processes that you’ve relied on to get things done in the office WILL take a hit as you transition to remote work, at least in the short term. As a leader or manager, you’re going to have to adjust. 

First, let’s cover the top things leaders and managers miss out on when shifting from an in-office environment and then I’ll share the closest approximation I’ve found in a virtual world.

The 5 Things Managers Miss Most About the Office

  • Being within Earshot. We don’t realize how much we rely on our ability to overhear things until we can’t anymore. We’re constantly taking in the inputs around us at a nearly subconscious level. When we hear Jane’s voice tense as she’s finishing up a call, we automatically make a mental note to check in with her later to see what’s up. If we hear a little celebration down the hall, we know something good just happened in Jon’s life. These are the types of signals that managers take in constantly around the office. They give us context into the status, performance, and dynamics of our team simply by virtue of being in the same space as them. And, just as importantly, they create openings for meaningful and proactive engagement.
  • Reading Body Language. A quick glance can often tell us quite a bit about a person’s mood or day. When Joe shows up to work with coffee all over him and that ‘don’t ask’ expression, we’ve got a heads up that he might need a little time to cool down before we ask about his progress on the latest project. We also use the things we’re seeing around the office to time our interactions with colleagues. If we see that someone looks like they’re in deep concentration on a task, we’ll likely hold off asking them a question unless it’s urgent. As managers, our ability to read the body language of others in the office helps us tailor our messaging so it’s most likely to meet with success. 
  •  Chance Encounters. Another thing that’s great about offices is the proverbial ‘watercooler.’ As we walk around the office, we bump into all different types of colleagues, including those on our own team. These encounters give us a chance to ask about the person’s weekend, strike up a conversation with someone new, and get a feel for the general vibe. As a manager, this translates into extra touchpoints for getting to know your team and others, giving you context into how their work fits into the rest of their life and how your team fits into the greater ecosystem around you. You never know where these serendipitous connections might lead.
  • Eye Contact. The ability to look someone in the eye and be fully ‘present’ with them, particularly for tough conversations, is incredibly valuable. Try as we may, this one’s tough to replace virtually.
  • Tone. How many fights were started because someone misinterpreted the tone of a chat or email? I don’t know and I don’t want to – it’s a lot. 

Going Virtual 

In a remote environment, managers have to become more intentional in the way they interact with their team and encourage sharing. Furthermore, the team needs to build a culture of trust and empathy. 

Here’s how:

  • Lead virtual meetings that scratch our itch for human connection. The first article in this series covered the importance and ‘how to’ of this topic. When you open a meeting with a question like ‘what’s one personal and one professional win you’ve had since we last spoke?’ it builds camaraderie and empathy within your group. This helps to dig beneath the superficial ‘how’s the weather?’ convo and will surface some of that deeper dialogue you’re missing out on otherwise. 
  • Go WELL Beyond Email. Beyond your meetings, there are tons of other communications happening within your team on a day-to-day basis. Many of the subtleties that we overhear around the office and use to inform us as managers won’t be found in an email. And, odds are good you won’t have time for a call with every member of the team each day. This is where less formal communication tools like Slack shine. If you don’t yet have a strong messaging platform or haven’t fully explored the one you do have – now is the time! They create a space for different channels (literally!) of communication within your org. In Slack’s case, it allows for direct messages as well as all kinds of group communications and integrations with systems like Google Drive, Zoom, Jira, etc. You can use the platform to prompt virtual coffee dates, add custom emojis that are unique to your culture, celebrate birthdays, give people virtual high fives (okay… actually they’re tacos!), and more. I promise you it will make a huge difference in your company’s remote culture if you get your messaging platform right. And no, this isn’t a paid endorsement for Slack – it’s just been an incredibly powerful tool I’ve used with a number of distributed organizations and believe can help others. Whatever platform you choose, the bottom line is don’t rely on email to be your primary communication path in a virtual world. The right recipe calls for a mix of email, video calls and something less formal.
  • Close the Loop Faster and More Often. When you hear of an opening, take full advantage of it. If Dani mentioned she has a big call with her client today, then shoot off a ping sometime after the call to ask how it went. Create an opening and Dani is probably going to share more than she would have otherwise. Maybe you’ll get a heads up that she could use some help and be able to connect her with a contact you have from another department. Little cycles of checking in create a lot more overall awareness of what’s going on for your team. Don’t micromanage; do create openings and use the ones you’ve got. 
  • Use Tools to Create Transparency. There are a plethora of awesome tools out there like Jira, Trello, Asana, and Todoist that make it easy for teams to communicate the general status, ownership, and deadline for a particular task. Seems straightforward and it should be. Honestly, it matters far less what tool you choose and far more than you actually use it. The bottom line is this – whether you’re managing a team in person or virtually, you should be able to understand the general status of an item without having to bug that person. In the office, maybe you could physically see Jane begin work on her project so you didn’t really need or fully use your electronic tools. But in the virtual world, it’s helpful to see a notification that Jane’s moved her task from ‘assigned’ to ‘work in progress.’ Then when the two of you have a conversation, you’ll be able to jump into the meat of what she’s working on – not lobbing a few general status updates back and forth first. Put the basic information for item status, etc at the fingertips of anyone who might need to know so they can get this type of info on demand. 
  • Get Good at Blocking & Tackling Video. This one’s pretty obvious – but it still needs to be said. If you have access to a system with video calling capabilities, use it. Turn on your camera for as many calls as you can and set the expectation among your team that video ‘on’ is the standard. Even if it’s not perfect eye contact, video is far better than not being able to see each other’s faces at all. I’ll also add a little tip that if you look directly at the camera (yes, it will feel weird to you) it will appear to the person on the other end like you’re looking into their eyes. I’ve often used this trick to help approximate the most ‘in-person’ experience I could for the person on the other side. Especially for those tough conversations, it’s the closest thing to real eye contact you can give.
  • Schedule Virtual Coffee Dates. When you work from home, it would be pretty weird to meet someone new in the hall. That said, you can still approximate many of the desired outcomes from chance encounters if you add some ‘random’ elements into your life. Set up brief (virtual!) coffee dates with people you might not otherwise bump into. Again, Slack has an app for randomly connecting members of a group (be it your team, department or company) that makes this process easy. Virtual coffee dates with your close colleagues are also extremely important. Just set aside 10-15 minutes every few weeks for a quick conversation just like you would if the two of you walked to the nearest coffee shop and back. These give that quality 1:1 time that you otherwise miss out on. Don’t talk about work tasks, just ask ‘how the heck are ya?!’ 
  • Be fully present. Distractions are tough in the office, but can be even tougher at home. When it comes to that difficult conversation, you have to be able to block everything else out and give the person you’re speaking with your full attention. Learn how to ‘mute’ notifications and ignore popups just like you would in person. In the end, the credibility and trust of your team are earned bit by bit through your daily encounters. Make sure to build up as much trust equity as you can before you need it. 
  • Assume Good Intentions. There’s often a difference between what people say and what they mean – even if the words are the same. Tone matters. Unfortunately, we don’t get that benefit in a remote world. Set the expectation amongst your team that you will assume good intentions and not overanalyze (or over-react to) chats and emails.    

These are the tools and practices that great managers use to keep the pulse of their team and organizations in a virtual environment. Maybe your team is only a few days into working from home, or maybe you’re already weeks in. Regardless, there’s a good chance this is going to be your new normal for a while as we ‘shelter in place’ to flatten the curve of Coronavirus. As a manager, you should take these steps (some of them only take a few minutes!) to set up a remote culture you actually want to be a part of – your team and organization need you now more than ever.

About the author…

Lauren Grimshaw helps business leaders create traction so they can achieve their ambitious goals. Her specialties include creating clarity, developing execution strategies, and overcoming obstacles through targeted action. Lauren uses a combination of best practices in design thinking, agile methodologies, coaching, and innovation leadership to drive change that really sticks.