Over the past 18 months, managers have had to adapt to rapidly evolving and uncertain circumstances, particularly when it comes to the transition from in-person to remote work and back again.
As organizations gradually enter the next chapter of the continuing workplace revolution – from remote work within the context of a global pandemic, to fewer restrictions on movement and the gradual reopening of offices – managers will need to master new skills and adopt new tools to be successful.
“How we worked over the last 18 months during a pandemic in a remote environment, that’s actually not the future; that was a time of survival,” says PwC Canada partner and chief people officer Sofia Theodorou. “There’s a very important point around the backdrop of a pandemic – not always having the tools there, school closures et cetera – so it was a time of experimentation and learning, but it was also devoid of choice and flexibility.”
As we gradually move away from seeing remote work as a health and safety necessity and toward a more flexible future of work, Ms. Theodorou says managers will face new challenges. At the same time, however, they will have the benefit of choice and flexibility, new tools and technologies, and more than a year of practice at managing a remote team.
“When we went virtual initially with the pandemic, all we did was we moved our in-office behaviours into a virtual setting,” she says. Her team learned to reduce the number of live video meetings they schedule, while intentionally creating space for social interactions virtually. She says the pandemic has also forced leaders to shift the way in which they measure productivity, from an emphasis on day-to-day activities to outcomes and deliverables.
“You also need to show twice as much appreciation in the absence of non-verbal cues in a virtual environment, because it diminishes peoples’ ability to evaluate how an interaction has gone or how they’re doing,” she says.
Not being physically accessible also means that managers will need to improve their asynchronous communication skills and be more intentional about knowledge management.
“People need to know where they can go to get the information they need, and to have a source of truth to not get held up or slowed down when they’re not sitting together,” says Janeen Speer, Shopify’s vice-president of talent.
Ms. Speer says that her team uses Slack and Google Docs to communicate and collaborate. They’ve also started using videos to communicate with team members in a way that’s more dynamic, while reducing the volume of reading material staff need to stay on top of.
“In the past we’d just think about picking up the phone or hopping on a video chat, but now we have leaders who are dropping videos in slack channels to get their teams up to speed,” she says, adding that videos don’t necessarily need to be high quality or well scripted. “One of the healthiest things I’ve seen through the pandemic is people just getting scrappier and being willing to play and experiment and try different things and be okay if it’s messy the first time.”
In this more remote work environment, managers have also had to quickly improve their communication skills, both verbal and written, to compensate for the lack of in-person communication. In some cases that required them to be more precise, intentional and professional in their communications, but moving forward it may require adopting more casual communication techniques.
“You have to be engaging with the team and express some emotion, because if you’re just doing it business as usual, you will come across as cold, you will disincent rather than incent good behaviour,” explains Kevin Collins, chief executive officer of Charli.AI, a Vancouver-based digital workplace automation solutions provider.
Mr. Collins explains that, just as younger employees often need to adapt to a certain level of professional language upon entering the workforce, managers should strive to understand their natural communication styles. Specifically, he says managers should look to social media to improve communication across generational lines and add more emotion to professional communications.
“They’re going to have to adapt to the social-media tools and communication style, understanding things like the acronyms, the emojis, the language,” he says. “Even looking at your skill set in use of e-mail has to be far better; what you were doing pre-pandemic doesn’t come close to what you need to do post-pandemic.”
Above all else, however, managers should strive to be as transparent as possible with their team members and collaborate with staff to set clear expectations. For example, Jeff Goplin, the senior vice-president of business development for Randstad Canada, says he asks team members to specify whether their needs are “urgent” or “important.”
“Something I thought was urgent before might be important, but not urgent, kind of like 911 versus [the non-emergency police line],” he says. “If you work with your team members to define what that will mean to you and to them, that will save a lot of time and efficiency.”