One of my first mentors in real estate was a partner in a small consulting firm, where I worked as a project manager out of graduate school. She was a smart and charismatic professional with a passion for built environments. Reflecting on the experience, it wasn’t the formal work that taught me the most, but the downtime conversation and time observing her in action. For instance, before a meeting she’d show me how to craft the agenda to drive the conversation intentionally. Later, we would go through what worked and didn’t work. And over casual coffees, she’d tell me how important it was for female developers to construct these buildings, standing as evidence of their immutable accomplishments.
Looking back several years and jobs later, I see how these informal chats and happenstance encounters along with opportunities for direct learning helped propel me through a milieu of mostly older male colleagues later. These sort of mentorships made my career what it is (and encourage me to pay it forward today).
These days, such serendipitous interactions don’t happen readily in a remote environment, and their absence is a loss to emerging leaders as well as to those invested in developing them.
Companies everywhere are grappling with the evolution of office life and some, including Nationwide Insurance, Square, Zillow, and Twitter, are embracing remote work indefinitely. Some recent studies have shown that when staffs work remotely, productivity increases and employee satisfaction grows, even though many workers also report feeling marooned and drained.
In a remote workplace, you can’t learn as easily by observing more experienced colleagues. When another early boss tasked me with putting together a financial model for a building, I would toggle between my desk and his office in an iterative, live process that wouldn’t have translated readily to remote because I needed a moment, not a half-hour slot. Today, faced with having to convey a complex process on Slack, my boss could have opted to give it to someone who needed less help. Most likely, he would have gotten his project done but I wouldn’t have mastered a new skill.
Moreover, team building is so much harder remotely. There’s no such thing as a desk drive-by. You can’t pull a colleague aside on the way into a meeting and say, “I have a thought” or “don’t bring this up.” There’s no victory lap after a win, when you and your coworkers huddle in an office and high-five.
I feel for today’s recent grads (or the ones lucky enough to have jobs) who are trying to construct a professional identity in a childhood bedroom or crowded living room. How daunting are group calls, with their stilted cadence that veers between people talking over each other or waiting in silence (“You go.” “No, you go.” “No, you go. …”)? Unscripted bonding with colleagues is pretty much nonexistent, along with the bathroom chats that turn into a coffee invitation, the pre-meeting patter that seeds a friendship.
Some human resources thinkers posit that remote work will lead to more diverse hiring by widening geographic diversity, therefore extending opportunity to employees from different racial and economic backgrounds. But how do they acclimate once they arrive? It’s welcome news that so many companies are doubling down on closing the gap in terms of equity and inclusion, yet our workplaces are becoming more isolating than ever. Factor in schooling and the terrain becomes more uneven, with some employees able to log on each and every day, while others are finding themselves forced to juggle more responsibilities.
So, how do we help our employees thrive during a particularly tough time? I’ve come up with a few simple tactics to start.
Step back and let someone else take over
At meetings, build in opportunities for people to speak. That same boss who helped me master financial modeling also taught me how to develop my own negotiation style. Eventually, he stopped showing up to meetings and let me run them, paving the way for me to lead projects. Sharing the spotlight in a remote world requires intent and forethought, but it’s critical to help emerging leaders grow.
Take up those dreaded Zoom coffees
Make yourself available through coffee dates or office hours to people in your organization, and not just your direct reports. If possible, meet up for a socially distanced coffee and walk while you talk. If you’re concerned about office safety, meet in the park or have an outdoor team-building event. Keep up cross-divisional mentor programs.
Sponsor people who are not like you
My sponsors made my career possible. The male boss who championed me may not have intentionally done so because of my gender, but his support mattered a lot. What diverse talent are you championing? Actively seek out networks different from your own and identify ways to be an ally; women and people of color need this now more than ever.
Approach your leadership role like a coach
The digital tools we’re all relying on are great for demonstrating mastery of checklists and project management but relatively impotent when it comes to developing the vision and chops to lead. We can help foster those skills by focusing less on doling out assignments and more on nurturing leaders. Challenge people to come up with a big new idea, develop it, and pitch it to you. Give someone a special project with a broad goal and ask them to develop and shape it with you, offering regular, consistent feedback. Show vulnerability when talking with staff; it will allow them to be honest about what they know and don’t know.
Some version of remote work—along with the incursion of kids, homeschooling duties, housework, financial loss, and mounting emotional concerns—is here for the foreseeable future. Thus, employees need creative, generous leadership more than ever. Developing an efficient and empathetic strategy can start now.
Rachel Loeb is chief operating officer of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, where she oversees and directs the nonprofit’s strategic priorities for real estate, asset management, and planning. Prior to joining NYCEDC, Loeb spent 15 years in the private sector as a real estate developer and urban planner both domestically and overseas.