Over a year and a half has passed since COVID-19 took hold, shutting down brick-and-mortar operations and forcing us into a wholly unprecedented remote-work environment. Corporate leaders had to adapt their operations at record speed, developing and implementing digital solutions to support far-flung staff and customers alike. As the benefits and flexibility of remote work are realized, many companies’ cultures are shifting. The unique impact on morale and productivity across remotely managed teams requires special attention.
I wanted to speak with women business leaders about the opportunities and challenges they’ve encountered and to hear the solutions they’ve employed to keep remote teams connected and motivated.
Lead by example
Amber Armstrong, chief marketing officer and senior vice president at AI-driven conversation platform LivePerson, says it’s imperative that executives lead by example when it comes to employee well-being. If we learned anything in the last year, it’s that employee well-being must be at the top of mind if companies want to sustain business operations during times of crisis, she says. She does not send emails after hours or while on paid time off, and she and her team have adjusted expectations around workplace flexibility.
During the pandemic, they stopped reporting short periods away from their desk so that employees could take advantage of a more flexible schedule. In order to keep the team on the same page while offering this greater degree of flexibility, Armstrong instituted weekly 15-minute meetings that the entire team attends regardless of schedule—whether they attend the meeting while it’s occurring, or by watching a recording. “I believe that, as a leader, I have to set an example for creating boundaries that prevent burnout,” Armstrong says.
Use humor and humility
Maccie Varnado, president and creative director of Tees2UrDoor, faced challenges when her largely in-person company was forced to work remotely in 2020. The company creates lines of customizable clothing items and accessories.
Tees2UrDoor flourished despite the pandemic, experiencing an increase in sales by creating humorous designs often centered around pandemic themes. Its senior class of 2020 shirt was written in a font that resembled toilet paper so students could make light of the the awkward shortages that befell their last semester of high school. This brought some lightheartedness to their customers and employees during a difficult time.
Varnado also allowed teams to swap roles as necessary when their T-shirt orders kicked into overdrive. Management, in particular, took on roles within the warehouse, which allowed them to better understand the needs and workflow of their fellow employees. “Actually working in [the] warehouse gave the management group a perfect hands-on experience,” Varnado says.
The company also started allowing employees to work flexible schedules. In addition to keeping employees motivated, this move also allowed the company to collaborate more efficiently with international vendors, who were many time zones apart. “Our designers work with designers in the Asian market and there is a 13-hour time difference. Having a flexible schedule has allowed the design team to work similar hours as [their] Asian counterparts,” says Varnado. “When there are edits or issues, we are able to answer these almost instantly, instead of waiting a whole day for the answer, and then another day for the response.”
Measure employee satisfaction
Roli Saxena, president of AdRoll, found that the best way to keep employees motivated during the pandemic was to ask them directly what they needed. She took practical steps to remove any communication barriers by expanding leadership office hours and creating a regular survey for employees to fill out, that was then directly sent to leadership. Saxena said it was vital to consistently communicate directly with employees because “connection is a feeling, not a checked box.”
They kept up with these quarterly check-ins even after employees were given the option to return to the office. Through the regular survey-based check-ins, leadership learned that employees need an increased amount of company-wide time off (in addition to holidays) where everyone has the same days off and away from work. Additionally, they also addressed employee burnout by setting aside no-meeting days on the calendar so employees could complete their individual work.
Create a best practices guide to reduce uncertainty
Mohana Radhakrishnan, founder and chief strategist of ExpertusONE, a digital learning and training platform, said that when her team realized remote work was becoming the new normal, they quickly implemented strategies to ease the transition and maintain a positive work environment.
Radhakrishnan said that the company “focused energies on quickly producing and sharing best practices through documentation of processes.” They created guides and reimbursement policies for home working equipment so that employees could understand the resources available to them. She also noted that empathy and understanding went a long way, especially when families’ work-from-home strategies differed or were imperfect.
It took time, Radhakrishnan said, to “get teams to adjust and engage with remote meetings like they had when the company was in person.” Pairing empathy with detailed processes created the right balance of structure and flexibility, enabling employees to succeed regardless of outside circumstances.
When it became safer to work in person, they took this same approach and allowed employees to choose between remote, in-person, or hybrid work. “This keeps employees motivated because they know the company is on their side,” Radhakrishnan says.
Shama Hyder is CEO of Zen Media, a b2b PR and marketing firm, a best-selling author, and an internationally renowned keynote speaker.