Work abroad ? Try these smart tips for managing relationships

The phenomenon of working from home continues to be one of the most interesting events in the history of human labor.

The WFH had its big push as a “let’s not spread the germs” tactic at the start of the Covid pandemic. Many people assumed it would be a short-lived accommodation to “science” and that workers would be eager to get back to the office.

It didn’t work that way.

Turns out, people love the flexibility of remote work. They reconnected with friends and family in a way that was not possible before with the 9 to 5 grind. No one seems to miss the daily commute to the office. And to the surprise of managers, teleworkers are in many cases more productive than before.

Because remote work is likely to stay, leaders need to do the heavy lifting to evangelize ways to, well, make work work.

While much of the conversation revolves around the incredible tools available to remote teams, what matters most is how relationships are managed.

McKenna Sweazey offers a boatload of good ideas in her book How to win friends and manage remotely.

Her credentials certainly qualify her for the task. As an accomplished global leader in both business and start-ups, she has honed her people skills on Skype, Google Hangouts, Slack, traditional phone lines and now Zoom. She was head of global marketing at the revered Financial Times. Today, she is a marketing strategy consultant for brands in the United States and Europe.

Rodger Dean Duncan: The importance of empathy in the workplace, especially in a virtual workplace — attracts attention. In this context, you write that “emotions literally make us dumber”. Please explain.

McKenna Sweazey: We lose our ability to engage in deep thought when we experience negative emotions. When we sense danger, our bodies prime us to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode so we can protect ourselves. The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for reading, math, and other deep thinking tasks, is on pause. While getting that email from your mother-in-law or Slack from your boss isn’t the same as encountering a predator on the savannah, some of the same principles apply. Your innate survival response mechanisms activate.

Duke: Many leaders are good at things like strategy and giving direction, but less good at listening. How can they improve?

Sweazey: In my own informal research on good listening, the outcome of good listening for most people is pretty unanimous – they consider Ask insightful questions a superior characteristic of a good listener.

Of course, if you take a moment to analyze this idea, it’s not exactly listening when you ask questions back. Leaders can use this opportunity to show that they are absorbing and reflecting on what they hear.

Great leaders use questions to help their team and show they are listening. For some, this may require practical questions to move to the next strategic steps in the discussion. But for some, it will require emotion-based questions, “How did that make you feel?” or questions that change perspective, “Does everyone involved see it that way?”

Duke: In a virtual workplace, what can people do to lessen dehumanization and the perceived distance between them and their work colleagues?

Sweazey: The best way to decrease dehumanization is to increase the possibilities of context. Context means knowing your colleagues beyond their work product. It could be insight into how they approach problem solving, or it could be more background in their home life. Team-building experiences that allow everyone to share more complex aspects of their personality – whether it’s a Myers-Briggs personality test, competitive escape rooms, or face-to-face encounters – are great for providing that context that can then be tapped into and used when tracing the day-to-day efforts of a team.

Duke: What tips do you have for reducing “zoom fatigue” and helping people connect in a more human way when using technology?

Sweazey: The first thing we can all do is reduce our dependence on Zoom. This may mean going back to the phone, which is preferable for many 1:1 calls due to our rich auditory processing capabilities.

We also want to reduce our reliance on meetings in general, by finding ways to work asynchronously, which has the added benefit of allowing us to benefit from the flexibility of remote working.

The second big thing anyone can do is recognize what triggers “Zoom fatigue,” whether it’s a specific type of meeting or time of day. When we know our triggers, we can modify our schedules to avoid this situation or make changes to the workspace to make these blocks of time more dynamic, such as a standing desk, going to the office on these days or scheduling a session front workout to boost our energy.

Duke: How can a leader help foster a positive and productive culture with a virtual team?

Sweazey: Culture affects many aspects of our workday: the time people start working, what we share with our colleagues, and the degree of formal communication. This all happens over email, video conferencing, Slack, water cooler, etc.

It is helpful to codify common tools and etiquette in a culture manual to give colleagues a concrete understanding of the impact of culture on daily life. For example, understanding and creating structure around how culture unfolds in Slack channels and their memes or the start time of the day are easy ways to state a virtual norm.

But second, as people feel safer, getting back together in person is absolutely necessary. Effective remote organizations must have experiences in person. Creating shared memories and opportunities to bond allows all parts of an organization to connect with empathy. Management‘s goal is to ensure these experiences are memorable and enjoyable enough to be sustainable once the team is back in their home offices.

Duke: Team building and skill building are always important, and they’re especially challenging in a virtual workplace. What advice can you offer?

Sweazey: Team building should encompass more goals in a virtual team, from casual general get-togethers to intense bonding. Managers should ensure that throughout the year they create a variety of situations for colleagues to get to know each other, to give everyone a diversity of context to better understand their peers.

Bonding experiences should meet the needs of different types of employees, from Gen Z to baby boomers, introverts to extroverts, incumbents to new hires, and more. How do you make small talk easy for people who hate small talk? You need situations that take people just a little bit out of their comfort zone. This is why competition works so well, like escape rooms or other virtual games.

Duke: Feedback can play an important role in a person’s personal and professional development. But if mishandled, it can do all kinds of damage. When people are working remotely, what are the keys to giving and receiving feedback in ways that build trust and competence?

Sweazey: Because you often have to schedule time to give someone virtual feedback, it takes on a different weight. It may seem more serious because it is less spontaneous. Additionally, the time lapse between action and feedback can allow the receiver to simmer in anticipation or worry that the giver has been thinking about these criticisms the whole time. Finally, because we don’t give face-to-face feedback, the medium feels less intimate and, therefore, less safe.

The best way to mitigate these changes is to make feedback a routine part of every one-on-one meeting. Repeating the behavior implies that it is a necessary and useful part of the job, not a punishment. And if managers practice giving feedback calmly, comprehensively, succinctly, and with concrete opportunities for improvement, it will be easier for the recipients to use the feedback to improve.

Duke: What can we all do to improve our overall digital empathy?

Sweazey: It is crucial that we prioritize our digital relationships and workplace connections. This can be a follow up when you think something is wrong with a coworker because of a flash of facial expression or a change in their Zoom behavior, like a newly turned off camera, to give you a loop of feedback to improve your recognition of feelings.

And it’s also up to each of us to be more explicit and let our colleagues know, in their comfort zone, what’s going on in their life outside of work. If we help our colleagues see us as the complete picture and give them more context, it will be easier for them to do the same. Ultimately, this context makes it easier for us to use our digital empathy and better understand each other’s points of view.

About Donnie R. Losey

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