Working Remotely? Try These Smart Tips For Managing Relationships

Working Remotely?  Try These Smart Tips For Managing Relationships

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

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

It hasn’t worked out that way.

It turns out that people like the flexibility of remote work. They’ve reconnected with their friends and families in ways not previously possible with the 9 to 5 grind. Nobody seems to miss the daily commute to the office. And to the surprise of managers, remote workers are in many cases more productive than before.

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

While much of the conversation revolves around the amazing 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 executive, both in corporations and start-ups, she’s honed her interpersonal relationship skills over Skype, Google Hangouts, Slack, traditional telephone lines, and now Zoom. She was head of global marketing at the venerated Financial Times. Today she’s a marketing strategy consultant for brands in the US and Europe.

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

McKenna Sweazey: We lose our ability to engage in deep thinking when we experience negative emotions. When we sense danger, our body prepares 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 paused. While getting that email from your mother-in-law or Slack from your boss may not be the same as encountering a predator on the Savannah, some of the same principles apply. Your inner survival response mechanisms turn on.

Duncan: Many leaders are good at things like strategy and giving directions, but less skilled at listening. How can they get better?

Sweazey: In my own, informal research on good listening, the output of good listening for most people is pretty unanimous—they consider Asking Insightful Questions a top characteristic of a good listener.

Of course, if you take a moment to parse out that idea, it’s not exactly listening when you’re asking questions back. Leaders can take advantage of this opportunity to show they are ingesting and reflecting on what they’re hearing.

Great leaders use questions to help their team as well as show they’re listening. For some, that may require practical questions to get to the strategic next steps of the discussion. But for some, that will require emotion-based questions, “How did that make you feel?” or perspective-changing questions, “Does everyone involved see it that way?”

Duncan: In a virtual workplace, what can people do to decrease the dehumanization and perceived distance between them and their workmates?

Sweazey: The best way to decrease dehumanization is to increase the opportunities for context. Context means knowing your colleagues beyond their work product. This could be insights into how they approach problem-solving, or it could be more background into their home life. Team building experiences that let everyone share more complex sides of their personality—whether that’s Myers-Briggs type personality test, competitive escape rooms, or in-person meet-up—are great for providing this context that can then be harnessed and relied upon when we get back to the daily efforts of a team.

Duncan: 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 might mean returning to the phone, which for many 1:1 calls is preferable due to the richness of our auditory-processing capabilities.

We also want to reduce our dependence on meetings in general, finding ways to get work done asynchronously, which has the added advantage of allowing us to benefit from the flexibility of remote work.

The second big thing everyone can do is to recognize what triggers “Zoom fatigue,” whether that’s a specific type of meeting or time of day. When we know our triggers, we can change our schedules to avoid that situation or make workspace changes to make those blocks of time more dynamic, like a standing desk, going to the office those days, or scheduling a workout before to boost our energy.

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

Sweazey: Culture affects so many parts of our workday—what time people start work, how much we share with colleagues, and how formal communication is. All of these happen across email, video conference, Slack, the water cooler, etc.

It’s helpful to codify common tools and etiquette in a culture playbook to give colleagues a concrete understanding of how culture impacts everyday life. For example, understanding and creating structure around how the culture plays out in Slack channels and their memes or the start time of the day are straightforward ways to spell out a virtual standard.

But secondly, as people feel safer, getting back together in person is absolutely necessary. Effective remote organizations must have in-person experiences. Creating communal memories and opportunities for bonding allows all parts of an organization to connect empathetically. Management’s goal is to ensure these experiences are memorable and enjoyable enough to be durable once the team is back in their home offices.

Duncan: Team building and skill building are always important, and they’re particularly challenging in a virtual workplace. What tips can you offer?

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

Bonding experiences need to meet the needs of different types of employees, from Gen-Z to Boomers, from introverts to extroverts, from tenured to new employees, etc. How do you make small talk easy for people who loathe small talk? You need situations that get people out of their comfort zone a tiny bit. This is why competition works so well, like escape rooms or other virtual games.

Duncan: Feedback can play an important role in a person’s personal and professional development. But if mishandled, it can do all sorts of harm. 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 feel more severe because it’s less spontaneous. Also, the time lapse between action and feedback might allow the receiver to stew in anticipation or worry that the giver has been thinking about these criticisms the entire time. Lastly, as we aren’t giving face-to-face feedback, the medium feels less intimate and, thus, less safe.

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

Duncan: What can we all do to improve our digital empathy in general?

Sweazey: It’s crucial that we prioritize our digital relationships and workplace bonds. That might be following up when you think something is friends with a colleague because of a flash of a facial expression or a change in their Zoom behavior, like a camera newly off, to give yourself a feedback loop to improve your recognition of feelings.

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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *