Creating and Sustaining High-Performing Teams in a Remote Work Environment

​Clint is a human resource director at a midsize financial services firm, and the pressures of managing a remote workforce continue to pose challenges in pockets of his company. 

The CEO believes it’s time to return all workers to the office, if for no other reason than to rebuild a sense of culture, camaraderie and team spirit that’s suffered over the past three years. The CEO likewise is concerned about lowered productivity as staff members get used to the lax standards of working from home.

Clint, on the other hand, sees remote work as a boon to organizational productivity as well as his company’s recruitment and retention efforts. He feels strongly—and the CEO has agreed with him on this point—that turning the switch to a fully onsite workforce may cause unwanted turnover and make it more difficult to hire. But the pressure is mounting as Clint is being asked to prove his argument.

Pros and Cons

“Technically, both Clint and the CEO are correct. Remote work was a seismic shift for many leaders, and not all organizations had the structure, knowledge or tools in place to support the unprecedented change,” said Dana Jones, HR director at Thornburg Investment Management in Santa Fe, N.M. “But it was forced upon us practically overnight by the pandemic, and by mid-2020, many organizations opted to—or were required to—transition all nonessential employees to work from home for the sake of preventative safety practices.”

In recent research from Gallup, “Work Locations for U.S. Employees with Remote-Capable Jobs,” the numbers of fully onsite and exclusively remote organizations have fallen significantly since mid-2020, while hybrid jobs were and remain up across the board.

HR has had almost three years to get used to fully remote or hybrid work, but the challenges remain, and there continues to be a broad disconnect.

To Clint’s CEO’s point, C-suite executives nationwide are suffering from “productivity paranoia,” a buzzword that emerged from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, indicating they fear that workers are not putting in the same “sweat equity” while working remotely as they did when they were onsite. Further, CEOs are concerned about remote and hybrid workers feeling isolated from the company and disconnected from its mission and culture, which is when loyalty and commitment tend to fray.

To Clint’s point, however, huge numbers of workers from Generations X, Y and Z believe working remotely offers incredible benefits, including a greater sense of work/life control and balance. In fact, some remote workers value the flexibility offered by hybrid work more than compensation and benefits, having a great boss and positive workplace culture, or even career-growth prospects, according to the research.

Further, recent Gallup studies show that engagement is highest among fully remote workers and lowest for fully onsite workers who can perform at least a portion of their job from home. Similarly, remote workers report lower levels of burnout while fully onsite employees have the highest levels of burnout.

Add that to the fact that HR is literally building the plane while flying it, and you can see the differing opinions and directions. Assuming, however, that your organization, like most, will maintain some fully remote or at least hybrid employees, it becomes critical that you maximize the chances of success for this new workforce. Remember, they don’t teach this in business school because it’s so new, so you’re not alone in feeling a bit “in the middle” when speaking with authority and confidence on the topic. Still, there are certain things you can do to ensure that your CEO is comfortable and your remote and hybrid workers are operating at their highest levels.

Create a Culture of Connection

“What’s critical in today’s environment is to ensure a strong sense of belonging and community among employees,” said Ashley Morley Brinsfield, head of human resources at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, Calif. “The remote worker represents a new workforce, and it’s vital to understand what makes them choose a company and remain with it. Every organization will likely want to consider accommodating some of their changing preferences to remain competitive.” 

Studies likewise show that even in fully remote or hybrid situations, workers will leave if they lose a sense of connection to the organization, its culture, mission or inner circle. “A tightrope for most employers to walk, no doubt, but a doable one if your heart and strategy are properly aligned,” Brinsfield said.

“Clint might want to consider holding rounds of management meetings with department heads to discuss collectively what will work best for them and their teams, as well as for the company as a whole,” Jones recommended. “There are numerous options that employers can pursue to ensure that everyone feels connected, not only to the broader organization and its culture, but also to the smaller decisions that are made.”   

One simple way is to hold weekly one-on-one discussions with direct reports to ensure they don’t feel like they’re falling into a rut or otherwise losing a sense of connection to the organization or its purpose. “After all, three years is a long time to be away from the office routine, even if employees are now coming in one or two days a week,” Brinsfield said. “The post-pandemic workplace is one that we are still getting used to, but the more proactive the employer, the better off its workforce will be.”   

In addition to one-on-one weekly meetings with direct reports, consider some of the following activities to demonstrate how much you care and how you want your employees to maintain their connection to the organization:

Weekly Staff Meetings

Dedicated one-on-one time is critical to ensure full accountability, successful project management, goal alignment and determining if there is a need to pivot. But team time is just as critical. The basics of what make for great leadership are still there—communication, recognition and role-model leadership—but it has to be more purposeful and intentional to maintain the highest levels of employee engagement. Include your extended staff in these meetings: Everyone needs to be on the same page, aligned and in sync, to ensure they’re pulling in the same direction.

Ad Hoc Team Check-Ins

Come together on a more informal and spontaneous basis to check in with everyone. Doing so builds teamwork and camaraderie, but also keeps everyone informed of critical changes while feeling less lonely and isolated. Debriefs of “lessons learned,” new suggestions for reinventing the workflow in light of the organization’s changing needs, and opportunities to celebrate successes on the spot make for great ad hoc gatherings. Likewise, Start-Stop-Continue discussions can go a long way to incorporate team feedback on how to make fully remote and hybrid relationships work.

Quarterly Professional Development Meetings

Internal coaching can be as simple as setting aside time and making the space once a quarter for team members to share how they’re progressing toward their goals, where they’d like additional organizational exposure, and what licenses or credentials they hope to pursue. Put the burden on your direct reports to schedule the one-on-one time with you and develop the agenda. But let them know this is about them—their career and professional development needs and their recommendations to improve systems or relationships at work—and then simply make the time and space to listen and see how you can help. The meetings are for building talent and leadership muscle, codifying achievements, and discussing the individual’s needs and accomplishments.

Develop a Mentoring Program

Create an internal mentoring program within your company, department or team where experts can pass wisdom down to less-experienced workers. Assign buddies or ambassadors to support new hires. Explore coaching apps that help employees better themselves. And tie this to your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion program with other equality-of-opportunity initiatives.  

Fun Fridays

Ask your team for recommendations on what you can all do during working hours once a month or once a week to lighten things up and keep everyone feeling connected. Eats-and-greets, happy hours, mapping and matching trivia quizzes about individuals’ achievements, Photoshopping avatars of superheroes for future PowerPoint presentations, showcasing photos of your families, and many other suggestions will likely be shared by staff members looking for greater participation and a stronger sense of inclusion, especially for recent hires.

Demands for hybrid work are not going away anytime soon. For some earlier and midcareer candidates, it remains the No. 1 factor they value when considering whether to join or stay at an organization. Clint hopes to roll out some of these programs to pierce people’s hearts and help them re-engage with the organization with the same level of excitement as when they first started—whether fully onsite, fully remote or hybrid.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a SHRM Online columnist and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He’s a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, certified executive coach and author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom). Other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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