Step 3: Thriving in the Remote Era

A Career Track through COVID

How do employees fast forward when the world is on pause?

We have talked about how you get your remote workplace started (communication, training, navigating childcare issues) and how you thoughtfully set it up (handling reimbursements, understanding mental health issues). Today, we embark on a longer conversation about why we are really here: to make lemonade out of the lemon that is 2020. This venture is not without challenge, but it is also filled with opportunity. How do I know that? Look at all the companies that proactively went remote in recent days – some until 2021, some indefinitely. A commitment to #remotefirst is growing nationwide, and your employees should know that they can build a career at your company – even while at home.

Ownership Outside the Office

Compensation is but one factor in employee satisfaction, and is often focused on by employers at the expense of others. Especially during a pandemic, it seems that you need more than money to combat isolation, and feelings of disconnect, among your employees. In a series of studies conducted by Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, she found that “when employees feel a stronger sense of ownership, they are more inclined to engage in generally helpful behaviors.”[1] Employee ownership can come in many forms, and is often provided (or hoarded) by supervisors who have differing management styles. Now more than ever, you should train supervisors to seek out opportunities of ownership for their direct reports.

But herein lies the first challenge: how can you increase feelings of ownership in 2020? Being outside the office necessarily removes some opportunities. Take one example:

A company has a flat structure, with opportunities to climb the ladder few and far between. To increase feelings of ownership, the company encourages employees to join committees to plan charitable events, holiday parties, in-office celebrations, and more. After COVID-19, the company downsized its fundraising budget, and holiday parties became … illegal … so they downsized that budget, too.

What steps can you take to increase ownership? Consider implementing the following:

  • Provide 360 reviews, assessing both employees and their bosses. Look at the flow of work. Are certain supervisors – faced with the uncertainty of COVID – keeping work they would regularly delegate?
  • Encourage supervisors to reassess project management. Is a time zone mismatch (people do move around in a remote world) causing a bottleneck on the team? Is it time to break the team into smaller ones to provide a more productive video chat?
  • Establish new committees. Can the people who planned the annual potluck set up a virtual game night? Those skills are transferable!

Culture Without a Celebration

What is company culture? It should come as no surprise that, when done right, it’s a feeling, not a mission statement. Culture take years, maybe decades, to grow. Yet it is fragile, and fleeting; it can leave you quietly. When people talk about a good culture, they share warm stories of softball games, family gatherings, graduations, and vacations with colleagues who became friends; marriages and babies celebrated, and loved ones mourned together. To be sure, many of us miss those milestones (not to mention, free cake). But there is more to your culture than frosting and beer.

Your culture is defined by the people you welcome into your company and those you do not. Strive to hold onto that sense of what it means to be a “good fit” with your people. Continue to celebrate each other’s wins, and be there for the losses. Your colleagues are only a phone call or text message away.

What are some ways you can maintain your culture?

  • Interview as well as you did before. If you have built a culture to be proud of, maintain it. Ensure that candidates meet as many people as possible virtually.
  • Create a space for sharing. Do you have a newsletter? Can you interview an employee each week about their newest hobby, and share milestones such as birthdays, graduations, and marriages (yes, all are still happening!)
  • Provide opportunities to connect in real time. I was excited to see my firm create an opportunity for us to meet one-on-one, in Zoom breakout rooms, to catch up with colleagues in different practice areas.
  • Continue to be inclusive. Do you have staff uncomfortable being on video? Plan a week where everyone makes one phone call. Call it “phone a friend” or “timewarp.”
  • Use the COVID-19 crisis as an advantage. While it is difficult for any of us to imagine many positives to the pandemic, we can create some. Providing support means something different than it did last year. How can you be known for crisis management? What can you offer to struggling employees? See my last post on mental health for some insights.

Mentorship Without a Menu

Remember when you were a new employee, and somebody took you out to lunch? After fumbling with the menu (surely lobster is not appropriate!), you hopefully engaged in friendly banter about the weather, kids, that menu (an Old Fashioned does look good, but this isn’t 1957 … hah!), and of course, your future. Those planned conversations can spark organic mentorships.

Mentoring is critical to your culture, and to professional development. How can you foster mentorship in the new remote world? I think of mentoring when I read the book, “Are you my Mother?” to my children. In the book, a little bird aimlessly walks around town asking animals who are not birds if they are his mother. Of course, he is rejected (sometimes a bit harshly), and in a series of unfortunate events ends up in a power shovel. Thankfully, the power shovel drops him back into his nest and into the wings of his loving, though negligent, mother.

Like the little bird, a junior member of your team will think that their special person is just a question away. They will literally ask, “Will you be my mentor?” no matter the obvious lack of fit. Yet, this relationship must develop to be valuable. It cannot and should not result from a coordinated matching program, nor should it come from a random lottery of names. The best mentor-mentee pairs know two things:

  1. They aren’t each other’s only mentee or mentor
  2. They didn’t set out to be mentor-mentee

Now more than ever, you should make it your goal to foster relationships in your company. This is not the time to shelve opportunities for mentorship, but to increase them. Mentors can help tie a junior employee into a culture. Mentors can model ownership. But how can you enable the organic formation of these relationships remotely?

  • Check in versus Check on. Talk to your leaders. Are they reaching out to employees just to see how they are, or only on how their work is going? There is a difference, and employees notice. Encourage leaders to take a couple minutes out of their busy days to make time for more junior employees.
  • Use technology when shyness is an issue. Do you have a great leader who is not so great at small talk? Programs like the online platform Icebreaker can provide her with “conversation starters” if she wants to engage an employee for a video chat.
  • In a pinch, think about “cross-company” mentoring. In recent years, more companies are turning to mentorship programs outside their companies. While this set up is far from organic, some of these companies use a host of common interests to thoughtfully place mentees with mentors. If it’s your only option, it might be a morale boost for employees who seek wisdom and guidance during a difficult time.


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