More people than ever before are working remotely. According to Gallup, 62% of Americans had worked remotely as of the start of April, and according to Gartner, 88% of organisations globally had encouraged or required employees to work from home due to COVID-19 as of March 17.
The work-from-home trend had been rising steadily even before the pandemic, but this new variety of remote work arguably calls for a different mindset and greater levels of support for co-workers, who may be juggling multiple responsibilities and struggling with feelings of isolation and stress.
“I think it's important to remember that this is not business as usual, or even remote work as usual,” said Erin Makarius, Ph.D., associate professor of management at The University of Akron in Ohio. “Try to be flexible, build grace into interactions with others, understand that everyone has a unique situation, and provide support and compassion however possible.”
If you’re looking to show support and encouragement for your co-workers and peers as you work from home, consider the following tips from experts on how to be supportive without being physically present.
Foster informal connection. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of working remotely is missing out on the spontaneous “water-cooler talk” that happens around an office.
Informal encounters like running into colleagues in the hallways, stopping by someone's desk, or grabbing an afternoon coffee are not only beneficial for building relationships, but they also lead to creativity, new ideas, and project collaboration, according to Makarius.
Makarius recommends trying to re-create informal and spontaneous conversations by kicking off meetings discussing topics unrelated to work, having virtual gatherings like happy hour socials, and scheduling learning circles where people can come together, talk informally, and catch up with one another.
She conceded that it will likely take more intention to foster these interactions remotely, and they may feel a bit unnatural at first. If you’re looking to have more informal conversations with co-workers, you could also try using applications like Slack and chat functions in Microsoft Teams or Gmail, which are more conducive to sending a funny GIF or words of encouragement.
Aim for super real, not superhuman. Authenticity is perhaps more important than ever as we collectively come to grips with a new reality.
Carla Wall, ACMA, CGMA, CPA (Australia), principal consultant and co-founder of CWX Advisory Group in Brisbane, Australia, can often be heard checking in with her team and wider network, asking: “Are we superhuman, or are we super real?”
“Throughout my career, I’ve adopted a ‘people first’ authentic leadership style, as after all, to optimise on any aspect in business, it is our people who will deliver the results. I feel when we are each super real, we are putting ourselves in a position to achieve a lot more for our business, our customers, and as individuals and teams, both personally and professionally,” she said. “As a result, we have the opportunity to build much deeper meaningful connections and therefore foster a far richer level of trust, collaboration, and energy.”
She pointed out that it’s hard to assess what others are thinking and feeling across a Zoom meeting, so it’s helpful if everyone brings a level of authenticity to work interactions. Makarius notes that if, for example, your cat jumps on the keyboard during a virtual meeting, or your child is walking around in the background, those things can provide a sense of who you are and what's going on in your life outside of work. That can actually help in developing and maintaining relationships because you get a glimpse of who your colleagues are.
Be timely and thoughtful in communications. If you haven’t already, set communication guidelines with your co-workers that include preferences and standards for not only when, but also how to communicate. For example, do you want to use text, instant message, or email for queries? And how quickly do you expect others to respond to your messages?
Many people are overwhelmed right now, and many people are probably behind on replying to emails. But according to Makarius, research on virtual work shows one of the most basic ways to establish trust is to respond to emails in a timely fashion. Even if you just write to say you don't have the answers yet but are working on it, a prompt response increases that sense of dependability in remote relationships.
When you're talking to co-workers, you should also think about what type of technology you're using for each type of communication. Text-based communications like email or chat are good for sharing information, but if you're problem-solving through collaborative decision-making, you should use video chat or pick up the phone. Some organisations use what they call a “two-email rule”, where if an issue can't be resolved after going back and forth via email two times, then it's time to pick up the phone or schedule a videoconference, because written communication just isn't working, Makarius said.
It’s also important to think about the tone of your communication, particularly in remote work. Written communication can come across differently because you don't get the nonverbal cues of face-to-face interaction.
Check in with curiosity. As you check in with members of your team, Makarius recommends asking open-ended questions, like “How can I help?”, rather than leaving the ball in their court with a statement like, “Let me know if you need anything.”
“I think many times people won't take that initiative to let others know they need help, because they don't want to feel like they're failing or not accomplishing their own work,” Makarius said.
It’s important to approach these conversations with curiosity and to be truly willing to do whatever you can to support your co-workers. Makarius pointed out that it can be helpful to get to know people's habits and preferences on a one-on-one basis. Once you understand how each of your co-workers communicates and likes to be supported, you will be more successful.
Create systems of support. Some organisations have created more structured systems of support to combat the isolation of remote work. For example, offering employee assistance programmes, assigning virtual buddies, or hiring a mental health expert to regularly check in with everyone can be great ways to ensure the entire team is coping with everything going on in the world and the organisation.
You can also create your own support group, either within or outside of work, as Wall did. She formed a group of women in senior roles as a way to collaborate, share wins, and release stress during fortnightly virtual hangouts.
“We created a place where it’s OK to turn up and let people know exactly what is going on with you,” Wall said.
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.