TOP STORY

Meeting the Challenge of Building Respect in the Virtual Workplace

— Donna Benjamin
COVID-19 forced many people into remote worker status. Now managers used to face-to-face interactions must quickly learn how to build and maintain a respectful, productive dispersed workforce.

Employees thrust into a remote working arrangement by the COVID-19 can be grouped into two categories. One group consists of people who adapt quickly and likely prefer the arrangement. The other group are those who struggle with working alone and getting used to communicate solely via technology. Work is a social activity for most people, and many people fear isolation. Managers, used to working with a team face-to-face must find a way to create a cohesive and respectful virtual workplace. There will inevitably be work issues as some people struggle to adapt to new technology, working alone, communicating only via the internet, and connecting with spread-out employees. Any time there are workforce problems, there is going to be conflict. The manager must not only ensure productivity remains high. There is also an important need to ensure the virtual workforce works as a team, respecting each other's efforts and individual learning curves and not letting biases emerge out of thoughtlessness,

Times that Try People
In "The Crisis," American Patriot Thomas Pain wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls," going on to write "the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." As the COVID-19 virus impacts people's lives personally and professionally, managers and staff are tested in a way they have not faced before. Yes, there was 9/11 and the 2008 Recession, but neither sent 80 percent of the country's workforce home nor shut down global economies. They were also more measurable events with more predictable long-term outcomes. The virus-related crises is different because no one really knows what to expect over time.

Keeping a workforce respectful and cohesive is challenging for managers even when people can interact face-to-face. Now managers must oversee a dispersed workforce via technology and must uphold the same positive organizational culture and values while doing so. A certain amount of conflict among team members is inevitable as some employees struggle during the transition period to get their work done in an accurate and timely manner when they are not comfortable working remotely or with remote technologies. This impacts the productivity of other employees and the business as a whole.

Leading a Team Towards Respect
How managers approach these situations influences the end result. Some managers find the sudden shift to a mostly remote workforce threatening because it takes unique leadership skills to manage the remote team. There are likely managers who will feel threatened also when they believe their organizational influence and control is reduced. The implication is that maintaining a respectful virtual team begins with the leader's perspective and attitude towards the situation and how he or she views their new role. If the manager is not adequately supportive, respect will be difficult to achieve.

One of the ways to help employees continue to function as a committed team, helping each other succeed, is to employ some of the same strategies used in the brick-and-mortar setting. There should be clear goals set and productive online meetings held. Communication from the managers must be precise, but now employees are able to work more autonomously. Focusing on what they accomplish rather than activities is one of the keys to developing and maintaining a happy remote team.

When conflict arises during meetings, or someone has difficulty mastering remote work, it should be addressed and not passed over. Ideally, those good at working remotely will help team members who are not as adaptable. It is similar to the office setting in which an employee with an issue asks for help from others. A virtual team must make an extra effort to utilize technologies to stay connected. Managers and staff should reach out to each other. Encouraging online chat sessions among team members to replace the chat that goes on in break rooms or stop-by-the-desk moments is a way to maintain comradery.

Beware of Bias
It is also important for managers to recognize their unconscious biases could easily come into play. Managers are experiencing stress like their staff members, and it is natural to call upon people they feel they have the most in common with. This would be a setback for people of color and women who would likely miss out on interesting and challenging assignments. Every team member needs to be treated equally when it comes to assigning tasks, staying in contact, inviting to meetings and so on.

Maintaining a respectful virtual team also depends on establishing the appropriate culture of communication. Even today, inappropriate jokes and comments reflecting stereotyping continue in the office. When communication is remote, the danger of inappropriate communication is more likely to be present. Managers need to provide written guidelines on what kinds of messages should be transmitted through what kind of communication channels. At the same time, reinforce the policy on respecting each other and maintaining a positive and inclusive culture. People need to know how they are expected to communicate with each other but also what is not acceptable. If inappropriate messages are exchanged it is up to managers to address them right away.

Mutual Respect Holds the Team Together
Leading a remote team in a way that maintains a positive culture in which people respect each other really relies on some basic principles. One is to treat all employees the same, no matter where they work. Another is to show trust in remote employees. Micromanaging is not going to work and only serve to frustrate employees and managers alike. Leaders must be role models who show patience and a willingness to work with each person to build on their strengths in difficult times. A virtual team may be remote, but a positive culture of mutual respect is the glue that holds the team together.