Much has been written lately about the benefits and drawbacks of managing remote teams. Some articles tout the increased job satisfaction and improvement in productivity, while others lament the lack of spontaneous in-person conversations and creative brainstorming an office setting can provide.
While the remote worker concept may be a newer phenomenon for healthcare, other industries have been doing this for years. For example, I recall working for a global advertising agency in the early 2000s and collaborating with colleagues in different cities throughout the United States and Canada. While some of the tools used today weren’t available at that time, we still found ways to connect across multiple time zones and create a sense of teamwork.
With the technology available to most employers and employees, transitioning to a remote workforce has never been easier. That said, it is not enough to rely on technology and assume everyone will remain engaged and productive. Successfully managing remote teams requires leaders to be more purposeful in communicating with team members.
Below are five tips that I employ and have found valuable in helping to foster a sense of belonging, create a positive culture, and encourage open communication for remote workers and teams.
Our department sends out newsletters every other Friday. These newsletters are usually two pages long and contain announcements, project updates, shout-outs, and even a personal interest section.
Because the team is not physically together, announcing new team members can help serve as a virtual introduction. Showing their picture, describing their role, and allowing them to write something about themselves (interests, hobbies, background, etc.), is a great way for the team to feel connected and to know about staffing changes in the department.
The “shout-out” section can be one team member acknowledging another or can come from outside the department. When I receive emails from people throughout the organization recognizing a team member, it gets included in the newsletter. Everyone appreciates the recognition, and it serves as a great way to highlight accomplishments.
Including a personal section can help people connect as well. For example, a few team members own Jeeps and like to ride together on trails. They posted a picture and included a brief description. Others took pictures from their travels and wrote a summary.
The newsletter has proven to be a very popular way of fostering a team atmosphere and ensuring everyone is kept aware of what’s happening within the department.
My executive assistant, Jamie Brewer, manages the newsletter almost entirely, and does an amazing job soliciting content from the team and publishing the newsletter.
In an effort to communicate with our team during the pandemic, I started a podcast discussing what was happening throughout the organization, not just within our department. For the podcast, which typically runs 30 minutes or less, I interview people throughout the organization, and publish it for the IT team.
Podcasts allow the team to hear from leaders and executives throughout the organization and help keep everyone connected to the larger mission of the health system.
Subjects ranged from our Chief Nursing Officer, who discussed what nurses dealt with during the height of Covid; our VP of DE&I; our Chief Development Officer, who discussed philanthropy opportunities; and our Chief Human Resources Officer, who talks about the recruitment and retention strategy.
I have found that the podcast episodes are a great way for team members to learn about what is happening throughout the organization. Every leader I have approached has been very willing to spend 30 minutes sharing information. In addition, these podcasts are archived, so new employees can listen to them at any time.
Virtual Open Door
I learned about this idea from a CIO colleague of mine, Tom Barnett of University of Rochester Medical Center. While we were discussing ways to keep the team engaged during Covid, Tom mentioned that he instituted a virtual open-door via Zoom where employees can log in and ask questions.
With most employees now working remotely, I have implemented this to provide dedicated time for team members to “stop by” and ask questions. Attendance at these meetings has been very high. As a result, I’ve taken this opportunity to spend a few minutes, in the beginning, to provide any relevant updates, and then use the rest of the time for questions, which have been thoughtful and engaging, and have ranged from vaccine inquiries to holiday parties.
Recently, I began inviting a few of our senior leaders to say a few words to the team. Last month, our CEO joined a session and thanked the team for their hard work and dedication to the organization. He also stayed on for some of the Q&A time and addressed questions from the staff. By allowing a free exchange of questions and thoughts, these meetings can help foster communication and a sense of belonging in a virtual setting.
Unscheduled Phone Calls
While the staff was in the office, I would make time to walk around and interact with team members across all the teams and locations. Now that most team members are remote, I have blocked off my calendar to call team members and check in with them randomly. These meetings are not scheduled, but rather are impromptu discussions.
I take notes during the meetings, and follow up with the employee via email, thanking them for their time and letting them know about any items that may need further attention.
I have found it is vital to encourage everyone to be candid and ask them what I can do to help them be successful.
While this is not a new or novel concept, I have utilized these calls to understand better what is happening throughout the department. It does not take a lot of time to make these phone calls, and the payoff is worth the time spent.
Virtual Town Halls
Unlike the virtual open-door sessions, these are highly structured meetings and include a published agenda. These meetings start by highlighting the team’s accomplishments since the last town hall, welcoming new team members, and acknowledging any special recognitions by an individual or group.
Next, I like to focus on two or three topics, which may include project updates, IT roadmap discussions, or initiates within the department.
These meetings present an excellent opportunity for team members to speak and to share what they are working on. Except for the beginning and end of the meeting, I try and have other scheduled speakers discuss topics on the agenda.
By asking other individuals to present, it can help promote a sense of ownership and pride for a specific project or initiative.
While none of these five things may be radical, together, they can help promote a sense of team belonging and a culture of inclusivity. As leaders who manage a remote workforce, it is even more important that we lean in and be more purposeful in communicating with our teams. The pandemic has created a remote worker movement that is here to stay. We as leaders need to adjust our leadership tactics and communication preferences to ensure our teams remain engaged and have the tools they need to be successful.