Using Intentionality to Transform the Management of Remote Teams

Connex Staff |

After Patrick Felder became Vice President of Employee Success at Salesforce in October 2020, he did not meet any of the business leaders that he works with, nor any other colleagues, for six and a half months. From onboarding to meeting his teams, learning the business, and building out strategy – everything was done remotely. In his new unit, Felder was looking after the HR function for some 3,500 employees at a critical moment, when Salesforce, which has a global workforce of 55,000, was growing upwards of 25 percent annually, and putting a big emphasis on hiring, retention, and leadership development.

“It was a different experience,” Felder says. “But it was also, in some ways, good. Because you have to work a little bit harder. You have to be more intentional about the time you spend and making connections with folks.”

That notion of intentionality has been the key takeaway for HR personnel managing a remote workforce since the onset of the pandemic. Almost half, or 45 percent, of full-time US employees have been working from home either all or part of the pandemic, according to a Gallup poll in September 2021, while two-thirds of white-collar workers said they were working from home some or all of the time. Perhaps even more significantly, 91 percent of US employees working at least some of their hours remotely said they hoped the ability to work from home continued after the pandemic, with around half saying they would prefer to split their time between working at home or in the office – a so-called hybrid arrangement.

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That isn’t always easy to manage. At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Financial Times on whether hybrid working could really work, the chief executive of a UK insurer said that remote can function for business meetings “at a certain level”, but that worker freedoms have to be limited in some roles – especially when working from home. Neville Koopowitz, chief executive of Vitality UK, said he had been trialing a hybrid work model where staff were expected to work a minimum of two days a week: “The reality check is that when you’re running these big organizations you have a responsibility to your customers… it’s not as simple as just having carte blanche flexibility.”

Battling management burnout

It’s not just customer service that can be affected. More than half of respondents to a December survey by the Ken Blanchard Companies said their virtual or digital working environments were less effective than face-to-face, with a greater proportion expressing dissatisfaction than in the same survey a year earlier. In their comments, respondents said the hybrid work environment was harming perceptions of wellbeing, with burned-out leaders struggling to manage hybrid teams effectively. “One respondent said, “People seem busier than ever and it’s hard to catch their attention for development in the virtual environment.”

John Hess, director of client solutions at the Ken Blanchard Companies, says leaders and other team members need to take extra effort to make sure they are making contact, regardless of whether a company’s employees have switched from the office to remote working from home, or whether
they are still having to go into manufacturing plants, workshops or factories. This can be done with regular one-on-one meetings – something the company calls “one-minute praisings” – but also by increasing levels of openness, honesty, and transparency across all areas of the business. At the Ken Blanchard Companies, they do this in part with open meetings where anyone can show up online. “There are 11 people in our eastern sales business unit, yet we have almost 50 show up every other Monday morning for 9 am eastern. That’s got to be half a dozen folks from California getting up at 6 am to listen in, and we have some really terrific dialogues and problem-solving that takes place,” Hess says.

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Vendors have flooded into the market for hybrid working. These include startups like Rock, an allin-one suite of productivity tools addressing the main technological challenges of home working: messaging, task creation and video calls. Rock is designed to replace the hodge-podge of software some companies employ, much of which isn’t necessarily made to work together. Then there’s Hofy, founded by Sami Bouremoum, a former Bain management consultant, which offers logistics and supplier network technology as a subscription service to corporations where staff are working from home. That includes renting out hardware like laptops and printers – but also, according to Bouremoum, simply inviting a colleague to Slack.

Bouremoum’s admission hits on a truth that the switch to managing a workforce remotely has not, in many cases, required a massive investment in new technology. After the initial rush to supply staff with equipment, many companies found they already had tools for connectivity and collaboration that could be harnessed for home working.

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A more substantial challenge for companies has been in workers not being able to stick their heads around an office door for a quick catch up. Leaders are instead thinking more intentionally about scheduling meetings. The best managers of remote teams take this deliberate approach, according to Rebecca Downes, a lecturer in management at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of New Zealand. Downes has been studying the intentional management of remote teams, looking in particular at how managers gain confidence that their team is not only working but working on the right thing, including how engaged and productive they are. “Management literature for a long time has assumed you can eyeball people. And that’s different when you don’t see each other in the office day to day,” she told BW People. “Good remote managers understand the context of work is different. One thing that came up repeatedly in the research is the need to be intentional, and be thoughtful and deliberate in engaging with your team and generating the connection, maintaining open lines of communication.”

Prioritizing physical and mental wellbeing

HR leaders need to prioritize employee wellbeing as remote and hybrid working increasingly blurs the line between work and life. Almost 70 percent of senior HR leaders, of which 40 percent were CHROs, rated employee wellbeing and mental health as a top priority in the Future Workplace 2021 HR Sentiment survey. That includes not only looking after the mental health and the emotional wellbeing of staff working remotely, but the long-term impacts of home-working on physical health. Seven in 10 of 2,000 employees working from home said they felt more isolated compared to being in the office, while more than six in ten said they felt less engaged with their team by August 2020, according to a survey by OnePoll on behalf of Volley, an app that describes itself as filling the gap between Slack and Zoom.

Angelique Hamilton, Chief People Officer at Refresh Mental Health, a national network of locally focussed mental health providers, describes home-working as a wellbeing issue. “When our employees are in the office, they are tasked with a lot of administrative work on top of their caseload,” she says. “They’re able to balance that out when they are working from home. They’re not having multiple interruptions like they were in the office, so they can really focus and dedicate that time to our clients.” When the pandemic struck, Refresh Mental Health switched many of its in-patient services to telehealth, giving patients the opportunity to connect to a practitioner via video link. Not all practitioners are able to connect with their clients remotely, she says, but for those that can, the opportunity has been a game-changer. “They actually love it,” Hamilton says. “This is truly a benefit for them.” For Hamilton, the firm’s employee The switch to managing a workforce remotely has not required a massive investment in new technology. Angelique Hamilton,portfolio is balanced more evenly between people who are working remotely and people who are located in the office.

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Nonetheless, Refresh Mental Health has been careful to combine the opportunity for home working with enhanced benefits to look after its team. Hamilton says demand for mental health services has increased by 50 percent at Refresh Mental Health since the start of the pandemic, which puts its own strain on staff. She says that while the stress on employees is now more acute, staff have also become experts in this space. Rather than seek separate providers, Refresh Mental health gives its staff the opportunity to get support from in-house providers, the same trained experts it provides to universities and colleges, alongside employee assistance programs and training through seminars and webinars. “That slightly takes the edge of some of the things that they’re dealing with: how to manage crises and how to cope with that kind of stress.”

What next for the office

In Austin, Texas, there is a Salesforce office, not far from where Patrick Felder lives. But when he speaks to Connex in November, he’s still never been – just as there are two members of his team that he has not met. For him and many other HR leaders, working with people remotely is not necessarily new or surprising. Before he joined Salesforce in September 2020, Felder spent 20 years at Dell, latterly directing global talent management and looking after strategy for the company’s largest sales operation, with 6,000 sales staff. Remote working gives companies the opportunity to think differently about hiring, since employees are not tethered to one spot. “Having people geographically dispersed and having a lot of people working remotely was not something that was unfamiliar to me, coming in,” he says.

Salesforce, he says, has a strategy of “success from anywhere”, which means HR works to enable team members to be successful from anywhere they choose to be. That strategy has been fuelled by the response from employees: Felder says HR asked staff multiple times throughout the pandemic how they felt about remote working and found that a very small number wanted to go back to the office full time. “The idea is that we use our offices and spaces differently: we use them to bring employees together intentionally,” Felder says. This means coming together for all-hands meetings, customer visits or information sessions. “But in terms of requiring a lot of our team members to be back or to come back to the office – that’s at a minimum.”

In all cases, HR leaders have to work a little bit harder to create a company culture, he says. At Salesforce they do that by talking openly at company wide meetings and in Slack posts about tough topics, whether that’s vaccines or the racial reckoning that swept the US in 2020 and 2021. In response to these discussions, Salesforce took steps to identify underrepresented groups in the workforce and put processes to improve accountability measures and bring in new talent. That’s also what Felder means about intentionality: putting structures in place within the company to address shortcomings – whether that’s contact time with remote staff members or filling gaps in diversity in the workforce. “You see the problem, you talk about the problem,” he says. “And then you build in mechanisms to tackle the problem when it comes up again.”