When Our Human Connection Turns into an Internet Connection

We find ourselves in a new way of life—how we educate, provide healthcare, communicate, and work, among others, have all changed. Technology has been a blessing, and some may say . . . a curse. As leaders, how do we effectively manage and appropriately lead when we do not see our employees face-to-face each day? While we can generally see them on our screens via FaceTime, Zoom, Teams, or GoToMeeting, those communications are often limited to short periods of time. And, let’s face it, there is only so much you can observe on a screen with restricted or contrived views in a fifteen- to thirty-minute conversation.

With so much of leadership dependent upon the observations we make of others, how do we effectively proceed? Is it possible to determine from where in their emotional home they are coming via a telephone and computer screen? We are not robots living in some futuristic world in which everything is based on logic and analytics. We are humans with real emotions that form the basis of both our actions and our reactions.

Empathy and Authenticity 

The two leadership traits most crucial in our new reality are empathy and authenticity. Can we lead with these traits remotely? Can we observe enough nonverbal cues to get a glimpse into what is going on with the other person? Can we truly understand? I would argue that we can. While our current situation is not ideal, as leaders, we understand that challenges present opportunities to innovate. And with some originality and creativity, we can make the necessary shifts to continue to lead our teams with empathy and authenticity to keep them both focused and positive.

Prior to this global pandemic and massive shift in the way we do nearly everything, if an employee needed to chat, he or she could peak their head into your office and ask if you have a minute, ask you to go for a cup of coffee, or schedule a lunch meeting. There was a human connection, not an internet connection. During our time together, we could often learn more from their nonverbal communication than the words that were actually spoken.

Tips and Tools to Stay Connected

We must use the tools available to us to maintain that connection in as many ways as possible. Scheduling standing calls each week for one-on-one meetings with employees, as well as group meetings with the entire team is one essential way to stay connected. If your employees do not have laptops with built-in cameras, I strongly encourage you to provide them with webcams. While video is not as optimal as face-to-face, it is far better than mere phone calls. Through it, you can still observe several nonverbal cues. Additionally, it helps keep everyone on the call more engaged than without video.

During these meetings, be authentic. Talk to them about how they are doing, not just work, but how the family is and how they are coping with the challenges surrounding us all. Acknowledge that this is an extremely stressful situation for everyone. Ensure that they understand their well-being is your priority, and that you are only a phone call away if they need something. To emphasize this point, check in each day, even if it is a quick “good morning” chat message. You might even consider adding a Friday evening virtual Happy Hour or virtual cooking class, where the team can relax and connect through non-business conversation and commonalities. These are small steps that will go a long way. Some even recommend using the term “Distributed Workforce,” rather than “Remote Employees,” the latter of which subconsciously implies isolation.

Additionally, remember that these tips are not isolated to the employment relationship. During these challenging times, we should consider friends or family members who may be feeling isolated. Reach out to them, check in on them, engage with them, and use empathy and authenticity to connect with them.

Productivity Challenges

With our connection as strong as it can be under the circumstances, we also must be concerned, as always, with productivity. How do we confirm work is getting done as efficiently as possible? How do we acknowledge the inherent challenges built into a remote situation, such as internet speed, internet connections, VPN challenges, remote workstations moving too slowly, without sacrificing quality work? How do we know if an employee succumbs easily to obstacles and is using these legitimate challenges in illegitimate ways—that is, as excuses for not doing work?

If you are truly dialed in as a leader, you will know when there are real challenges and when someone is simply not putting in the effort. Those not performing will always stand out from those who are, whether you’re in the same office, online, or connected in another way. When you have a non-performer, you can, and should, use empathy, along with your other leadership skills to address the issue as soon as possible.

Some leaders may get distracted with trying to prove an employee is not doing all that they can. They try to catch the employee in a lie or otherwise prove the reason he or she isn’t getting work done is for something other than what was claimed. A better approach may be to contemplate how we can get this employee to peak productivity through a positive interaction. A shift is necessary here—as with any empathetic response, we must change the way we look at the situation and start with some questions:

· Was this employee responsible and optimal when at the office?

· Has their productivity decreased significantly since moving to a remote status?

· How many technological obstacles have they faced since working from home?

· How many have others in similar positions faced in the same period?

· What is their home life like? Are they married? Do they have young children at home whose schools are closed to face-to-face instruction? Do they have elderly parents living with them?

Think about these questions and the information you already know. Then, gather the relevant data and set a video meeting to discuss your concerns with your employee. I learned some valuable tools during my time as a law enforcement officer that apply equally to situations like these. In times where circumstances were escalating and there was an impasse, we would use George Thompson’s verbal judo and ask, “Sir [Ma’am], is there anything I can say or do to get you to cooperate?” By framing the question in this way, we would be providing every opportunity for that person to explain what was going on or to make the right decision. We need to do the same with our employees.

During the meeting, we should start, as always, with our authentic selves and check in with them, “How are you?” How is the family?” “How was your weekend?” These questions help set the tone and develop a positive rapport. Then, we should use the data we gathered to state the facts. For example, “I have noticed a 20% decrease in the reports you are completing over the past couple of weeks.” Don’t make assumptions here. Simply move on to some questions to give them an opportunity to explain:

· Are there any technological issues or challenges you are facing that would contribute to this decrease?

· Have we provided you the equipment and support you need to do this job remotely?

· Are you struggling with something else that might be disrupting your work?

We need to carefully consider possible disturbances that could be occurring at home—children, spouses, medical, mental, and substance abuse, among others. For example, if a person struggles with substance abuse, going to the office may have been his or her “safe place,” removing the temptation for eight to ten hours a day while away from home. But what happens when they have access 24/7? Or, what about domestic violence? Unfortunately, it happens in many more homes than we think. The added stress of a challenging work-at-home environment could increase the exposure to, and risk for, domestic violence.

When I noted “carefully consider” above, I did so because I am not saying you should necessarily get involved, unless, of course, you genuinely have legitimate reasons to believe that person’s life is in danger. In that case, if your company or business provides an employee assistance program that offers counseling or assistance, you may consider making a connection (through appropriate HR channels). Assuming the employee’s life is not in danger; however, instead of rashly blaming laziness or a lack of motivation for an employee’s less than optimal performance or simply saying he or she is “not doing their job,” consider the other possible reasons.

Allow a safe space for the employee to seek help or guidance before writing them off. You may find that they just don’t have the required discipline or bandwidth to work from home and are using every excuse they can in not doing their job. Or, you may find that not only can you help improve their quality of work (and your business), but that you can truly help someone in the process. At the end of it all, while this new “Distributed Workforce” way of life offers a different way to lead, it does not change our responsibility to C.A.R.E.

Until next time, please take C.A.R.E. of yourself and those around you in as many ways as possible.

For more information on this topic, visit One C.A.R.E. at a Time: Effective Leadership Through the Control of Emotions or www.teresameares.com.