People Powered Insights: How to Support Your Managers and People Team During Remote Work

Culture & Engagement

For many People managers, not only is responding to COVID-19 the most stressful moment of their careers, but they’re joining 88% of workers who are experiencing severe stress since shelter in place took effect. How do we create a sense of belonging during this unprecedented time? How do we prevent our teammates from experiencing burnout? And how do we help support managers and people managers alike so they can do what’s best for themselves and their workforce?

We spoke with Katie Evans-Reber, the Vice President of People and Culture at Wonolo, the leading platform disrupting the temporary staffing industry, about the challenges People Ops, managers, and employees are facing when it comes to adapting to our “new normal.” Katie discusses best practices when managing remote workers, how to reset expectations, and why it’s best to look at team member’s contributions through KPIs instead of an “always available” mindset. We also look at what People teams need in order to be successful and how People leaders can make plans for their workforce when everything around them is in a state of flux.

Q & A with Katie Evans-Reber, Vice President of People and Culture at Wonolo

Since your teams have started working remotely because of shelter in place, what have been the top challenges you’ve heard from managers about connecting and managing their workforce? 

I think managers are having a difficult time knowing how everyone is doing. In an office, you can gather a lot of information about someone based on their body language and how they’re interacting with others. With 100% remote interactions, it’s harder to take the temperature. 

A lot of team members feel an additional pressure to do more, be more available, and to seem busy at all times. Managers have made it clear: that’s not healthy and that’s not what we’re looking for. However, a lot of our workforce hasn’t worked remotely before, and so teammates can feel guilty if they’re not available for whatever reason. They’re getting burnt out and managers are having a hard time managing that. 

So we’ve made it standard to have managers mention to their direct reports things like: I’ve noticed you signed out really late last night, you don’t need to do that, and if you would like to sign out earlier today that’s fine. It’s about managing expectations and I think our managers have done a great job of communicating things like this and giving their direct reports permission to adjust to this new way of life. 

How has your People team gotten involved and helped managers adjust to the new demands of working remotely and the current crisis? 

As a People team, we’ve tried to provide consistency and set norms across the company both in the beginning and every day during this shelter in place order. One of the norms we established in the beginning was letting parents know that they could have family members in their Zoom meetings or change their schedule around to accommodate classes their kids may be taking or other life events. 

We also made it clear that if you were less productive “than normal” — we understand. It’s not about the time that you spend online or being infinitely available, it’s about being accountable, communicating, and still striving to make your KPIs and goals.

Something unexpected that I’ve learned through this process is that managing productivity hasn’t been difficult. We’ve found that our team members are very committed to the work they’re doing, completing their projects, and paying even more attention to the finished product. 

How can managers successfully communicate with their remote teams and adapt to this new way of life?

I would say that when it comes to managers communicating with their direct reports, the most important thing is to remember not to be so transactional. In a remote world, what we are losing the most is our casual and personal relationship with people. 

I think it’s really important to think past the start of a conversation and to make the whole interaction during a Zoom meeting or a Slack conversation as personable and person-heavy as possible. Acknowledge people as if they were right in front of you; it’s okay to crack a joke, it’s okay to say something to lighten the mood, that way your direct reports don’t feel like they have to “be on” all the time. 

What best practices have you implemented to make this transition easier for your team leads and team members? What extra support do you feel managers need in order to be successful?

In the beginning, managers needed training to figure out how to manage a remote workforce. So we’ve helped managers by creating opportunities for people to connect and offering one-on-one coaching for managers needing help or who feel overwhelmed. 

People who need the most direction are first time managers, and the People team has helped them realize that they can build on what they already know and all they need is to be more intentional about how they communicate. We’re helping our managers get rid of the fear and biases and the belief that they can’t get the quality work done from home. They can, they have, and they’re doing a terrific job.

From a personal perspective, I’m hearing from a lot of people that they feel a lot of guilt. Folks are torn, they feel that they aren’t spending enough time with their family or with their teammates. What we want is for people to feel good about the work that they’re doing and their interactions, and this applies to managers and individual contributors. Many people feel like they have to work double to prove their value while managers are struggling to find the right balance between home and work. So the People team is reinforcing the message as often as we can, “whatever you need to do right now is okay to do.” 

How have you seen managers adapt and make remote work more effective?

A mindset that I think has been really helpful for managers to consider during this time is: how can I make my meetings as efficient as possible? Before the crisis, there was a bias against meetings in general that would lead to epic email chains that were more distracting, and didn’t get a lot done. Now there has been a development around holding effective and efficient meetings and it's been a very positive change.  

For example, when you’re on a Zoom meeting, you’re looking directly into a person’s eyes and for a lot of people that type of connection is not something they get in the office. In some ways, these Zoom meetings are even more direct, and what would usually take one hour to get done is now done in 15 minutes. 

We’ve learned this incredible skill: get in, get it done, and get going.

When it comes to making the most of working from home for your team members, have you found any resources to be particularly helpful in managing a remote workforce and keeping employees engaged?

I’ve found the content from LifeLabs to be particularly helpful. They have been great, they did this manual on how to work remotely and I found that to be very instructive in the beginning. 

When it comes to keeping the workforce engaged, we’re doing targeted virtual events. So we did a spirit week, we’ve held dance parties, and we also have trivia nights. Twice a week we do water coolers, we do leadership AMAs, and we hold regular 15 minute learnings and teach-ins. 

Our CEO also does a session every other Friday, just to stay connected and to invite people to jump on and chat. It’s like a support group without being a support group. He fields a lot of questions, and a lot of times people will be very vulnerable and share their real experiences and what they’re going through during this difficult time. 

What kind of extra support do you think People Managers and HR professionals need in order to be effective and help maintain a positive work culture right now?

I think people need to be honest and transparent about what’s going on. A lot of business is volatile right now, so it’s important to say how the company is doing and what the forecast looks like. And it’s important to be open about how we’re all feeling. Our CEO and CTO are talking about how they’re feeling in our town halls— sometimes they talk about feeling cooped up or how their kids are challenging them. It’s about being very authentic in a way that is relatable to your employee population. You don’t have to put on a brave face right now, and if you did, no one would believe you.

Also, we are all at a point where budgets are constrained and so we’re having to think out of the box. We’re reevaluating everything from events to benefits renewal to our bonus structure for our employees. The days of the big perks are over. We have to see what’s both motivating and realistic for our workforce and the new world. 

As the Vice President of People and Culture, what I really need to know right now is what is going on in the world to plan for what is coming next. I need time to read the latest news and keep on top of it. At the same time, our team also needs executive buy-in and acceptance that the world isn't going to go back to the way it was before. That’s why I need as many options available to me to plan what’s best for my workforce, because everything is constantly in a state of flux. Our team needs time to test things out and see what’s going to work.

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