Managers’ Roles in Virtual Culture: The New Employee Experience

The emergence of the virtual workplace has made a significant impact on organizations, and as hybrid work becomes the new normal, leaders are struggling to understand how they can support and drive their teams towards growth while navigating these strange times. 

We capped off our Spotlight on Human Capital event last August with a session from Robert Hicks, group HR director at Reward Gateway; Stacey McKibbin, CEO at Consilio; and Rod Lacey, VP of people at Talkdesk North America. This esteemed panel discussed the value of employee experience in the midst of remote work, and shared the leadership strategies they’ve used to keep their teams engaged, productive, and adaptive to change.

Balancing Productivity and Accountability

A 2020 survey by HR consulting firm Mercer states that 94% of employers reported having the same or higher productivity levels among their employees since they started working remotely. But while there are minimal changes to the productivity metric, the question remains: how exactly, is setting boundaries different in a virtual workplace?

For Robert, Slack’s message scheduling feature has helped him establish an ideal cadence with his team at Reward Gateway. “I used to send a note to my team to not act on a task that I didn’t need done until the next day, but then the team might still do it. Now, I can schedule a message, say, 7:00 my time, which is 9:00 in Bulgaria. That way, I’m not crowding their work day and they’re not waking up to 250 messages.” This is helpful for decreasing the risk of burnout as the line between work and home life gets blurred. At the same time, it enables employees to focus on the work product itself, rather than spending time juggling administrative tasks and requests. 

Stacey says that while displaying this kind of empathy is important, it has to be well balanced with accountability to yield good results. “They’ve been asked to go above and beyond and do things differently than they have in the past,” says Stacey. “At the same time, also holding them accountable [is important] because the company is a for-profit entity and everybody’s got to do their part and contribute.”

Empowering Leaders to Reinforce Culture

As the old adage goes, “people don’t leave companies, they leave their manager” — a representation of how significantly employee engagement is tied to management practices. In a digital-first workplace, a committed manager isn’t necessarily effective; the tendency to hyper-focus on deadlines may affect relationships with the team and influence how they find avenues for personal development.  

In one of the three linked studies published in the California Management Review, three areas of the managerial role were measured when remote work began: cognitive, task-oriented, and people-oriented. Respondents scored themselves higher on their cognitive and task-oriented capabilities when working remotely, as having fewer distractions allowed them to better meet deadlines

Meanwhile, the respondents’ people-oriented work was negatively impacted, as they found it more difficult to onboard new team members, call out poor performance, and discover opportunities for creativity and innovation. 

To address this, Rod strongly encourages business leaders to constantly involve managers in decision-making and in-depth management trainings that go beyond cognitive skill development. “The strength of the manager is going to be key to that employee experience and the culture of the organization. They set the tone. They enable the right behaviors. Weekly one-on-ones are more important now than ever before, because that alignment, that collaboration, the feedback, are all just amplified now that we’re not seeing each other.”

Final Thoughts

Evolving from the controlled environment of the in-person office to a drastically different digital-first remote working culture has been challenging for most companies, but with the right mindset and proper direction of leaders, a virtual workplace culture founded on productivity, empathy, and accountability can still be attained.

Want to gain more insights from Robert, Stacey, and Rod’s panel discussion? Watch the full session recording >>

Photography by Leon via Unsplash.

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