How to Lead a Work-from-home Workforce

Working in the “new normal” has thrown up a whole raft of challenges for organisations and their employees. Over the past two and a half years, we have had to fundamentally rethink how we work and how we communicate in a hybrid work environment. 

I remember back to 2020 when I was told to temporarily relocate my office from our inner city building to my home. I thought, “Well, this will be an interesting few weeks.” A few weeks later, with no end in sight and a sore back, I decided it was time to stop working from my bed and set up a home office. Now, more than  two years on, I’m writing this response to you from that very home office. At Crucial Dimensions, the pandemic changed us from a fully in-office workforce to a completely remote workforce and it’s likely to remain this way indefinitely—it is our “new normal.”

Like everyone else, we didn’t receive any training on how to work or manage remotely. But when faced with a challenge, we did what we do best; we launched a study to identify best practice and positive deviants who were getting it right.

In our August 2020 study, titled  “How to Lead a Work-From-Home Workforce,” we gathered data from 212 senior executives and 2,037 front-line and middle managers. We wanted to know what they thought about organisational culture in light of working-from-home arrangements and whether working from home was eroding workplace culture—the stuff that makes networks and relationships strong and that enables people to function together successfully.

Surprisingly, the data wasn’t all doom and gloom. While 54% of leaders felt their culture had suffered since working from home, 25% felt it had improved. And employees felt similarly: 43% felt culture had suffered, but 28% said it had improved. So, we took a closer look at the data from those who reported an improvement and uncovered some excellent insights.

THE MANAGER MATTERS

Surprisingly, many reported their relationship with their manager had improved after switching to work-from-home. And improved relationships with managers correlated with every positive outcome including increased commitment, engagement, and teamwork. On the other hand, those who said their relationships with their manager had suffered reported lower commitment. They also gave less discretionary effort, responded slower to requests, assumed the worst of others, and worried more about their own interests than organisational goals.

JUST DO SOMETHING

While our initial findings might feel overwhelming, as though success in a virtual environment rests solely on the shoulders of managers, the findings also offered some encouraging direction. It doesn’t take much for an employee to feel that their manager has their best interest in mind. Employees said they felt buoyed and supported by simple interactions with managers, whether it was a conversation about how their kids or partner were holding up, or more frequent one-on-one check-ins.

Ultimately, leaders who did something were far more effective than leaders who did nothing. In fact, employees in organisations where leaders did nothing were 200 percent more likely to report feeling substantially less committed to the organisation. The bottom line: any sincere effort to reach out to your remote employees goes a long way.

We also sought practical advice. When asked what strengthened relationships and improved culture, people who reported a strong organisational culture suggested the following contributed:

FUN VIRTUAL EVENTS

Believe it or not, events like virtual cocktail hour, online games, and eating contests can provide the casual connection your staff are missing and seeking. On our team, we’ve utilised Kahoot! and other gamification apps to keep people engaged at events and celebrations. Our mission committee also adapted our monthly “munch and mingle” activity to a virtual event. We organised minute-to-win-it games, held cookie eating contests, and hosted opening ceremonies for the Olympics. Everyone and anyone can join, and those that do enjoy connecting with their colleagues.

MORE FREQUENT TEAM MEETINGS

To counteract the impact of physical distance, connect more often. Our team holds a weekly team huddle. The agenda is simple: share good news (personal, work, anything goes), look back (what happened last week), look forward (what’s coming up), personal spotlight (virtual show-and-tell from a different member of the team each week), and high fives (impromptu public thank you’s to recognise staff  efforts). These 30-minute meetings strengthen relationships and culture. They are fun and light-hearted, and they keep us informed and connected.

CASUAL TEAM MEETINGS

Because we’ve lost water-cooler chats, group lunches, and hallway banter, we must create these moments virtually. In addition to the meetings described above, we also intentionally spend time during each one-on-one to simply talk about life. Ask your staff how they’re doing and chat about their family, their football team, life, recipes and plans for the  weekend—anything to build friendship and strengthen connection outside of the “to-do lists”.

VIRTUAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT

The research shows that of those employees who said they received at least as much professional training since working from home as they did before making the switch, 33% said their culture had improved, 22% felt more connected to the organisation, and 52% felt more committed than they did before they started working from home. A good virtual professional training course involves both structured and unstructured interaction, where teammates can not only learn important skills but also have candid, vulnerable moments in virtual breakout sessions. This type of team building is invaluable.

People from organisations that took the above actions were three times more likely to report a healthy culture than those from organisations that limited their measures to things like flexible hours or increased benefits. Common sense also tells us that, because we’re social creatures, facilitating quality social moments is key to engagement and wellbeing.Be intentional about your outreach. It doesn’t have to be formal; it just has to happen. I imagine you’re doing better than you think you are, but if you’re concerned, then ask. Ask your colleagues what more you could do to improve culture and communication. I’m sure you’ll find a few good ideas. You can also download our ebook for the research and tips.

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