Zoom and Comparably leaders share best practices for managing telecommuters

Decades of codified work culture have been shattered in weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, which is forcing many people to work from home for the first time. Managers are now tasked with keeping up morale and continuing to foster a positive work culture all through digital means. For most HR teams, it is uncharted territory, so to help deal with the changes, Lynne Oldham, chief people officer at Zoom Video Communications, and Jason Nazar, CEO of Comparably, had an in-depth discussion while sharing some useful tips and tricks.

Millions of people are now spending entire workdays in dozens of Zoom meetings or in endless Slack threads while sitting in their homes behind a computer. This digital isolation can make it difficult to maintain a positive, productive and inclusive work culture.

Oldham joined Zoom in January 2019 but has spent 30 years working in HR roles at a variety of both big and small companies in banking, publishing and telecommunications. She shared a short list of simple things people can do to break up the monotony of the day and replicate some of the workplace camaraderie many people miss in digital meetings.

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"One of the most important things is normalcy. It's really important that you maintain your normal schedule. That keeps the flow going the way it was before. It really does help you maintain balance in your life, in terms of getting up and going to bed at the same time. Making sure you exercise. It's a lot harder in the four walls you call your home but it's not impossible," Oldham said, adding that people should take breaks and get away from their computers.

"There's no more beginning, middle and end. It's all just run on. Like a giant run on sentence, so you have to really figure out how to get those pauses."

Nazar added that this was a particularly difficult time for most people because it was more than just having to work from home. Many cities and states are under shelter-in-place orders or outright quarantines, meaning many people barely leave their homes throughout the day.

This is contributing to productivity problems on top of basic loneliness and motivation issues. It is difficult for companies to communicate to their employees at a time like this. Using tools like Monday.com, Asana, Airtable and Smartsheet, you can get employees together and help promote collaborative workplaces akin to in-person offices.

But like Oldham, Nazar said it was key to try to keep things as normal as possible. Leaders of enterprises have to be cognizant of what most people are going through, especially those with children. Almost all schools have been canceled for the next few weeks, leaving millions of people trapped at home with children and few options for help.

"Treat your day exactly as it was before. Get dressed as if you're going to work. We have to be a lot more understanding as employers and managers of our teams because they're dealing with issues of childcare, where they don't have help, where their kids aren't in school. And we can't just treat this as business as normal," Nazar said.

"We have to have a lot more empathy into what's going on. And have a lot more flexibility and not treat it as a typical day even if it was just a remote team."

SEE: Managing remote workers: A business leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Keep teams feeling united and goal-oriented

Oldham suggested team meditation classes on specific weekdays or digital events that entire teams attend. Some members of her team are holding a digital open mic where people can share jokes, music or art they're creating while stuck at home.

Enterprises may also benefit from allowing people to use video conferencing even if they weren't meeting up for any reason, Nazar said. Just knowing you have someone there to speak to or to work next to helps people stay focused and reduces the isolation some may feel at home.

"One important thing is self-identifying the most important thing you can get done that day and week. I'm a big fan of identifying the single most important thing you can do over the course of an entire day and it can only be one thing and the single most important thing you can do over the course of a week," Nazar noted, adding that he typically has employees write the task down on a sticky note.

This can help build personal accountability and foster motivation, even if the tasks are relatively simple.

Oldham said it was important for people to be fully present during digital meetings despite the bevy of distractions that can divert attention. It is often clear when someone is doing something else during a video conference and many people have multiple screens in front of them, making it difficult for everyone to stay engaged.

More often than not, people should have the video feature engaged so that employees can see one another and connect through facial recognition, Oldham added. It can also add to the fun of a meeting by putting creative backgrounds to your video.

Levity and time management

At Zoom, Oldham said they were not used to mass telecommuting so it has been a big adjustment for the entire company. To keep people engaged they check in with each other regularly and have kept themed days as part of their work schedule to provide a bit of fun and happiness to workdays.

She mentioned that in addition to pajama days on Fridays, Zoom employees often crack jokes about their pets, or furry co-workers as she called it, to lighten the mood.

"At Zoom, we've come up with an internal program that we're working with people to talk through with our employees. We leverage that conversation to see what things have changed, how they're feeling and what things we can calibrate in terms of goals. What can we do to leverage the opportunity to ensure that we're providing the best values?" Oldham said.

"We want to take time to go deeper with people to make sure they feel supported during this time when we can't see each other and we're isolated."

With children away from school, many parents have no choice but to watch over their kids throughout the workday, making it difficult for many to balance the two. Nazar said it was key that employers know they can't expect people to be on call all hours of the day in a situation like this, but it was also useful for employees to set boundaries with family members and children about what time they need for themselves.

Oldham said she now tries to start meetings with prompts or questions like "I'm thinking about this" or "if I had a warning label it would say x" as a way to get people engaged and foster more commentary from reticent members of teams. Nazar added that he uses polling features within workplace tools to gauge how people are feeling on a day-to-day basis.

He also frequently uses "breakout" rooms as a way to shake up the monotony of digital meetings. Some employees feel more comfortable sharing thoughts in smaller groups, so it can be beneficial to give some workers a space to share their thoughts before bringing ideas to larger virtual meetings.

"My top five tips are to over-communicate, call out employees that are doing a good job, have really clear performance indicators, structure more meetings up front and give people more time and space to be with their families when they know they are meeting work obligations," Nazar said.

"Also, encourage physical activity. More than ever, be clear about the goals you're trying to solve for and do more all-team meetings. More meetings within teams. Have more check ins. Managers need to do more callouts and appreciation for folks that do a good job. Show love and support."

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