Employee Experience

HR leaders from all-remote companies on pivoting to working from home during COVID-19

In this installment of our Employee Experience Visionaries series, HR leaders at three of the largest all-remote companies share their insights for pivoting to working from home. During this live virtual discussion, we heard from Lori McLeese, Global Head of HR at Automattic; Courtney Seiter, Director of People at Buffer; and Dave Gilbert, VP of Talent at GitLab, about:

  • Why organizations should adjust their expectations in these unprecedented times
  • How to communicate to your (now) remote employees openly and effectively
  • Why trust is the top driver for work from home success
  • How HR can help employees combat loneliness and isolation while physical distancing

On navigating new waters

COVID-19 is reshaping the way we work. Even organizations that are pros at working remotely are making adjustments, nevermind those that have abruptly moved to remote work. As a leader of a (now) remote team, know that you’re not alone. Our panel of all-remote work experts have been there—and they know how to navigate these waters.

“Since these are not normal circumstances, you should not expect normal results from your people. Don’t expect every goal to be met,” shared Courtney. “Be flexible if your employee needs to move a meeting or leave halfway through a call to help with child care.”

Lori agrees: “Communicate broadly, communicate often, communicate empathetically. What we’re experiencing now is not normal remote work. Double down on checking in with your team, and make sure conversations are bi-directional.”

Courtney’s tip: There’s a learning curve when it comes to remote work, so be patient with yourself and with others. Everyone is building the playbook as we go along right now.

On normalizing flexibility

When it comes to managing teams that are all-remote, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. As Dave summarized it: Humanity first. One employee may need to flex his or her hours to care for an elderly parent; another might prefer to communicate one-on-one versus in a public Slack channel. Personalize your communications—and expectations—in order to create an inclusive environment for all of your employees.

“Especially during a global pandemic, people need flexibility to work when they can. You hired people you trust, so trust them to do the work you hired them for,” said Dave. “Leaders should also normalize the need for breaks during working hours. Just last week, a senior leader here at GitLab shared in a public Slack channel that he’d be offline for a few hours to help with child care. People are under unprecedented levels of stress. Now is the time to lead by example.”

Lori’s tip: Building relationships with your remote team shouldn’t differ from your on-site approach. At the start of meetings, encourage informal chit chat rather than diving straight into business.

On the importance of human connection

While some people thrive in a remote work environment, others will miss the daily social interactions of an office. Some may even begin to feel isolated. Here are some ways HR can help enable connection while physically distancing.

  • Encourage virtual socializing: For team members that crave connection, set up virtual social hour calls with the intention of employees chatting and connecting about anything other than work. Or bust a move over a Zoom dance party.
  • Bring humor to the workplace: Establish a dedicated Slack or chat channel for sharing memes or Dad jokes to give everyone a positivity break.
  • Focus on empathy: Some employees may want a space to talk about COVID-19. Set up a dedicated Slack channel to enable those who want to talk do so.
  • Be inclusive: Different personality types will crave communication in different ways. Be sure to reach out directly to employees who may not thrive or share in a group environment.
  • Establish various methods for checking in: Your people want to hear from you—likely daily. Employees are turning to company leadership for guidance not just in business-related matters, but in how they navigate the COVID-19 crisis. In a recent survey conducted by Qualtrics, 80% of newly remote workers say the communication from their company helps them feel more confident in the actions they can take for themselves during this crisis.

On the business case for clarity

“Clarity is the best form of empathy. As a company, be transparent about communication and established norms,” shared Courtney. Also, set clear expectations. “Don’t assume everyone knows how to use a new tool. Agree to conventions—like, a Slack thumbs-up means ‘I’ve read what you’ve sent’—especially when things are moving quickly like they are right now.”

Dave’s tip: If your team is suddenly remote, establish three or four core tools that your team will need—i.e. Slack, Zoom, Google docs, etc.—to be successful working from home. Be consistent in leveraging these baseline tools for every call or project so that everyone feels included and knows what to expect.

On the future of work

While it might be hard to look for the silver lining right now, this moment will change the way we work. Will it be for the better? Our experts think so.

“I’m looking forward to the ROI of companies showing more empathy with newly-remote teams. I think we’ll see the normalizing of people bringing their whole selves to a video call—interruptions and all. People-first companies will benefit from this new authenticity. They’ll take the best learnings from this experience and whether they decide to adopt more remote work or adopt new communications channels, they’ll emerge with more connected, stronger teams on the other side of this,” said Dave.

Lori agreed: “Personalization will become more important than ever. I foresee companies encouraging employees to work how they work best, whether that’s from home, an office, or a combination of both. But, right now, it’s critical to just focus on what you can do today.”


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