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Leading Remotely: 6 Lessons from Frontline Leadership

In a recent roundtable event we held with frontline leaders at Anthem, Blue Cross, John Hancock, HP, VISA, and JetBlue, they shared insights on how to optimally manage remote employees, build early engagement, empower frontline managers, and more. Read this article to learn tips and ideas for driving performance in your teams - wherever they are.

By: Tal Valler, Director of Global Marketing

2020 created a new workplace environment where leaders and employees had to adapt to a remote work style. And so far, 2021 is raising even more questions about the future of work. Centrical sat down with leaders from multiple companies—including Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, SiriusXM, ThermoFisher Scientific, Biogen, John Hancock, HP, VISA, and JetBlue. Over a virtual wine tasting, we discussed remote work challenges, tips for success, and more. Here’s what we’ve learned.

It happened overnight.

One of the first things everyone agreed on was that going remote in 2020 wasn’t a gradual evolution. It was an overnight mandate for many companies. However, as the weeks of working from home continued, companies began examining performance, engagement, and pre-existing attitudes about remote life.

“Prior to the pandemic, our call centers were so opposed to being remote”, one executive says. “Now a year in, they’re looking to transition the whole workforce to 100% remote. So the lesson is, it worked! It is possible.” Something like a virtual call center is a huge shift in direction in a relatively short period of time—but that’s what’s happened over the last year to many businesses. 

“We transitioned almost 15,000 people in a 6-week timeframe,” another person offers. “It has highlighted the digital divide, especially between countries. Not everyone in every country has the technological availability; whether that means regular access to the Internet or a private space to work, one of the hurdles we’ve had to overcome is this divide.”

Many people feel the remote revolution was coming already. The pandemic just ushered it in sooner. That doesn’t mean, however, it’s been a piece of cake. Here are 6 important lessons we learned about remote work during our wine-tasting roundtable. 

Lesson #1: Have emotional and emergency support ready.

A few of the folks in our roundtable are based in Texas, which suffered a historic power and water outage in February 2021, adding additional challenges to remote work. In a real way, companies have to think about the business continuity plan for the business continuity plan, creating overflow sites with generators and technology so employees can complete their shifts. 

Add in the general emotional toll of being in a pandemic, and it’s difficult to keep people at their best. One executive in the financial services space even shared about how call center leadership started using coping strategies from 911 to help agents deal with the day-in, day-out burden of talking to people in financial crises. 

Lesson #2: Prioritize engagement during onboarding.

Successfully onboarding employees in a remote environment means putting more emphasis on engagement. From daily huddles and roleplaying customer scenarios with new agents to behavioral style assessments and incentivized engagement technology with gamification, leaders have found it essential to put more emphasis on quality training in a virtual workplace. 

Frontline leadership is using technology like SmartTeam Communicator, Adobe Connect, and Centrical to structure and measure engagement. One tip a participant shared: Record training and keep it available to agents who have to be absent from work due to illness or a power outage.

Lesson #3: Plan for location independence. 

Some leaders have used the last year to challenge their definitions of remote work. In fact, even a minority of companies who were founded as remote have pushed their work from home policies even further since the pandemic—including accommodating remote employees who also want to move physical locations. “Our supervisors used to not be remote, even though their reports were. Now, they are. Plus we are considering expanding where our remote locations lie, removing boundaries of needing people to be 90 minutes from the closest office. It’ll take technology changes, but we think it’s worth it,” comments one executive.

One challenge this has introduced: Taxes. “We have remote people asking to move from state to state, so now we have HR and tax implications, too. How do you manage the guidelines? We’re struggling right now to find that perfect policy that will cover every situation,” shares a participant.

Lesson #4: Use technology creatively.

We know technology has made remote working possible, but creative use of it can also help teams rise to unique work-from-home challenges, like feeling connected to team members. One roundtable member shared how she’s led the creation of “communities” using Microsoft Teams. Each group of employees (for example, frontline workers and their supervisors) share a virtual community. 

She says: “If someone has a question while they are on the phone, they can chat with their group. If we want to push out information, we can do it there. We also have ongoing and direct dialogue with a live Q&A between employees and leadership twice per month. I believe in fast failing, so we do 2-week sprint blitzes, like frontline employee recognition with hand-written cards from supervisors. We try different things so we can create that virtual high-five.”

Lesson #5: Soft skills matter even more now.

Coaching, active listening and creativity have clearly been more important than ever in the last year—and that’s come into play as leaders try recreating company culture virtually through technology, smart scheduling, and virtual happy hours. Even so, the future of many companies may be a hybrid approach to working, with employees coming into the physical office a few days a week. 

And finally, lesson #6: The benefits outweigh the challenges.

Overnight pivoting to 100% virtual working has raised new issues for businesses large and small. Ensuring employees are productive, technological infrastructure is expanded and secure, and that people are engaged with their jobs are all daunting challenges. 

But it’s clearly been worth it because the benefits of working from home are life changing for so many. Stories about saving up to 4 hours per day commuting and major upticks in productivity are shared; an open talent market, undivided by tiers or distance, is changing the world.

Thank you to all the great folks who joined our roundtable!

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