Strategies for Leading Remote Workers Through Organizational Change
By Deb Walker
The only constant is change. This expression, said to have reportedly been around since Ancient Greece, reflects the realization that change is natural and expected. Throughout history, humans have been exposed to changes in environments, cultures, and technology, and have adapted as a result.
Since industrial times, we have tasked leaders with managing change in the workplace. There are methods for mitigating the uncertainty that comes with these upheavals that are even more pertinent in current, frenetically paced environments. Two of the most interlinked are communicating clear change and building a culture of resiliency. For change to be effective, leaders require expanded communication skills in order to promote resiliency in the face of increasing levels and frequency of flux among their employees. If leaders don’t have these communication skills already in their toolbox, it is incumbent on organizations to provide an environment to be able to acquire them.
Maintaining effective communication has been an ongoing dilemma for organizations for at least as long as I have been in the workforce. With shifting roles including a rapidly increasing remote workforce, not to mention the evolution of the gig economy and increasing impact of globalization and technological advances, there are unique challenges that are present today that impact our ability to communicate through connection. When employees are not down the hall to engage in a chinwag, it can be even more difficult to discuss change and strategies to remain resilient.
Communicating Clear Change
When communicating change to virtual employees, it is important for leaders to ensure that they communicate the change in clear and concise ways on all platforms. All communications regarding the chance should include the following tenants:
- Clarity of roles, goals and responsibilities. Leaders must make sure all employees know the terms and expectancies of their role within the company. Examples of how this can be done are job descriptions which are updated regularly and employing a comprehensive and current employee handbook.
- Proactivity. Being ahead of the ball as much as possible can aid in troubleshooting before there is a derailment and sets a tone for the rest of the team in how effective communication looks and sounds like. Leaders who model resiliency and constructive responses during times of change give employees a template for what it takes.
- Collaboration. Collaboration means including all employees that are involved or impacted by the change in how or if they can reach their goals and objectives. This includes introducing multi-model dialogue for remote workers to communicate freely and providing them with an opportunity to participate without fear. Change requires internalization before employees can buy in and adapt. Change is often new territory, so putting our collective brains together helps bridge to stronger, workable solutions.
- Feedback and Discussion. Similar to the above, employing a variety of methods to ensure that those with the smallest voices are heard as oftentimes they have the most relevant perspectives. This can include face-to-face interactions with individuals and groups or quick, virtual touch-bases that allow for doubts and challenges to come forward, without fear of retribution, and successes to surface for celebration.
- Interruption Free. It’s important to ensure change is communicated with full attention to the employee receiving the news. Leaders should provide their undivided attention to convey the level of importance and value to the interactions while utilizing the right methods at the right time. Setting aside dedicated time for review and discussion signals that these encounters are priority.
Building a Culture of Resiliency
When employees work remotely, it can be difficult for them to understand how the change will affect them and identify strategies to remain resilient. In order for organizations to promote resiliency, leadership must adjust their behaviors to include the following considerations:
- Proactively seek opportunities for 2-way dialogue while minimizing obstacles that impede the sharing of opinions and perspectives.
- Minimize the shock of a surprise – particularly when employees are impacted directly. No one likes to read about change as a done deal, or not be given time to assimilate the information before devising a plan of action. Keep in mind a remote employee may be working in a different time zone or not have been party to any “rumblings around the watercooler”.
- Change is a disruptor – understand that leaders need to make themselves more available and be sensitive to employee concerns.
- Eliminate fear whenever possible – employees may have a shaky sense of security, certainty, relationships and perception of fairness or equity. Leaders must ensure they eliminate fear through clear communications at any opportunity.
- Design thinking for reinforcement – bring employees together in a central location (if possible) and ask open-ended questions to solidify and reinforce relationships. Reviewing how things are progressing as change is being rolled out can help ensure all those with a stake can get things aired and vetted before things go awry.
- Reinforcing change success in the past – human beings tend to remember the current situation they are in more vibrantly than those of the past. Leaders should remind their teams of successes of the past so employees can gain a different perspective particularly when discussing what worked well last time and if/how those tactics can be used in the current situation.
- Don’t expect instant change – leaders need to remember that by the time they are delivering change to an employee or group of employees, they have had some time to process. Internalizing change and demonstrating resiliency happens at different paces for different people and leaders (and peers) are advised to be reminded of that;
- Use technology to its advantage – platforms and portals are tools that can be exploited to ensure that the voices of employees are amplified and listened to, including video, voice and text chat programs or allowing those with questions to seek it out on common information sharing portals. I take part in so many different kinds of online conferences and workshops and the ones that are the most successful are not relying on the platform alone but in concert with other communication skillsets such as setting the stage, being prepared with contingencies and robust follow-up/follow through.
Remote employees benefit when leaders demonstrate sensitivity to their employees throughout an organizational change. From these actions, the organic nature of an organization will be able to be sustained and nurtured through transitions. Like any strong relationship, strategy, work and attention are involved but the rewards are so worth the effort. With change being a regular and frequent presence in both personal and professional contexts, leaders going forward will require strong communication strategies in order to foster resiliency amongst remote employees.