Imagine moving across the country to accept a new job during the pandemic. You arrive at the new position where employees are all teleworking. How do you build relationships and instill trust in such an environment? That was the challenge I faced last July amid the COVID-19 shutdown when the Army transferred me to a new billet as the Human Resources Command Readiness Chief at Fort Knox, Kentucky. By the time I moved my household and arrived on the job, my entire staff of 16 were all teleworking.
Everyone agrees that leading requires relationships, but it is challenging to build relationships when communicating electronically. Email and texting are great for passing information, but they do not provide the social cues necessary to develop lasting relationships. One of the first lessons new leaders learn is the importance of establishing a relationship with those you are leading.
A leader’s communication is essential to supporting staff and meeting the needs of the organization’s mission. Successful leaders understand three things: First, people are social creatures and need to interact with one other. One of a leader’s primary roles is to establish a climate that allows interactions to occur and foster trust. In a telework environment, it is difficult to bring people together in a meaningful way to support the development of relationships.
Second, people want to feel appreciated and know they are contributing to the success of the organization. When we see each other every day in the office, it is easy to stop by and tell someone how much their work means and thank them for their efforts. In a telework environment, it is easy to forget these necessary actions. Without the visual reminder of people in the office, we can focus on the daily requirements and not provide the needed feedback.
Finally, people need to feel they are part of a group. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, being accepted as part of the group is one of the basic needs that drive human behavior. It influences the decisions we make and alters our behavior. Working alone from home can be isolating, and it is the responsibility of the leader to make everyone feel like they are part of the group.
Most leaders have honed techniques to build relationships in the office and create an atmosphere that supports productivity. Now we must focus on building those relationships when our communication is primarily through a screen. We may not have the luxury of talking face to face with employees, but we can still build relationships and create an atmosphere beneficial to everyone.
Communicating in the telework environment requires leaders to take a deliberate approach, cognizant of the message they are trying to send before they send it. For example, it is critical to remember to praise an employee for a job well done and recognize accomplishments. This is a deliberate task that requires the message to be personal, meaningful, and timely.
Since people are social creatures, we must adapt our communication techniques to include video conferencing when feasible. This allows people to meet and still feel like they are part of the group. Like in-person meetings, leaders should have an agenda to drive the engagement and not waste people’s time. However, unlike in-person meetings, the message should be more deliberate since this may be the one time a week that we get to see everyone in a digital group setting.
Finally, teleworking requires a leader to flatten their communication and ensure that everyone remains connected to the group. That will require including more people on emails and other correspondence to pass information and share tasking details with the team. These messages should be clear and concise to limit misunderstanding—you won’t be able to walk by the employee’s desk later to explain the intended meaning.
Benefits for Leaders and Employees
If a leader successfully builds and maintains relationships in the telework environment it may open up new opportunities. Increased workplace satisfaction often yields an increase in productivity. With a productive workforce at home, an organization should be able to reduce overhead costs associated with large office spaces without degrading their mission accomplishment. Employees also benefit from a reduction in personal transportation and wardrobe costs and increased freedom.
Deliberate communication will allow leaders to grow while also improving information flow to employees. The result is a better-informed workforce committed to accomplishing organizational goals because they understand how they fit into the overall process. With the rise of the millennial workforce, a leader’s ability to communicate across the entire organization and convey how each member contributes is vital to success.
Lt. Col. C.J. Phillips is an Army strategist with 23 years of government service. He is the Academic Year 22 Army War College fellow to the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, and he is a Doctor of Strategic Leadership Student at Regent University.