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Leading a Remote Workforce

Managing and training in a virtual environment offers challenges as well as opportunities.

With much of the world on lockdown, global business has abruptly retreated from the boardroom to the living room, or den, or wherever we can find space at home to set up a desk and laptop — hopefully a spot with good lighting and a nicely curated background for Zoom meetings.

Nobody could have predicted this new normal way back in, what was it, early March? Working from home is an entirely new lifestyle for a large majority of workers, posing a new set of challenges, especially for team leaders who value face-to-face interactions.

But with a bit of expert guidance, disruption can lead to opportunities for an improved team dynamic and greater productivity. The first step is to make sure everyone is connected in the most efficient and effective way possible, said Bob Fuhs, a longtime leadership consultant, instructor and coach who teaches the DCE Foundations of Leadership course.

“You are going to need the right technology to enable you to connect and collaborate,” Fuhs said. “I have used Zoom even before the pandemic and I find it to be simple to use and with features I need like the ability to record meetings, in case I forget something, share files and use breakout rooms for smaller group discussions.”

It helps to stick to one method of personal communication, so the entire team won’t be distracted by toggling between emails, texts and phone calls. Fuhs suggests using a platform like Slack for quick messages that replace short conversations around the office.

“Slack also lets you create ‘channels’ that allow you to keep conversations separated by topic, and you can even make phone calls from within the app.”

Managing conflict

Teamwork might seem challenging in a virtual environment, but it can also present a perfect opportunity to work on improving relationships and collaboration. For instance, problems that might have been more easily overlooked in the office can be brought to light and corrected with the right tools.

“We are all stressed and tired, so it becomes more challenging to give each other the benefit of the doubt and to extend some grace,” Fuhs said. “That’s where a tool like the Strength Deployment Inventory can be so helpful. It’s a powerful assessment that helps teams collaborate better by revealing each person’s unique motivations and how those motives impact their behaviors. It helps us to see the ‘why’ behind behaviors we appreciate, and behind those we may find hard to understand.”

The SDI can reveal interpersonal aspects that trigger conflict and how we tend to respond to it. “For many people this is the biggest ‘aha’ moment, when they realize that the way they respond to conflict might be very different than the way their boss or colleagues do,” Fuhs said.

Conflict generally arises from one of two things: We either feel a threat to our values or we get annoyed when we see behavior we don’t understand, he added. When conflict arises in a team setting, it offers an opportunity to better understand what matters most to others.

“For example, I value a work environment where people are valued and their needs are taken into account. If I feel that someone is disregarding the needs and feelings of someone else, that will trigger conflict for me. For someone else, achieving results and getting things done might be paramount, so they might perceive my desire to listen to everyone as an impediment, or letting my feelings get in the way.”

Bob Fuhs

Boosting online productivity

Dealing with distractions at home might seem like a major obstacle to productivity, but effective leaders can maintain solid output if they know what motivates their staff to achieve excellence, then tap into that motivation.

“Simply put, productivity is a product of two things: Motivation and resources,” Fuhs said.

Again, this is where an assessment tool like the SDI can be helpful because it reveals the core motives that lay beneath the surface behavior. It helps people develop “Relationship Intelligence” — the ability to adjust your approach to make interactions more productive.

But if your expectations exceed your resources, there will be considerable burn out, he added. Make sure your team has what they need to get the job done, including proper technology, adequate time and time management, and training in key job skills.

Taking inventory

Developed by Dr. Elias Porter at the University of Chicago, the Strength Deployment Inventory differs from other personality assessment tools because it’s also based on a theory of relationships that’s built on sound science and measurement. It provides insights that can make relationships more productive and satisfying, Fuhs said.

Here’s how it works: After a series of psychometric questions, the team member receives a report full of information about core motives, top strengths, and how they are motivated in conflict and in which areas they tend to overdo strengths.

“Research reveals that harmonious teams outperform teams with similar technical skill, so it is vitally important that leaders develop relational skills as much, if not more, than technical skills,” Fuhs said. “As the old saying goes, people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. It’s not usually the work that people don’t like, but it’s the people they work with.”

Leadership training customized for your organization at ce.uci.edu/corporate.