Communication: In any team, healthy and consistent communication is key. While I’m a firm believer that work can be organized around asynchronous communication, I also see great value in using synchronous (or live) meetings to maintain feelings of team “connectedness” and drive accountability. While I encourage the use of project management platforms, like Asana, to allow team members to provide task and project updates asynchronously, I recommend meeting as a team via video conferencing on a weekly basis. This not only allows the team to collaborate and re-prioritize in real time, but it also creates opportunity for team members to catch up personally, share some laughs, and reiterate the most important to-dos.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kara Fasone.
Dr. Kara Fasone is a talent development manager at Kin + Carta and adjunct professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has a PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology and a passion for pushing others to reach their fullest potentials. She practices a people-focused and data-driven approach to exploring workplace behavior and building incredible employee experiences.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
For as long as I can remember, I hoped to find a career that would allow me to directly help others. I initially considered medical school … until I encountered my college nightmare — also known as Inorganic Chemistry. Soon after, I realized the sight of blood was a fool proof way to make me queasy.
While becoming a medical doctor was out of the picture, I didn’t give up on finding the perfect career for me. I eventually discovered my career “sweet spot” by aligning my personal mission — helping others to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives — to my professional strengths. This led me to study human behavior in the workplace and use that knowledge to help organizations maximize the performance, productivity, and overall engagement of their most important asset: their people.
Since completing my PhD in Industrial Organizational (I/O) Psychology, I’ve built my career by partnering with organizations to inspire people-focused and data-driven policies, programs, and cultures. Over the past 7 years, I’ve built, managed, and iterated HR programs in areas ranging from employee engagement to leadership development to diversity, equity, & inclusion (and everything in between!).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Growing up, I imagined that I’d have to find a job close to home, commute to the office daily, and eventually embrace the monotony that can come with having a “regular 9 to 5” job. I’ve been lucky enough to have escaped that grim reality by kicking off my career just as organizations were beginning to recognize the value of distributed talent.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more companies have begun to embrace the idea of partially remote (and in some cases, fully distributed) workforces. This is particularly exciting for me as an I/O and HR professional, because when we remove the constraint of geographic location in our search for candidates, the result is a much wider pool of super talented and diverse prospective employees.
When considering the future post-pandemic world, I’d hypothesize that remote work options are here to stay. My current company, for example, has looked toward establishing more permanent remote work options for many employees after being forced to adapt quickly in the face of the pandemic. Not only did we have to work tirelessly to convert conventionally in-person events to remote-friendly offerings (e.g., new hire onboarding, learning & development, etc.), we also collaborated with our clients to maintain trust and confidence in our partnerships.
The outcome? While the effort needed to support the transition from in-office to remote work was substantial, it ultimately wasn’t as big a deal as many had anticipated. Work days chugged along, employees continued to be productive and collaborate freely, and life went on.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Throughout my career, learning and development (L&D) approaches have shifted rapidly. Whereas lengthy classroom learning sessions were popular at the company with which I kicked off my career, I’ve seen a shift toward shorter, remote-friendly learning sessions (based on employee preference and necessity!).
I once built and prepared to facilitate a remote workshop session on creative problem-solving. Just as the learners had signed into the video conference, I began encountering technical issues. It seemed that everything that could go wrong was going wrong (Murphy’s Law, anyone?), from difficulties sharing my screen to the inability to record the session for those who couldn’t attend.
The first 15 minutes became a group problem solving session in itself, but the class was engaged and laughing by the time we finally dove into the actual workshop content. That day, I learned you should never underestimate the importance of proper tooling for remote collaboration and facilitation. Since then, I’ve built my toolbox of go-to platforms and software for ensuring virtual work and delivery is smooth!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
My advice is simple: just C.A.R.E.
In this case, the acronym C.A.R.E. can be used to help CEOs, founders, and leaders across all levels of an organization to support their employees in times of uncertainty and stress.
- Check in: While check-ins need not be formal or lengthy, they should be consistent. I make it a priority to send a quick instant message to my team members in the morning and as I’m wrapping up my day. This quick, 5-minute action shows that I care and I’m available to support. I also meet with each team member for a 30 minute 1:1 meeting weekly (or bi-weekly) to provide coaching, feedback, and deeper discussion on how they’re doing in their role.
- Ask how they’re doing: When you’re able to have an extended check-in with an employee, ask how they’re doing in a way that shows it’s okay to be honest and vulnerable. How? With 5 words: “How are you doing, really?”
- Rightsize expectations: In hectic and uncertain times, it can be easy to succumb to the work-eat-sleep-repeat cycle. This continuous flurry of activity can be more harmful than helpful in the long-term, leading to increased stress, disengagement, and sometimes even total burnout. Regularly calibrate with your team on key projects, anticipated timelines, and individual workloads to ensure the time and effort spent at work is realistic.
- Empathize & adjust: Not every team member will be forthright about feeling stressed or overworked. As a leader, practice perspective taking and open your awareness to nonverbal cues or atypical behaviors that may clue you in to an employee who needs a bit more support.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?
Throughout my career, I’ve operated with remote colleagues in mind. My first job out of college was with a small firm that comprised a handful of distributed colleagues and no official office space, so communicating and collaborating remotely was a routine part of my job.
As an HR & talent professional, I’ve built countless workshops and talent programs that required a remote-friendly learning environment because of the distributed, global nature of the participants.
Over the past year, I’ve managed a global team which has helped me deeply appreciate both the challenges and benefits that come with remote working. Seeing the theory and research I’d encountered during my doctoral studies come to life in real-world practice has been an eye-opening and rewarding experience.
Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?
Managing a remote team can be incredibly fulfilling, but also challenging at times. After quite a bit of reflection, I’ve narrowed down the top five challenges below:
- Communication: In any team, healthy and consistent communication is key. While I’m a firm believer that work can be organized around asynchronous communication, I also see great value in using synchronous (or live) meetings to maintain feelings of team “connectedness” and drive accountability. While I encourage the use of project management platforms, like Asana, to allow team members to provide task and project updates asynchronously, I recommend meeting as a team via video conferencing on a weekly basis. This not only allows the team to collaborate and re-prioritize in real time, but it also creates opportunity for team members to catch up personally, share some laughs, and reiterate the most important to-dos.
- Culture: Culture oftentimes serves as a competitive advantage for companies. It can, however, be difficult to maintain certain cultural rituals when transitioning to fully remote work. My advice? Keep what you can and create new virtual rituals to maintain a sense of collaboration, connectedness, and team bonding. I’ve seen teams be super creative here, organizing everything from quirky “Friday Funday” virtual polls to remote happy hours to pet photo swaps. The sky’s the limit, but remember to keep it relevant and light-hearted.
- Collaboration: Collaboration — similar to communication — can be accomplished via asynchronous teamwork. It does, however, require the right tools and productivity platforms to make it easy. As a leader, you’ll want to make sure your team is equipped with the following:
- A task or project management platform (I enjoy Asana and Trello)
- Video conferencing software (e.g., Zoom or Google Hangouts)
- An instant messaging platform (e.g., Slack) AND norms to go with it (e.g., respect “away” statuses, use concise & to-the-point messages)
- A shared drive (e.g., a protected Google Drive) to allow real-time edits and version control for shared deliverables
- Career Development: A remote employee’s accomplishments or peripheral contributions may be less visible than those who are able to work in a physical office environment. This can be problematic when it comes down to career development because visibility and senior-level advocacy can heavily influence internal decisions such as high-visibility project assignments or vertical promotions. In remote environments, self-advocacy and regular career conversations can help to mitigate the challenge of limited in-office visibility.
- Candid Feedback: Delivering open and honest feedback can be challenging regardless of your work environment, but remote work can magnify this difficulty. At times, when communicating via email or instant messaging for example, the absence of nonverbal cues and context can result in miscommunication and misunderstanding. Developing clear team agreements and knowing when to take communication “live” (i.e., jump on a phone call or video conference) can mitigate poor feedback delivery or reception.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
As I described the 5 common challenges above, I offered up a few specific solutions. Ultimately, effectively managing a remote team depends on the leader’s willingness and ability to understand each individual team member’s motivations, work style, and ability.
I love sharing the concept of situational leadership with managers because it emphasizes the importance of flexing one’s leadership approach to align to the needs of the individual. Situational leadership is a leadership model coined by behavioral psychologists Paul Heresey and Ken Blanchard which claims there is “no one best” leadership style.
Rather, the most effective leaders are those who take the time to learn each individual’s level of competence (e.g., knowledge & skill to do their job) and level of commitment within their current role. Understanding the interplay between an employee’s competence and commitment helps managers understand whether they should take a more hands-on directing or coaching approach or a less involved supporting or delegating approach to managing each team member (see graphic, below).
I encourage all leaders to become acquainted with this model and deeply reflect on what they can be doing to personalize their style and level of support for each of their team members.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?
When I coach leaders on giving effective feedback, I ask them to consider this simple 3-pronged approach. Ultimately, feedback should be provided with a focus on empathy, examples, and execution.
- Empathy: In order to deliver constructive feedback, practice perspective-taking to help you understand the situation, surface underlying emotions, and anticipate potential reactions of the feedback recipient. Asking probing questions, gathering relevant context, and acknowledging your own personal biases can help you deliver feedback in a way that underlines the importance of the message while minimizing defensiveness.
Empathy also requires knowing when to take a conversation “live”. There are some messages that may be particularly sensitive in nature, and would be best delivered “face-to-face” via video conferencing. Use your best judgement here.
Be careful not to fall victim to what Kim Scott terms “ruinous empathy” — a phenomenon in which important constructive feedback is lost within an overly nice message.
- Examples: Prepare specific examples to support any piece of feedback you provide. Not only does referring to examples validate that the feedback is real, it also provides an opportunity to discuss ineffective behaviors and ways in which the feedback recipient can evolve and change in the future.
Charles Jacobs, author of Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work, asserts that when we hear feedback that contradicts with our self-image, our first instinct is to discount or adjust the information, rather than changing our behavior. This instinct can be overcome by reflecting on tangible examples of our behaviors.
- Execution: Feedback should always inspire action. You can accomplish this in a number of ways. Share strategies you’ve used to grow a similar skill, offer to brainstorm action items related to the feedback provided, or ask the recipient to set a tangible goal (or two) that can frame future progress discussions.
I’ve shared some examples to see this feedback framework in action:
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Providing constructive feedback via email can be tricky because of the absence of social cues. Typically when we communicate with someone in person, we are able to consider nonverbals, like facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. When we communicate through email, however, we are forced to interpret the meaning of messages without those context-rich cues.
When delivering feedback remotely, the importance of using empathy, examples, and a focus on execution is magnified. Here are a few tips to deliver delicate feedback via email without sounding too critical or harsh:
- Lead with appreciation — Kicking off your email with a simple “thank you” begins the message on a positive note while allowing you to genuinely acknowledge and reinforce something the feedback recipient did well.
- Frame feedback with an explicit example — As I mentioned earlier, this is important! Specific examples ground your feedback in reality and increase the likelihood that the recipient will accept and internalize your intended message.
- Describe the why behind any decisions — Clearly outline any changes in direction related to the feedback you provided and explain why these pivots were necessary. Make this into a teachable moment!
- Keep it concise — Keep your email short and sweet. If you’re writing paragraphs to convey your feedback, you’re likely to end up with a convoluted and confusing message.
- Know when to talk it out — Let’s face it. Sometimes instant messages or emails aren’t the most effective means of communication. When you have a great deal of feedback to provide or you need to discuss a sensitive topic, schedule a phone call (or even better, a video conference).
See below for a hypothetical example of providing feedback via email:
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
It can be difficult to transition to a different routine and way of working, but it’s certainly not impossible! The great thing about having established teams is the fact that most team members are already aware of one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and overall work styles. Of course, you’ll need to adjust to your newly remote environment, but it helps to have a tightly bonded team going through the transition together.
Consider the following 3 tips to ensure a successful team transition from in-office to remote working.
- Preserve Rituals: Don’t cancel your team rituals simply because you’re no longer convening at the office. Rather, make some small adjustments to facilitate them virtually. For example, bi-weekly happy hours can be held via Zoom and birthday cards can be signed and sent as a virtual e-card. Preserving these rituals (whether big or small, frequent or infrequent) can instill a sense of familiarity and normalcy for team members.
- Clarify New Expectations: There will undoubtedly be changes to how work is done. Leaders should clarify new processes, policies, or tools to ensure all team members are on the same page. For example, a leader may introduce a temporary initiative in which the group will conduct daily virtual stand-up meetings as they transition to working together remotely. Stand ups are quick 10–15 minute meetings in which individuals can report their top priorities for the day, identify any blockers they’re facing, and express how they’re handling remote work.
- Keep Open Lines of Communication: While team members may no longer be able to do “desk drive-bys” to ask a question or say a quick hello to a teammate, that shouldn’t inhibit communication or collaboration in a remote environment. Encourage continued communication by leveraging your resources. For example, you might create two team group chats: one to be used for real-time problem solving and troubleshooting and the other to be used for social purposes (e.g., swapping pet pictures or sharing interesting articles and stories). Whatever you do, make it clear that as a leader, you’re available to support at any time.
What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
While I’m sure many readers are hoping for specifics, the answer is: it depends! To create a healthy and empowering culture with a transitioning team, it’s important to include your team members in building their new remote reality.
I’m an avid proponent of using principles of human-centered design (HCD) to put employees at the center of designing meaningful workplace interventions. While HCD might sound complex, it’s really quite simple (and not just limited to product designers or HR professionals). Managers can use HCD principles to build a killer team culture by considering the following steps:
- Inspire: Fully understand what your team needs by probing into their likes, dislikes, challenges and overall experiences in transitioning to a remote work environment. You can gather this information through individual 1:1s, a team survey, or a focused group session. The goal here is to use the information gathered to inspire and envision the “ideal remote workspace” for your team.
- Ideate: Bring the team together to share what you’ve learned and work together to brainstorm what you should start, stop, and continue doing as a remote team to feel connected, engaged, and productive. Create a space where all voices are heard and all ideas are considered (no matter how big). You can prioritize the best ideas at the end of this ideation session.
- Implement: Once you’ve identified the most important changes you’ll make as a team, create a shared sense of accountability by identifying owners across the team for each project or task. Take it slow, gather continuous feedback from one another, and keep iterating until it feels right.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to make mental health a more mainstream consideration in the workplace. While many employers offer access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), it still seems to be somewhat of a “check-the-box” type of offering. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. This statistic is particularly relevant to remote workers for a number of reasons, one of which is increased reports of loneliness. In fact, a Viking survey of 1,500 employees — both conventional office workers and remote workers — revealed interesting statistics. Approximately 30-percent of the office workers said they suffered from depression, compared to 56-percent of freelancers and remote workers.
As I’d shared earlier, my life mission is to help everyone I touch to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. Since we spend nearly a third of our waking hours working, it’s not surprising that the workplace presents ample opportunity to help people increase their well-being and sense of self.
My vision goes beyond EAPs and conventional wellness programs. I’d love to see more flexible work policies, manager education on how to help employees manage stress and prioritize work-life balance, and safe spaces in which mental health can be discussed opposed to stigmatized.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
Leading others is both an art and a science. While there exists countless theories, how-to books, and hypothetical case studies centered on how to most effectively lead, sometimes we lose sight of the simplest truth: great leaders in the workplace make employees feel empowered, excited, and elevated toward their potential.
Influence as a leader doesn’t come only from title, achievement, or persuasion. It comes from knowing and caring about those you lead. Use empathy to conjure up the right words, model the most positive behaviors, and inspire feelings of trust, respect, and engagement.
Thank you for these great insights!
Of course! I invite any interested readers to reach out via my LinkedIn page. I’m always happy to connect with individuals who are passionate about Human Resources (HR) and the many fascinating areas within this space!