Erica Volini: “Keeping teams connected”

Trust: Managing remote teams requires leaders to trust employees to get good work done. To support this relationship of trust, employees need to demonstrate accountability and self-management of workflows. As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Volini. […]

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Trust: Managing remote teams requires leaders to trust employees to get good work done. To support this relationship of trust, employees need to demonstrate accountability and self-management of workflows.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Volini.

Erica, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, is Deloitte’s Global Human Capital leader. In this role, she is focused on helping leaders solve their most complex and pressing human capital issues. In today’s world of constant disruption, those issues include everything from navigating the future of work to enabling the digital organization — all centered around how to optimize the intersection of the workforce and business performance. Throughout her 20+ year career, Erica has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations and is a frequent speaker on how market trends are impacting the HR organization and profession as a whole. Within Deloitte, she has served as a member of Deloitte Consulting’s Management Committee and Board of Directors. She has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial & Labor Relations from Cornell University.

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”?

My background from school is in Industrial & Labor Relations — that’s really where I started to gain an appreciation of the organization-worker relationship. From there, I had an internship where I was able to work with the Administration of Children’s Services to help them develop a training program for their employees and I really saw the power of what could be done when we appropriately invest in ‘human capital’. I joined Deloitte shortly thereafter and, as they say, the rest is history. It’s now been 22 years at Deloitte and throughout every role I’ve played, a focus on human capital has always been at the center. Today, I’m the global leader for our practice and still love getting to work directly with clients helping them optimize the potential of their workforce. In today’s constant world of disruption, I don’t think there is anything more important for an organization to do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Wow, that’s a tough one.I think the most interesting moment of my career has been my transition back from maternity leave. I was a lifetime consultant who had never taken more than three weeks off and all of a sudden, I’m returning having been away for 6+ months. What was interesting about it was how much personal and professional growth I had through that experience — not just about becoming a mother, but becoming a different type of leader, teammate and advisor. Everything needed to change, but as I look back two years later, all of those changes helped me to become a better professional overall.

What advice would you give to leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

At the moment, the only way out is through. We’ve made a mass transformation to a new way of working in the context of an economic, public health and sociopolitical crisis. On top of that, many families are dealing with unreliable childcare options, taking care of elderly family members, and uncertainty about school openings. First, we need to acknowledge that it’s normal to be struggling, and to help our team members recognize struggle in themselves and in their teams. How do we thrive in a crisis? Resiliency and great leadership. We need our managers and leaders to lead authentically and transparently. Leaders don’t need to have all of the answers, but they do need to bring their teams along in the process. We also need our leaders to model healthy work habits that address some of the core challenges teams are facing in a virtual environment. Healthy boundaries, connectedness with our teams, communities and families, taking vacation, giving our teams clear directions on desired outcomes and creating the space for them to get good work done.

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?

I have been managing remote teams for a decade at least. As we have made our delivery centers, both on-shore and off-shore, a bigger and bigger part of our strategy, managing remote teams has simply been the way we get our work done. It takes more discipline and focus to maintain connections, but the outcomes can be just as good, if not better, when you look past the remote nature and just find different ways to connect, inspire and lead.

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?

  1. Keeping teams informed: Information can no longer make its way through the halls; we need to actively make information accessible on digital platforms so that our teams know what they’re looking for, fast.
  2. Keeping teams on track: It used to be that a manger could walk into a room and see whether their employees are working or not; that’s no longer the case. Instead, managers need to shift directions to provide clarity on the outcomes that matter and be in a position to observe team progress in a digital format, such as dropping into a collaboratively-edited work-in-progress presentation to see how things are coming along, or viewing task progress in a digital task management platform.
  3. Keeping teams connected: In a remote environment, teams are spending more time working on direct workflows and less time interacting with casual work colleagues; individual networks are contracting. Teams need to build new strategies to stay engaged with one another.
  4. Managing performance: Performance management protocols were designed to measure performance in an in office environment — at a time when facetime is no longer the norm, we need to consider how old ways of thinking are influencing performance management in a remote environment.
  5. Trust: Managing remote teams requires leaders to trust employees to get good work done. To support this relationship of trust, employees need to demonstrate accountability and self-management of workflows.

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?

It’s important to match our message to the medium. If it’s a sensitive feedback conversation, it’s important to get on a video call and give our teammates the benefit of our eye contact, facial expressions and undivided attention. That said, our transformation to a remote environment has helped accelerate an existing trend of continuous feedback: a commitment to provide feedback in the moment when challenges and learning opportunities arise. Nudging new behaviors in the right direction with a chat or text help ensure that small issues are addressed promptly as we collectively create new boundaries and norms.

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?

It’s absolutely possible to build meaningful relationships online. We can adapt to this new mode of relationship as long as we’re intentional: considering our tone and how it appears in an online format, using video with cameras on to establish new relationships but not requiring video all the time, making sure we continue the casual banter outside of our immediate workflows and tasks, and really taking time to check in on one another. It’s important to remember that there are five generations in the workforce and for some members of the population, building relationships in an online format is a seamless experience. Others can’t fathom it. This is a time to embrace reverse mentorship, and also to have empathy for and directly support those who are struggling to adapt.

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