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Recruiting, Onboarding and Managing People Remotely, Part 1: An Interview with Dawn Wilce

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The onset of COVID-19 has forced many companies across Aotearoa to adopt work-from-home policies before they were ready, and this presents even greater challenges if you’ve recently hired or plan to hire in the near future.

To help you adapt with minimal disruption to your business, we have created a two-part interview series sharing insights from experts in our network on managing remote work, recruiting, conducting interviews and onboarding new employees without missing a beat.

In part one, we talked with Commercial Business Consultant and Executive Coach, Dawn Wilce. Over the last two decades, she has managed remote teams of up to 35 people split across multiple locations within the European procurement, supply chain and product manufacturing industries.

In this interview, Dawn discusses some of the unique strategies for onboarding and managing employees remotely that she has learned over the course of her diverse career, and provides practical advice for businesses in today’s climate.

What is your advice to organisations that are thinking about how to recruit during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dawn: Because of the current situation, some employers might be looking to hire people without actually meeting them in person, and then those people are going to be asked to work remotely as well. A big part of the success of this is considering whether the individual is actually a good fit to work in this way. You should be looking for people who are used to working through their own initiative, are fairly independent and can demonstrate the ability to work without a high degree of management. This means looking at what types of work environments they've been used to in the past and also asking scenario-based interview questions that will demonstrate their ability to work autonomously.

And while you should consider people's characteristics in terms of whether they're going to be a good fit, as long as the company has the right supplementary processes and culture in place to combat remote working issues, you should be able to help them adapt.

At the same time, hiring in the current climate means that we're going to have to leverage technology at its best. It’s a good idea for interviews to be conducted over video as early in the process as possible (right after the initial screening) so that people become used to working at a distance, as well as so the relationship can be built up in the recruitment process. While there’s no substitute for being physically present with somebody, the next best thing is definitely being on video.

How can employers onboard new hires remotely?

Dawn: For people that are onboarded remotely and have their training and development facilitated with technology, it's more important than ever to make sure that you really spell out what the rules of engagement are and the expectations that you have of them, which includes having strong process documents and setting measurable objectives, goals and milestones.

When somebody is working in an office environment, there are all sorts of invisible clues and signs that you can pick up on, and managers can check in very regularly to see how people are getting on, whereas with remotely working, you might not hear from them and think that they're doing okay when they’re actually struggling. It’s important to make sure that they know it's okay to give feedback, check-in and ask questions whenever they need to.

Additionally, in the initial stages when an employee is settling in during a remote working situation, it might be worth looking at the core elements of the person's job description and offering a condensed version of the role for the essential, business-critical duties, rather than a complicated set of responsibilities that may be better facilitated when they're in a face-to-face environment. This means that most jobs can be done from home if you look at them slightly differently!

How can leaders integrate new employees into the company culture while the team works remotely?

Dawn: When onboarding a new employee in-person, we naturally communicate our company's values, our culture and everything else that signals what it's like to work there and the behaviour that is expected. However, when you try and replicate that in the remote working situation, it can be really difficult. It’s about leveraging technology and thinking about all the different touchpoints that an employee would have if they were working physically on-site and looking at how we can translate that virtually to someone at home.

One of the easiest ways to extend your culture is by using tools such as Zoom to set up a virtual meeting room where everyone can be seen on video and can communicate freely and easily as if they are meeting in-person. That will help people to get to know their teammates very quickly.

Another thing I've done in the past is connected virtually with my colleagues through Zoom so we can co-work together online. At the start of the call, we might state what our objective is for the next hour, what each of us is working on and what we want to achieve, and then we'll just put our heads down. There might be some chit chat between members or people might work in silence, but when you look up at your screen, you can see the other people that are part of your team working in the background. It gives you a sense of community and really helps to break up the day.

Another strategy is to facilitate virtual coffee catch-ups or “chats over the water cooler”, which could just be a 10-minute slot during the day where different people can get together for a video chat.​ It could be that the virtual meeting room opens at 10 o'clock and two o'clock each day, and whoever wants to can drop in for a quick catch-up.

When it comes to the social side, people often think "I haven't got time for that", but the reality is that you do this in the workplace naturally. You bump into people and have five-minute chats while you're on your way to the photocopier or the kitchen. So, why can't that happen remotely?

The key is identifying the natural flow of the workday and building touchpoints into somebody's working schedule to replicate the social element of working within teams (rather than just formal meetings), which impacts the culture and builds relationships.

Do you have any strategies you can share on effectively managing people who work remotely?

Managing someone’s output remotely can be complex, and it very much depends on what role they're doing. If it’s a role where output and productivity can be measured in terms of data analytics, reports and metrics, then that's obviously going to be a key part of the toolkit. However, in a lot of cases, it's much more important that you do have regular check-ins and are setting very clear goals.

One thing that I always do is have very quick team check-ins each morning where we each share what our key targets or objectives are for the day and any problems we have. Then at the end of the day, we check-in again to make sure we are on track and share what we'd achieved for the day. This allows you to see that progress has been made and helps everyone to feel involved and connected.

Another thing that employers may want to consider is allowing people to spread their working day over longer hours (especially those that have children to look after). For example, this could mean someone working in several blocks over a 10-12 hour period, interspersed with breaks where they attend to personal commitments, rather than trying to cram it all into six straight hours. Again, this depends on the role and the setups that the individual has, but being flexible on start and finish times may help people to be more productive overall.

What are some of the common pitfalls of remote management and how can employers avoid them?

Dawn: One of the key mistakes I see is that emails and the written word can easily be misinterpreted. Sometimes how we're feeling can influence how we choose to receive and process information in the written word. And obviously, when we're in a business setting, we tend to take on a bit more of a formal tone where we take emotions out of that communication even more.

In a physical office environment, you can supplement that with various invisible signals, body language and unspoken communication, but when you're working remotely, you don't have that opportunity. So, if an employee is communicating over email, don't make the mistake of assuming everything is okay and that they're on track. There's no substitute for picking up the phone or having regular check-ins because this is going supply you with all of the key information that you need to manage individuals effectively.

Summary

COVID-19 is a temporary disruption (albeit a challenging one) but by adapting to remote work, businesses won’t just weather the storm – they may even come out stronger for it. If you need advice on recruiting, onboarding and managing people remotely, get in touch with us – and keep an eye out for part two of this series for more insights!

Kia kaha!