Speakers on From Day One’s webinar last week on managing a newly remote workforce, moderated by business journalist Lydia Dishman

Baby pictures, dogs and cats, Pajama Day and “Tiger King” memes: these are not the typical subject matter of office meetings in Corporate America. But right now they’re the humanizing and bonding elements that help get the serious work done as millions of Americans are suddenly working from home full-time during the pandemic. 

Keeping up the human connection was among the topics on From Day One’s webinar last week, “Smart Ways to Manage a Newly Remote Work Team,” which featured a panel of experts on workplace issues. They suggested throwing out much of the old rulebook and creating new ways to rebuild what we’ve lost in office interactions, with a mind toward keeping up morale, structure, productivity, creativity, and trust. Among their insights:

Staying in Close Touch

The importance of  good communication came up repeatedly, particularly how leaders can be more transparent and inspire confidence in employees. Consistency matters, no matter if it’s a weekly Zoom meeting or a daily check-in over Slack. 

“If we’re on a Zoom call and you can be on video, be on video. Eighty percent of communication is non-verbal,” said Santiago Jaramillo, CEO of Emplify, an employee-engagement platform.

Another essential element: honesty. Or as Willie Jackson of diversity-and-inclusion consultancy ReadySet put it, “embracing the suck.” Embracing what’s not perfect in uncertain times can allow managers and their employees to avoid getting hung up over things like imperfect video connections and disrupted meetings due to child-care interruptions. “We are all out of our comfort zones,” added Jackson.   

Kate Zimberg, VP of talent and organizational capability at F5 Networks, said she was concerned that a particular member of her team who is “extremely extroverted” might be struggling with quarantine. So Zimberg made a point to check in with them on a daily basis. For colleagues who have family members stricken with the viris, she has made an extra effort to ask if they need additional time off.  

Jaramillo enumerated best practices, reinforcing the importance of using appropriate communication platforms. “If it’s something that is not urgent, and low priority, that’s an email and we expect folks to respond within 24 hours. On Slack, that’s probably not urgent but high priority and that needs to be responded to [quickly]. For text, that’s urgent and high priority and needs to be responded to as soon as possible.”

The Right Hardware and Software

When it comes to working at home, how can companies provide guidance for their employees with technology, at-home devices, and internet security? 

Jackson said the right gear is essential: “We invested in microphones, lighting, options for headsets. It’s been absolutely paramount to think about how we come across digitally.” 

Zimberg echoed the sentiment, adding that her company provides employees with work-from-home packages including monitors, keyboards, cameras, and other devices that will help them transition smoothly. 

“We’ve moved from around 300 people working remotely to approximately 2,100 in four weeks,” said Lydia Martinez, SVP and chief HR officer of Long & Foster Real Estate. Martinez said the company had been prepping for WFH for more than a year, adding resources including a virtual help desk. 

Keeping It Human

In the midst of isolation, many of us have realized how much we take for granted the simple act of walking over to a colleague’s desk to discuss the latest episode of our favorite TV show or a new recipe we tried for dinner last night. Our panelists reinforced that the easiest way to combat this loss of connection is use of video. 

“Many [tech companies] may be using Zoom or Skype, but they’re not turning on their cameras and they’re feeling disconnected and they’re not feeling that sense of human connection,” said Zimberg. “If you are in a company that is not using video, that is one recommendation I would definitely make. It makes a massive difference.”

Another way to promote closeness amid all the separation is to share photos, memes, and personal videos. “At Fast Company we just had our ‘baby photo’ day,” said moderator and journalist Lydia Dishman. “Even just 15 minutes of scrolling through and seeing who’s baby picture it belonged to was, I thought, a really great morale booster.”   

“In our Slack group, we have a #watercooler channel, for things that are specifically not work related, since we’ve lost the ability to walk by our coworkers’ desks,” added Jackson. 

From Pajama Day to Thirsty Thursday happy hours, such slightly hokey events can help  employees know they are not alone. This can be done in moderation, keeping in mind the comfort level of staff. “I think it’s become a good equalizer,” said Martinez. “Plus it ensures that managers have a means of guaranteeing that connectivity. But you need to be disciplined and stick to it. If you say you’re going to do it, you have to do it.”

Welcome to My World

Separating work from home isn’t possible for many, especially those with families, pets, and responsibilities at home. Our panelists had some insightful feedback on being vulnerable and acknowledging the human side of our current crisis. 

“Friendship and connection absolutely drive engagement,” says Jaramillo. “We build trust by understanding the human element of each other, not just the robotic work side.”

This can be easier to implement than we may realize. Jaramillo says he sends a weekly video to his team with a message of what they learned that week, shot in selfie-style from his backyard. Emplify also frequently provides wellness checks, bringing together financial advisors, nurses, and therapists to coach employees during the pandemic. 

Empathy From the Top

Our panelists agreed that leaders should see the crisis as an opportunity to practice empathy and share their own struggles and vulnerabilities. 

“Our CEOs will be in the middle of a meeting and you can see their dog come in behind them, or their cat walk across their desk, or their child says ‘Hey, what’s for lunch?’ They’re experiencing this with us, and hearing and seeing that from our executives makes them so human and really displays empathy for all of us,” says Zimberg. 

“We are a company of handshakes,” adds Martinez when discussing the disruption of the real- estate industry. “We are trying to find ways to replicate that warmth of a handshake through virtual communication.” 

This is no easy task, but it’s worth showing some vulnerability in order to build trust and model authenticity. For Jaramillo’s weekly video he had an urge to overproduce the video, making it stylistically perfect, but when it came down to it, he knew that the best message was to be authentic himself. “We can take some risks and model that behavior,” he said. 

(Photo credit: SeventyFour/iStock by Getty Images)

Helping Employees Separate Work From Home

“There’s such a big difference between working from home and working while quarantined,” said Jackson. “We work more, and we get less done.”

Many of the panelists agreed that their employees and executives have had a tough time balancing priorities in WFH mode, which for many now is inside their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms. They may struggle to keep up their productivity.

“Don’t go through heroics to make that happen,” warned Zimberg. “You still have to separate out your work from your home. Make sure your Saturday and Sunday look different than your Monday through Friday. Because I don’t want you working seven days a week.”

Pausing to reflect on this behavior and encouraging balance is a good way to combat employee burnout and build sustainable practices. Jaramillo advocates data analysis as a useful predictor of burnout. “We started to see the drivers of rest, competency and capacity going down for our product and engineering team, so we said ‘Hey, you’re about to burn out,’” he said. 

Taking a step back and allowing for rest and recovery is essential for teams now working in less structured environments. 

Building Trust at a Distance

How can you be sure that your employees are doing what they say they are when you don’t occupy the same space? Our panel emphasized the power of building (and often rebuilding) trust with employees as the key to surviving this new remote era. 

Zimberg mentioned clarity of ownership, as well as opportunity to participate, as keys to setting up clear expectations about tasks. “An email goes out to many people and now you’ve got five people scurrying to do that one thing. Especially in this time of chaos, having that sense of who owns what, while still having encouragement to engage, has been invaluable,” she said.

Managers who are used to overseeing their employees closely in the office may need to take a step back. Jackson mentions that communicating your working style to your team is an essential part of building and repairing trusting relationships. 

“If when you’re nervous, you reach for more command and control and you’re looking to meddle in people’s affairs and double-check on things because you feel nervous, that’s an important thing for you to communicate,” said Jackson. 

Resiliency, Meditation, and “Tiger King”

In the Q&A portion of the webinar, attendees wanted to know how to build personal resilience and soothe worker anxiety. 

Many companies are offering team meditations and specialized mental-health sessions to help struggling employees. This includes communicating to teams that the tough times ahead are opportunities to grow. 

“Resiliency is the ability to take in challenge and difficulty and metabolize that into personal growth,” said Jaramillo. “Resilience is a muscle. It’s not something we’re born with or not. It is a muscle we can intentionally build up over time.” 

Finally, our panelists offered some parting suggestions to bring levity and warmth to trying times.

“I’m going to challenge my team to send in the best meme of the day,” Martinez said. 

“I like to ask my team, ‘What have you learned about yourself in quarantine?,’ and that always evokes some fun answers,” said Zimberg. 

“My memes and my inside jokes have all been dominated by the ‘Tiger King’ phenomenon,” Jackson quipped. “So if you haven’t watched it and you’re not talking about it, you’re missing out!”

Editor’s Note: You can watch a video of this webinar by registering here. Please join us this Thurs., April 9, at 2 pm EDT for our next webinar, focusing on workplace culture with Emtrain CEO and founder Janine Yancey. Here’s where to register.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.