Training and supporting remote workers: Q&A with expert Esther Derby

Last March many employers frantically sent employees home to work. Now a full year has passed, and it’s apparent that working from home is not a temporary situation. Now, employers are searching for more effective ways to engage and support employees over the long-term. 

To discuss the challenges and opportunities in the supervision, training, and professional development of remote employees, we sat down (remotely) with local expert Esther Derbyan internationally-known speaker, author, consultant and advisor who works with leaders to make workplaces more effective and more humane.

BN: How do you see our current remote working situation? Are we in this for the long haul?

ED: When all of this started, somebody said, ‘we are not working from home, we are at home during a pandemic, trying to work.’ Last year, we went into a big old bucket of chaos, and we muddled our way through it. I’d say we have reached a new status quoHowever, judging from mothers in a mental health crisis and the number of women leaving the work force I think we still have work to do to make it sustainable, particularly for people who have responsibilities caring for children or elders. 

People’s contexts have collapsed. It used to be we had work and we had home. Now they’re all mixed in. That is stressful. Expecting us to keep them totally separate is not reasonable. 

BN: What are the challenges you see to training and supporting remote employees?

ED: One of the most critical things is to learn how to facilitate creative, effective remote meetings. Everyone is spending a lot of time on Zoom. It’s deadly. It’s not impossible to create an engaging remote creative space, but it’s a different set of skills. You have to think differently in how you engage participation, how you use the modalities, visuals, small groups. It’s important to consider how we think about work that needs to happen in a group, and work that can happen asynchronously. That’s a huge one.

BN: Can you talk more about discerning what work needs to happen together, and what work can happen separately? How do people work collaboratively and remotely?

ED: I am a big fan of collaborative work. You can’t do it as easily in a remote space. Spending eight hours on Zoom all day is horrifying. People are exhausted by it. I think we need to look at what people can work on individually and what they need to come together for, and then make that together time as effective as we can. People can do research on their own and share research together. People can do some individual brainstorming on their own and share that together. People can work on creating a draft on their own and refine it together. But that implies you need to know how to orchestrate effective group decisions. That becomes more important in this space. 

BN: How do you create space in a virtual environment for the informal interactions that help trainees integrate information?

ED: At the beginning of any workshop I teach, I explicitly set aside time for people to get to know each other. I put them in small groups with a set of questions, so they aren’t on the spot, stammering to figure out what to talk about. I make that an explicit value – I want you to get to know each other.

I also leave space in every session to do a little check in. I don’t call it chit chat - that’s devalued in a lot of organizations, but it’s important. A big impact of this pandemic is that the informal networks through which much work gets done are all broken now. Those opportunistic meetings in the lunchroom or coffee bar or walking to and from a meeting are all gone. So, people tend to focus only on the people they’re working with, and not on the broader networks that used to support information flow and the cross-pollination of ideas, and in some cases, sales opportunities.

BN: Is there a way to create opportunities for those informal conversations and connections?

ED: A company largely doing remote work for years has supported channels to talk about other interests. Like for the people who brew beer, or knit or sail. The company has sanctioned channels within the communication platform, (I think they use Slack) which helps recreate some of the networks across the organization.

For years with remote teams, I have found it helpful to have a channel for chitchat. People get to know each other as people. That feeds into meetings in a creative way. People are more likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt if they know them. There is research that people are more evaluative in remote spaces. They tend to evaluate a little more harshly than they would in person. When there is conflict, people who know each other are more likely to remember, oh yeah, I like this person.

BN: What about one-on-one interactions between manager and employee?

ED: Managers can really benefit from honing their skills in a one-on-one meeting so that it’s a purposeful, predictable use of time, and not just getting on a Zoom and expecting there to be a rich conversation. It’s even more important to develop some skills to have a rich conversation because you can’t just stop by someone’s desk. Those one-on-one meetings can be part of manager’s information system to understand what’s going on with individuals and at the systems level.

BN: How often should these individual meetings occur?

ED: It depends on the assignments people are working on, if they’re highly experienced and highly confident in a situation, or if they’re on a difficult assignment or a high stakes customer. You have to be meeting at some regular interval. In some ways the direct manager is that person’s connection to the overall company. If that goes away, people can drift in their sense of engagement, purpose and in their understanding of what the company is trying to accomplish and what they can do to contribute to that. 

BN: If managers aren’t already offering these one-on-ones, should the employee request a weekly check in?

ED: Managers are overwhelmed, too, so don’t start with a long-term request, but just a request for a single meeting. Come in prepared with questions. You may want to send the questions ahead of time, depending on the research and thought required. At the end of the conversation they can say, this has been very useful to me, can we have another one?

BN: How can employers help provide professional development opportunities to their employees? Are conferences still a good option?

ED:  I have talked with tons of people about conferences who say the talks are great, but where they really learn stuff is in the hallway conversations. A lot of people are trying to do conferences virtually, and some of the software is better, but you don’t get the chance to meet people and you miss all the personal connection. I wouldn’t assume that an online conference is going to deliver the same value. Most of them have not figured out how to recreate the professional interaction that also goes on with the talks. 

As a presenter, I try to build interaction into all my talks. I’m asking questions and people can respond in the chat. I respond to those questions and weave that into the talk. I may break up the talk into chunks so I can get Q&A after each chunk. There’s a bunch of ways to build interactivity. Sometimes people build word clouds, or answer polls and quizzes. It’s important to ‘up’ the interaction. It’s really hard to focus on that little screen for too long.