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Engage despite the distance – Anna's top 5 tips

Bonus – what's the biggest mistake made by leaders when leading a team from home?

02 July 2020

Leaders all over the world are now facing the same challenge: how do you maintain employee engagement when you’re all working from home? Reading the room is one thing, but reading someone else’s room through a webcam with the various hiccups associated with digital meetings is a whole other cup of tea. How do we tackle this? How can we make sure our employees feel engaged? According to our Global Head of Talent Acquisition & Employer Brand Anna Gulliksen, we need to rethink the way we look at this crisis and start seeing it as an opportunity – especially if you’re building a whole new team.

Hi Anna! How does it feel to lead your team during these times?
Well, before the pandemic my team was spread out in Sweden and Norway, so we were already used to working together even though we were spread out in different locations. However, I used to spend half of my working week traveling to different locations so that I could have as much face-to-face time with all of them, regardless of where they were. We were just finishing the set-up for our new organization after the merge between Tieto and EVRY when Covid-19 became a fact and the company quickly acted, resulting in close to all employees working from home. Suddenly, I couldn’t travel anymore to see my employees – including the ones I hadn’t even met yet. 

I’m not going to lie – it was challenging to build up trust and find the right path to travel together. I’m used to being able to travel when I felt the need to, and I quickly had to find new ways to interact with my old and new employees. I’m happy I decided to embrace the “new normal” and adapt my leadership to it, rather than waiting for the pandemic to pass. 


Pictured: Anna Gulliksen

Adding to this, you need to be sympathetic to the fact that everyone’s home-office-situation varies greatly. Personally, I’ve felt as if though I’ve gained a great number of extra hours every day, as I’m not traveling half of my time. My children are adults and they’ve left the nest, and I have a garden which I can work and relax in. To sum it up, I have time, peace, and a quiet place to work from. Other’s live differently, with cramped housings, or small children with colds who are literally climbing the walls – or both combined! Even though you might not be able to help your employees with their situations, you need to show empathy and listen to those who find it challenging to work from home, day after day. And regardless of what the home-office-situation looks like, some simply struggle with keeping up discipline or to structure their workday – it’s your job as their leader to see this and to come up with a solution together with your employee.  


What do you think is the greatest mistake that leaders do when leading their team remotely?
This is an interesting question and one that I believe we’ll get a clearer answer to when some more time has passed. However, I have already noticed that things tend to become problematic if you continue to work the way you did as when you were all gathered in the same office. It’s simply not the same thing, and if you don’t adapt your leadership to these new circumstances your employees won’t feel as if they’re developing professionally – which means they’ll start looking for a new job. If you’re used to working in the same office as your employees, you might be shocked to see how easily the group dynamic can change as soon as everyone’s sat in front of a screen at home. You’re in charge of managing this dynamic and steering it towards something positive, where you find a camaraderie even though everyone’s at home. 

I strongly believe it was beneficial for me to get a new team as the crisis happened because we’re all in the same situations, I didn’t have any preconceptions about how people were, and building the team was simply as a blank page waiting to be filled. 


Annas top 5 tips on how to create employee engagement without meeting up physically:

1. Build trust
I know, it sounds obvious. But building trust is hard, it takes time, and it’s crucial to create a relationship with each and everyone in your team. Sometimes it’s quickly done, other times it takes a bit longer, but all relationships are equally important. To gain trust with your employees you need to be clear about what type of leader you are, not the one you wish you were. Are you the type that wants to know all the details? Or do you just want the bigger picture? Regardless, let your employees know who you are, including your flaws. It’s only when you’ve done this that you can expect trust from your employees. 


2. Be transparent
The need for information is only growing from day to day as we continue working from home, with everyone trying to find their place in the team. Despite being a part of social gelling, idle gossip can be devastating when we’re working from home and you must be as transparent, clear, and honest as possible. Share all the information you can, even if it’s “unnecessary”. Show your team that you let them in on all you can and be honest if a question rises up to the surface that you don’t have an answer to.

3. Involve your team
When you involve your employees in different projects and tasks whilst working from home, you’re allowing them to develop and grow their professional skills. Feeling needed, trusted, and valuable is of great importance when you’re sat at home, and this is a perfect opportunity to let your employees shine. While you’re at it, you can try to mix the project groups, so that people who maybe haven’t had a chance to work together gets the opportunity to get to know their colleagues better. Win-win!


4. Give digital workshops a go (yes, again!)
We can no longer gather round a physical whiteboard and stick an abundance of post-its on it, but there’s no reason as to why every leader shouldn’t be able to have a successful digital workshop! Despite its bad reputation, I’ve found digital workshops to be efficient, fun, and most importantly, a great tool to keep your employee engagement on track. You need to accept the circumstances given and do a little extra planning. There are lots of tools to make the workshop easier and more productive, and if you allocate time slots to each and every participant as well as decide on an effective system for how to handle questions (like using the chat functions for questions) you’re on your way to succeeding. 


5. Let them in
Some people find it hard to let other’s get a glimpse into their private sphere as they want to keep up their professional appearance. It could be things such as a messy backdrop, more or less clothed children who loudly demands their parents' attention or the fact that you’re still in your PJs. But the way I see it, we’re all in this together – everyone is getting a glimpse into everyone else’s life! I for one am very grateful that I get to glimpse into the lives of my employees. I’ve always got the webcam on and I try my best to not take myself too seriously and let my employees glimpse into my personal life as well, as they’re probably just as curious about me as I am of them. 


 Anna: I’d just before this meeting figured out the snap filter for the camera in Teams (or so I thought). As a result, I got stuck as a potato for the whole meeting with my Nordic team. According to them, this was the highlight of the week. 


If you’re managing a new team, this is the perfect time to let everyone share mixed professional and private fun facts about themselves, such as “no one would ever guess this about me”, or “this is something I’m very proud of”.


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