Making Remote Work, Work

by Phil Kalin

Welcome to the new reality of remote work. My VP of HR recently participated in a virtual conference with a few hundred counterparts from insurance companies around the world, and the consensus was that none of them will return to the kind of physical work arrangements they had pre-COVID. In fact, none of them anticipated having more than 50% occupancy of their offices again. Ever.

I’d wager many of your companies are making the same plans. I know we are. So it’s incredibly important to learn what’s working with our work-from-home arrangements, and what can be improved.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for all of us is the lack of in-person connection. Personally, one of the things I miss most is the random connections – bumping into people in the break areas or doing my random drive-by catch ups throughout the building. Our team members have told us they miss just asking a question across cubicles.

So some of our teams have created virtual water coolers: an open, unstructured time on Zoom or Google Hangouts when people can just chat with one another or bounce a question off the team. And some of our leaders have set up virtual office hours: a dedicated block of time when they’ll make themselves available for anyone on the team to pop in for an informal 1:1 via Zoom, Google Hangouts Chat or Slack. Another idea is a dedicated “venting” time on the team channel, when team members can blow off steam about the unique stresses of this challenging time.

Of course, supervising becomes especially challenging in a virtual environment. Some of our leaders have had success adjusting the frequency of their check-ins with the team based on how each person is doing with working remotely: for some team members a regular weekly check-in workers, but others might need more frequent ones – sometimes a more personal touch-base rather than checking on the work. And in weekly team meetings and daily standups, our leaders are finding they need to build in extra time to accommodate the need to check in on how everyone is faring. I’m sure we’re not unique in saying that we’ve seen more tears in our team meetings and 1:1s over the last couple of months than we’re accustomed to.

That’s led our leaders to take team wellness very seriously. Team nature walks, shared mental wellness podcasts (e.g., “The Happiness Project”), guided meditations are all tools they’re using to help their team members cope and bond.

Of course, these new management challenges play out against the backdrop of having to actually get the work done. Some of our leaders have always carved out “no meeting days” to allow team members to keep their heads down and focus. Now those are turning into “Zoom diets” (most effective when other teams are on the same diet plan). And remote work environments can be extremely challenging for collaborative work and visioning exercises. Many of our leaders have found success using virtual whiteboard tools like Jam Board, and ScatterSpoke for brainstorms and project retros.

Finally, we’re all learning the need for effective home office setups. We’re currently surveying our employees about their home office needs – second monitors, better chairs, ergonomic assessments, etc. – so we can help them optimize their remote work environment. We can’t help remodel their homes or keep their children quiet, but we can help our employees create a setup that maximizes their comfort and efficiency. Remote work isn’t going away; if we help our teams make it work for them, it will work for us.

Phil Kalin

Phil Kalin joined Pinnacol Assurance as CEO in 2013. He has served as the chief executive of both public and privately-backed companies, including large hospital systems, as well as organizations focused on health care data, technology and education.

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