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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Leading a Remote Workforce: Creating Cohesion During Covid 19

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Geoffrey Leonardelli, Rachel Megitt

Here is a recap of the webinar:

In a new webinar, Rotman professor Geoffrey Leonardelli and Rotman alumna Rachel Megitt (MBA ‘10) tackle the tough questions facing leaders today.

Leading teams is always complex, but managing teams during the COVID-19 outbreak is especially challenging. Today’s managers are tasked with creating a sense of cohesion among employees that are now dispersed because of remote work setups and establishing a feeling of calm in a period of rapid change.

In Leading a Remote Workforce: Creating Cohesion During a Crisis — the second webinar in the Managing Uncertainty: Adapting to and Learning from the COVID-19 Crisis series — Rotman professor Geoffrey Leonardelli and Rotman alumna Rachel Megitt (MBA ‘10) shared relevant insights rooted in theory and from practice, before tackling the tough questions facing managers today.

To open this virtual talk, Leonardelli, who is a professor in the organizational behaviour and human resource management area, reviewed insights derived from research. According to a recently launched survey, though most employees reported that they are just as — or more — productive working from home as they are in the office, only about half of the participants felt that they had received adequate managerial support while working remotely.

This raises new questions including “how do we tackle these kinds of issues? What does it mean for managers to step up and create that supportive environment?” explains Leonardelli, who wants managers to know that there are opportunities to create unity within their teams.

This is a time for strategy and a time to consider new ways of conceptualizing the business.

—Geoffrey Leonardelli, professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management

Megitt, who is the managing director and head of business transformation Canada for RBC Capital Markets’ strategy and transformation group, reflected on her current experience leading a team during a time of great uncertainty. Managers need to be more engaged and high touch in their approach because of the physical separation, she says.

This means that “you're making sure that people feel relevant, they feel valued, and they understand the value they create isn’t necessarily because of their physical presence in the organization, it’s the work that they do and their ability to drive things forward,” says Megitt.

Here’s a sneak peek at their answers to some of the toughest challenges facing managers during this particularly trying time.

How do you onboard a new employee in a virtual workforce?

“Dedicate the time upfront to develop the relationship and establish trust,” says Megitt, who onboarded two new hires during the COVID-19 crisis.

She encourages managers to check in frequently with new team members and find ways for them to interact with the larger team. Megitt had her new hires complete one-on-one training through videoconferencing.

“I want to make sure that the new person doesn’t feel isolated,” she says. “That's a big challenge and something I'm constantly thinking about.”

As a manager, do I need to decide which online platforms to use — or should I leave it up to my team to figure out what works best?

With multiple different online collaboration and communication programs available — Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom — Leonardelli advises managers to set the standards so that they can minimize confusion.

“It’s absolutely essential in this online environment to have rules on how to communicate,” he says.

He also advises managers to be very detailed when assigning projects remotely.

“The more precise you can make your objectives, the fewer questions and fewer iterations you’ll need to go through with your coworkers,” he says. “It’ll lower the likelihood that something will be misinterpreted.”

Going forward, we know that we are going to need to work in a new way. What should we be thinking about now?

“This is a time for strategy and a time to consider new ways of conceptualizing the business,” says Leonardelli. “Reflect on your organization’s response to COVID-19 and what they might do if this should happen again.”

He emphasizes that how an organization acts during a time of crisis can impact the sense of safety and security among employees. Being able to anticipate and move quickly in the event of another big upset can do a lot to curb feelings of anxiety within the company.

Megitt is concerned for the mental health of her team — and for the entire working population.

“I worry about what the workforce will look like when we return to the new version of the old normal, when people are coming back physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted,” says Megitt, who has observed her team members putting in more hours than usual while working remotely.

In the days ahead, she’ll be thinking of ways to maintain a healthy team and how to promote a smooth back-to-work transition.

Watch the full webinar for answers to other questions:

Geoffrey Leonardelli is a professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Rotman School of Management. Widely published in leading academic journals, his research focuses on team dynamics and negotiator effectiveness, as well as their impact on leadership. He leads courses for MBA and executive audiences at Rotman, and conducts change and negotiation training to organizations across industries.
Rachel Megitt (MBA '10), managing director and head, Business Transformation Canada within RBC Capital Markets’ strategy and transformation group. Rachel leads regional and global strategic initiatives with broad enterprise implications, including the IBOR benchmark reform program. She joined RBC Capital Markets in 2011 after spending more than five years across human capital strategy, healthcare strategy and management consulting. She will share her experience of managing a team remotely.