I’ve been lucky enough to manage people for most of my career. I started right out of college at an insurance company with a small team and it blossomed from there. Every role over the next few decades involved people management. While I loved all my roles, one in particular really helped me grow as a leader -- managing a call center in financial services.
The energy in a call center is incredible. There is a peaceful hush in the morning before the phone lines open, with colleagues enjoying their coffee and chatting before the exhilaration and chaos of the day takes over. Nothing could beat the excitement of the market close, especially on a big day where the market was either way up or way down. Voices would be coming from every corner of the room and many people would stand to increase their energy over the phone. The celebration of a great call was met with an enthusiastic thumbs-up, or a ball toss through the air - there was magic in the energy and vigor radiating from every employee.
As a manager, I would walk the aisles to connect and provide support in real-time or participate in bringing candy and snack carts to make busy days a little easier. I loved getting high fives as we walked by. The counter to the stillness of the morning was the comradery at the end of a long, rewarding day, where colleagues would gather in the hall to decide where to go for drinks.
Through the years, that magical experience has stuck with me. And now, I find myself wondering how it would translate into a hybrid world? Post-pandemic, office culture has forever changed, as a large percentage of employees are remaining fully or partly remote.
How do leaders inspire and teach when some employees are physically present and some are remote? How can I be sure my remote employees do not think I am favoring the ones in the office? How do I create energy and build the team as one with this new world? Many of my current clients are uncomfortable with this changing dynamic. These questions are top of mind for many leaders. If they’re not, they should be!
The most interesting part of this dilemma is that it isn’t new. Prior to the pandemic, managers worked with teams in diverse locations - some employees were in different offices, constantly traveled for business, or worked remotely. Looking back, as leaders, how did we engage those who weren’t physically present? Did everyone have an equal voice? Did we use video effectively? Did we set norms on how our team would operate? Unfortunately, we weren’t always giving equal consideration to remote employees.
Right now, we have an opportunity to reset that cannot be squandered. Instead of returning to pre-pandemic routines, it’s critical to adopt new strategies to create a new dynamic work environment where the people we manage do not feel lost.
Take a moment to revisit the call center, reimagined for the hybrid world. The morning still kicks off with a quick meeting to get energized...but in this world, the manager has to give more creative thought to the people not in the office with them. Everyone in the center can huddle up with their coffee, while remote folks join in with theirs - this morning ritual and reprieve is worth preserving. Engaging remote employees with the perks of office life, like group lunches, snacks, a cup of coffee on the boss, etc. can all be replicated through the use of virtual gift cards or surprise lunch credit to their favorite delivery service. Some companies are experimenting with tools like Donut which creates the water cooler effect. Using virtual collaboration tools like Slack or Teams for kudos, highlights, questions, and collaboration ensures that all can participate, no matter where they are located.
These changes will require creativity, new skills, and continued practice, but I am confident that the investment will result in stronger team relationships. After all, the most important part of managing people is prioritizing them - creating time for meaningful connection, providing them with tools to collaborate and cheer each other on, and figuring out ways to capture the energy, comradery, and magic of teamwork.