As more employees work fully or partially remote on a permanent basis, leaders will need to step up in the ways that they connect people so that learning can thrive.
As they say, that’s it – that’s the tweet. But since this is a blog, I’ll expand…
One story of many
I’m sure you can cite your own proofs of how remote workers need manager support in developing relationships that can support their learning… here’s one from my inner circle. A friend started a first full-time job in the Big City just at the start of the pandemic. For a year, he worked from home communicating via Zoom like the rest of the world. He was fully immersed in learning by doing, mostly independently, with short bursts of direction-setting (not quite training). When his company reopened their offices, the depth of his interpersonal connections unfortunately did not improve.
Contrary to what had been planned, all of his work colleagues were on the Other Coast. While there were employees in the Big City office location with him, his supervisor, his team, and everyone in his role specialty were working thousands of miles and three time zones away. Despite my friend’s efforts, he has been unable to find the developmental opportunities he needs – timely feedback, opportunity to observe others in action, easy access to more experienced people to answer questions, mentoring conversations, and the general camaraderie that comes from working together on projects.
Distance isn’t the only issue; high demand jobs and tight schedules leave little room for interaction that isn’t immediately on task. Each person’s work can be done independently from others; there’s little opportunity for collaboration and little appetite for socializing.
The ending to this story is still being written. But I can say that it doesn’t matter so much that my friend is working for an industry-leading organization, getting positive feedback on his contributions, and received a strong performance review. Without those opportunities to grow, to fine-tune his skills, to learn new tools and techniques, and to gain confidence, he feels he needs to look for another job that will give him the professional environment he craves. And a great company is likely to lose a talented employee.
Moves to connect
What my friend needs is connection – and helping to build connections between and among people is one of the developmental moves categories in the Quick Guide to Developing People. Moves to connect are those developmental actions that match people with others who can support growth.
In the work environments of the before times, relationships with team members likely grew organically. Their learning from and with one another may have been somewhat effortless as well, borne out of proximity and serendipitous opportunity. As a manager, your moves to connect were actions like pointing out role models, setting up mentoring, and assigning collaborations.
When your team is more often than not remote from one another, however, you need to be more active in helping them to develop the kind of camaraderie and trust that is required for relational learning. You need to actively create opportunity and promote learning interactions.
Promoting interpersonal learning on remote teams
What can a leader do to build relationships across a team – specifically as they relate to ensuring that people are able to learn effectively from and with one another? Here are a few ideas:
Make learning part of team meeting agendas. Help people to be aware of each other’s current learning needs and successes. Encourage them to reach out to one another with advice, resources, and support.
Broker conversations when employees can learn from and with one another. The leader is the common contact – the one who knows everyone’s projects and developmental goals. Encourage specific people to meet for virtual coffee when they have needs in common. Or advise an employee to connect with someone whose skill set is more advanced for advice and support. Remain interested in what happens in those connections and encourage this kind of developmental conversation as part of the work.
Bring people together for learning events. Managers of remote and hybrid teams are being advised to have at least occasional in-person days. These not only provide venue for project work that is best done together, they also help to form and strengthen informal relationships. When in-person time is dedicated to learning (an internal conference, a workshop, etc.), a bond is formed for continued conversation afterwards.
Ensure access to learning materials and subject matter experts. Make sure employees know where to find good resources and who might be a go-to person for specific questions. Make room for learning on the schedule and set the expectation that the team will support one another’s development by helping whenever they can. Invite the team to curate resources for one another.
Encourage virtual relationship-building activities. Invite team members to have coffee or lunch together via videoconference (individually or in small groups). Or suggest that pairs take a walk together via telephone. You could recommend learning-oriented topics of conversation, but don’t underestimate the value of the relationship-building for longer-term learning interactions.
Many employees appreciate working remotely, freeing them from commuting, giving them a bit more freedom in how they spend their days, and allowing them uninterrupted stretches to accomplish their work. At the same time, though, they need to feel part of a team, and even more so, need to feel like they are developing their knowledge and skills.
Leaders have an opportunity to nurture development by strengthening the connection of team members to each other and offering personalized attention to each employee’s learning goals and progress on learning projects. Learning thrives in interpersonal relationships; by making developmental moves that connect, leaders can help employees to accelerate their development even when not gathered together in an office.
This post is part of a series exploring the moves leaders can make to promote development of their teams and employees. Check out the entire developing people series. And please get in touch if I can help you to aquaint your leadership team with these moves and the details of practices that ensure they are effective. I can offer a workshop and other learning materials on the subject.