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While the rules of engaging teams and customers never change, the rules of how we interact drastically changed this year. As 2020 draws to a close, many are asking, “How can I prevent a remote workforce from causing unintended business challenges?” There is genuine concern about how long we can stay disconnected at work before unintended consequences start to arise.
Whether trying to run a business, lead project teams, manage field crews or maintain effective relationships with customers and project owners, executives and employees alike are trying to understand how to avoid “drifting apart.” They fear that months of physical distancing could stymie engagement and allow resentment to creep in.
In response, I’ve developed a tactical game plan to help drive genuine engagement across our business.
Lean on operations support teams
Business operations support teams are key to effective engagement because they can help you communicate with staff. And in our current environment, you must remain vigilant about regular communications.
With teams physically disconnected, activities we might take for granted, such as monthly team newsletters or all-hands meetings, are more important than ever. Use these channels to share current information with your teams.
However, it’s not enough to simply provide updates. Instead, connect the reporting with the work your employees are doing each day. Use recurring communications to demonstrate how their daily work contributes to team goals and progress.
Moreover, consider gathering safely at an outdoor location to meet in person, allowing employees to opt-out and offering a virtual option for those who aren’t comfortable doing so.
Show them you care
When it comes to field teams, leaders must show an interest in their workforce’s work. You must demonstrate genuine curiosity about how a project is going, what the experience is like, how you can help, and what the company can do to support them and the project.
Most importantly, your field team must recognize they have a support mechanism backing them up. If you haven’t interacted with your field team in several months, you run the risk they might convince themselves they’re in this alone.
While professional staff works remotely, most craft teams and the projects they support continue showing up to work at the jobsite each day. This dynamic could drive a psychological wedge between the two interdependent parties if not managed with care.
To that end, we’ve built out a comprehensive list of suggestions for supporting field teams. These recommendations were developed with the understanding that a team in Seattle may require a vastly different solution set than someone in Texas, for example.
For many of our projects, we’re conducting monthly “virtual job walks” via videoconference. While not the same as being there in person, it’s better than no contact at all. They provide an opportunity to walk through project progress, hear what’s working or what challenges exist. These virtual job walks should be used to express a genuine interest in what — and how — they’re doing.
Another creative approach that adds an element of the traditional in-person meeting is to conduct what we call a “perimeter walk.” This approach offers some much-needed personal interaction with your foreperson in a safer, socially distanced outdoor setting.
Perimeter walks allow you to point to jobsite progress and gain different perspectives on the project, such as from the sidewalk or across the street. It is a great way to satisfy the need for human connection and move beyond virtual meetings.
Lastly, the third approach we’re using — but only when safe and approved by the project lead — is in-person visits onsite. Not everyone will be comfortable with this approach, and that is completely understandable. Don’t push this option on teams if they’re nervous about in-person visits.
However, this is why several options exist to suit varying needs and circumstances. If you haven’t interacted with your foreperson in three or four months, disengagement can become an issue.
Keeping customers engaged
As with field team meetings, it’s critical to the success of your project — and future projects — to not fall behind on regular customer communications. This should include daily, weekly and monthly interactions, which all too frequently aren’t occurring, or not often enough.
To that end, it’s incumbent upon us to find new ways to reconnect with customers. We started seeing examples of this near the end of summer, such as socially distanced golf tournaments.
Teams ignoring customer engagement may find themselves onboarding unintentional risk. Chief among them is the possibility that teams could face a shallow project backlog in the future. As with your field foreperson, disconnected customers may start to feel their project interests are not being supported. My instinct tells me that too much time has passed, and we need to get creative in finding ways to connect with our customers.
If necessary, engage with customers via videoconference; a virtual conversation is better than none at all. If possible, however, try to meet in person. Of course, it’s critical to observe and respect legal, health and safety guidelines, but consider meeting outside or in a socially distanced conference room.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve conducted monthly customer rhythm-of-business meetings to review project scorecards. These meetings offer a chance to remain engaged, listen intently and find out how we’re doing on their projects.
Occupational hazards partnerships
Several industry organizations we belong to are tackling what I describe as the new occupational hazards. While participation halted early in the pandemic, it’s imperative that we collectively lean into these organizations with peers and competitors alike to find solutions to tough issues. These efforts have paid dividends recently, providing training and tools to address a host of new topics.
One organization we’re a part of, SafeBuild Alliance Washington, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the construction culture and eliminating incidents and injuries on jobsites. However, in recent months, they’ve focused on emerging challenges in our industry, such as COVID-19, social unrest, political anxiety, and dealing with economic uncertainties such as a partner or spouse losing their job.
Previously considered taboo topics, our industry needs to address them head-on with care and empathy.
Similarly, there’s been a trend in recent years to have a health specialist onsite for occupational hazards and safety. Since the start of the pandemic, however, they are often tasked with handling more difficult topics such as substance abuse, depression and anxiety, mental health and wellness, psychological safety along with physical security, and so on.
We’ve seen this health specialist role on a few projects in the past two years, and we’re now using it as an on-call service for our project teams. As difficult as this year has been, I hope that COVID-19 serves as a catalyst to discuss these issues with our workforce.
But is it working?
Because these solutions are not one-size-fits-all, they must be continually monitored and measured to ensure they’re addressing the engagement deficit. At McKinstry, we hold quarterly conversations with direct reports. These are not performance reviews; they’re dedicated to asking employees how they’re doing, what they need help with and where they’re feeling constrained.
Most importantly for managers and leaders, these conversations provide an opportunity to listen and gauge what is and isn’t working.
Survey tools such as SurveyMonkey are a great way to solicit feedback about how well your organization maintains engagement or to find out if employees feel supported. The feedback we’ve received has been mostly positive, with employees noting that they can tell we’re doing what we can to help.
But responses change from month to month, which proves that you can’t deploy one idea and assume it’s the right approach four months later.
Until we’ve either adapted to this “new normal” or made it through the pandemic, this will be an ongoing leadership challenge because the ground will continue moving below us. If you take your eye off the engagement ball, you risk “losing” your teams, your customers — or both. If you ask me, it’s not a risk worth taking.