Dealing with Remote Environments

A CEO described the stress on individuals and organizations of being remote.  They noted that it led to lack of trust, rumors getting out of control, and very transactional relationships. They saw how people would reach out only if there was a reason to. The informal interactions in the office or over dinner – the ones that build empathy, connection, and trust —  are missing. Since many companies will continue to be remote or hybrid, addressing these issues is important.

COVID Stress Makes Staff Feel Overwhelmed and Inadequate

As told by a nonprofit CEO somewhere in the US

Hold your board and staff close

I am CEO of a large, multi-state nonprofit organization. These last years, the COVID years, have been hard. Hard on my staff. Hard on my board.

I can give two examples on the staff side. In both, my staff people felt overwhelmed, deficient. My assistant got a job at a for-profit company. She was recently divorced and needed more money for rent and childcare. We couldn’t pay enough. She was feeling terrible, though. The mission was important to her and to go corporate was hitting her badly. I said to her, “You have to earn whatever you have to earn to keep your children safe and pay your bills. Don’t worry about it. You can come back to the mission when it works for you.” But as we talked, it was more than money. I could feel this growing frustration, this anxiety about COVID, about all the things that don’t work. Childcare does not work. Elder care does not work. Schools are not working. And my assistant who is extremely capable and can handle huge messes, felt she could not fix the things that were not working as she usually could.

Another example is also a highly skilled professional staff person. She told me she had talked to her child’s teacher. She said, “I can’t do what you do. I can’t be the supervising teacher in the background, I have a full time job. I can’t do my job and manage my kids.” She felt overwhelmed and inadequate.

People Want Someone to Fix Things

People have this giant sense that things are really bad for them. They want someone to help them solve their problems. So, they look to the people who lead their organizations. They want their leaders to do something, to make sure things improve. It’s not specific, not “do this thing to make it possible for me to work remotely.” It’s that the world is bad, and somebody needs to fix it. And when the leaders don’t fix things, the workers start to wonder if the leaders should keep their positions. Maybe another leader could fix things. When you layer this angst on top of people not seeing each other in person, you lose the interpersonal connections. You don’t get to talk about your kids or your parents, and your supervisor or the CEO is not there to express their empathy.

This Environment Leads to Dehumanizing, Transactional Relationships

The situation is similar for my board. We have had two classes of new board members whom I have never met in person. Only on Zoom. Having Zoom meetings is better than not meeting. But we are missing out on having dinner first where we had the personal conversations. Nobody hears about what’s going on for anybody else. People’s personal struggles and joys are not shared. Those conversations are the social lubricant of the workplace and the board room.

We try to keep the meetings short and more focused. We do not want to force people to sit in front of their screens too much. That worked in the beginning, but it clearly will not work for the long haul. The environment we are in leads to very transactional relationships. You reach out when you want something, not just to chat. While it is better than nothing, it is also dehumanizing. I think that it lets good things go unnoticed and bad things to percolate.

Lack of Trust Causes a Board to Fall Apart

On the board side, we had a situation that came to the Executive Committee. It was an HR issue. Personnel issues such as this are handled by the Executive Committee which then reports back to the full board.

The Exec Committee did the right thing. They did an independent investigation. But there was a breakdown in communications. The Executive Committee did not alert the full board that something was up. The person who made the accusation felt that the investigation was not going fast enough, and this person sent an email to the full board. So that’s how the rest of the board heard about it – from this staff person – not from the Executive Committee.

People on the board panicked when they got the email – which was full of allegations that were proven to be untrue. But it is a natural reaction to say, “Oh my god, what kind of problem do we have? What as a responsible board member am I expected to do?” And board members were upset that they were not told what was going on.

Board members were fighting. It was so bad, some board members were threatening to fire the entire Executive Committee. A real split happened which I attribute to the fact that they don’t really know each other. They had not built trust. Usually, you trust your fellow board members – the Finance Committee does a deep dive into finance. Exec does the deep dive into personnel issues. Not everyone has to know everything. Plus, new board members were not onboarded as thoroughly as before. They clearly did not understand that the Executive Committee also serves as the personnel committee. If the board members had understood the role of Exec and if they had trusted the board members on Exec, they would not have panicked.

Rumors Grow Because People Don’t Make an Effort to Check In

At some point, staff demanded to know what was going on because the investigation was taking too long. A story started circulating. One version of the story gained ground. What used to happen was you would pass someone in the hall, and they would say, “Hey I am a little worried. I heard this thing. What’s up?” And you could make casual corrections in the moment. But in this remote working environment that does not happen. Nobody sees you. They have to proactively call you in order to tell you what is going on, which heightens their involvement and responsibility. And people don’t do that. They don’t want to get involved.

The board lost control. More and more staff people started to know about the issue. I don’t know if the person who made the accusation talked to a lot of people or if the board was just sloppy. Because it was an HR matter, they should have closed themselves in a cone of silence while the investigation went forward – and even afterward. Usually with an HR matter, you say “This is private, and we don’t share information. Everyone gets their due process. Once we have the information then we will decide. And we may or may not share information because it is a private HR matter.” When the board realized that more and more people knew of the issue, they should have put a stop to it.

The independent investigation came back to say that it was not a big issue, that some training would be sufficient. But some board members thought that was the wrong answer. They wanted a different answer. So now there was an entirely different problem. There was a complete breakdown in trust.

Lessons Learned

I recommend since we are continuing with remote work at least to some extent, that CEO’s hold regular town-hall events so people could ask questions.

I would also reach out to people individually more. If someone cancelled a meeting, don’t assume it was some scheduling conflict. Take the opportunity to reach out and say, “I notice you cancelled. What’s going on?” Take every opportunity to make connections, to give people the chance to ask questions or tell you what is going on. They won’t necessarily pick up the phone and engage in a tough conversation with you unbidden.

And my advice to all my colleagues is hold your board tight. You know, hold your staff people tight in whatever way you can do it, try to get everyone together, have a retreat or some way of reestablishing connection. Then keep reaching out to maintain those connections.

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