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Supervising virtually or virtually supervising?

Three practices of supervision are even more important as people are working remotely

For those of us used to working and supervising in an office, check-ins and meetings were almost always in person. We also had informal conversations around the coffee maker and while standing at each other's desks. These were moments when relationships were built, and trust was fostered. Shared space helped us share life, as well as work.


As we have adapted to the realities of the COVID-19 crisis, team leaders and managers of people simply do not have the luxury of these in-person scheduled and impromptu occasions. There is true loss in that. As work turns virtual, we are having to learn new ways of communicating, collaborating, supervising, and nurturing our relationships with colleagues. In this, the most important lesson may be the necessity of intentionality in creating the time to connect with staff both informally and formally.


How do we do so in ways that are both effective and sustainable over weeks or months of remote work?


The Weekly One-on-One

There is no substitute for one-on-one face-time; it is pivotal for maintaining a healthy working relationship with each direct report.

The creators of Manager Tools podcast (#manager-tools) have long held that a weekly one-on-one meeting with each direct report is the foundational practice of supervision. When I first heard this in their podcast, I groaned. But, I supervised more than a dozen staff members over a decade and learned the hard way that what they said is true. There is no substitute for one-on-one face-time; it is pivotal for maintaining a healthy working relationship with each direct report.


Now that we are working and managing remotely, the weekly virtual one-on-one meeting is even more important than before. Virtual one-one-ones (#one-on-ones) using Skype, Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts or FaceTime are better than phone calls, as they allow you to see body language and facial expressions that are insights into the wellbeing of your staff member. Paying attention to the nonverbal cues clue us into how well the staff member is really coping with the transition to working remotely full time.


During these virtual one-on-ones, your staff member “runs their list” with you, sharing the personal or work-related items that feel pertinent to them. Then, you as the supervisor have a chance to run your list with them -- what are the priorities you hope that they are working on and what information do you need from them to do your own work this week. These meetings also give you the chance to answer their questions, to highlight things that they may have missed, and to note what you will need from them in the weeks ahead. Most importantly, by hosting these weekly meetings, you also create a safe container for your staff member to express any difficulties or obstacles that they’re experiencing.


You build trust in this time by scheduling the weekly virtual one-on-one yourself and by turning off all notifications while meeting with your staff. The staff member has your undivided attention during this time each week that you have prioritized by setting the meeting. As the relationship grows and staff begin to trust that the weekly meeting will occur and will be uninterrupted, they will begin to hold the questions that can wait for the meeting, thereby reducing the interruptions to your daily work with random emailed questions that are not critical. At the same time, the weekly one-on-one will keep you connected enough to their work that you will be able to see the smoke from even a small flame. You can engage the situation before it becomes a raging forest fire. Engaging early gives you the opportunity to coach and teach rather than be forced to step in and rescue.


The Daily Check-in

The second indispensable practice of supervising virtually are frequent, yet informal check-ins. The Manager Tools podcast suggests that, when managing remotely, you call your staff member daily, especially if you don’t have a meeting with them at some point during the day. These 5-minute phone calls are the foundation of building and maintaining trust; they allow you to really get to know someone. It is okay if this does not happen every single day. What is not okay is for you to go multiple days without hearing the voice of your staff member. (According to the number of staff you have, this informal touch base may have to rotate, thereby allowing you enough time to do your own work, but the goal is a daily check-in with each staff person.)


The Digital Chat

How much time you dedicate to the digital chat room varies depending upon the needs of your staff.

Last but not least, it is important to be available every day through a digital chatroom. I do not mean that you are available for questions all day long, but staff members should know when they will have access to you to receive a quick answer to a question or input on a project. How much time you dedicate to the digital chat room varies depending upon the needs of your staff. Clearly, if you are on-boarding a new staff member, she or he will have more questions and need more of your time. A more seasoned staff member or team simply needs less attention, especially when performing routine work.


By instituting weekly one-on-one meetings, daily calls, and times for virtual chat, supervisors give ourselves the gift of safeguarding other times when we are not interrupted for random, non-critical questions. In those times, we make progress on the substance of our work and meet our own deadlines.

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