|I have a coaching client I’ll call Kerry, who is a successful leader with a very large organization. Kerry has a great reputation, excellent personal presence, and strong communication skills; and received multiple promotions over the years. Together, we’ve been working on strategies to help them grow quickly into a new position, which is fully remote, like the other roles Kerry has been in for the last six years, but unlike most of the rest of their organization.
Recently, I asked Kerry, “What do you think makes for a successful remote leader?”
Kerry laughed and said, “You know, I’ve been working from home for years. And you’re the first person who’s ever asked me that. People act like it’s still temporary. It’s not.”
When we look at the massive changes that the pandemic brought to the workplace, a lot of the world’s focus has been on two groups who are now working from home.
At CRL, we call them, “Virtual Evacuees,” and “Virtual Immigrants.”
But there’s a third, equally important group that are often ignored, called “Virtual Natives,” the folks who’ve already been working from home for a very long time.
Here’s how we see them:
1. Virtual Evacuees: These are the people who are working remotely only because they have to. But they see the arrangement as mostly temporary. These folks are mostly delighted, but also a little anxious, to go back into the office because they’ve felt an acute loss of connection, creativity, productivity, and fun. They’re okay with the concept of a hybrid schedule (i.e., 2-3 days in the office, other times at home). But when pressed, they’ll tell you the real work gets done in the office, with other people.
2. Virtual Immigrants: These are the people driving a lot of the alleged Great Resignation (or “Great Reconsideration” as we at CRL call it). They visited the country called “Remote Work,” and then found that they wanted to move there permanently, or at least spend lots of time there. Sure, they’ll come into the office, “if they have to,” or for major events. Oftentimes they’re striving to be Natives (see below) but they see the value of the hybrid approach, with as much flexibility as possible. In short, they want to keep most of what has changed, though they miss some things.
3. Virtual Natives: These are the people, like Kerry, who started working remotely long before the pandemic, some for many years. They’d grown used to sitting on endless conference calls, being forgotten and/or ignored by folks sitting together in some far away conference room, are trying to find their way to understanding through confusing Polycom transmissions, eating their own cheese sandwich while those in the conference room have their catered lunch brought in, and having to do extra work to make sure their contributions are heard. Video wasn’t widely used prior to the pandemic, so they didn’t get to see the people they were talking with. Their life now is relatively unchanged – except for the better.
Interestingly, during the pandemic, unlike the Virtual Evacuees or the Virtual Immigrants, many Virtual Natives began to feel more connected to, listened to, and a part of the action than they ever did before, partly because everyone was now using new technology like Zoom, Google Meet, MS Teams, or Webex. They found that they don’t get interrupted as often since everybody has to unmute to speak, and people don’t talk over each other as much as in the past when most people were in a room while a few were calling in. They’ve found that with cameras on (and/or at least initials on screen), remote people aren’t forgotten nearly as easily.
What’s even more interesting is that many Virtual Natives are introverts who have always found that the WFH (Work from Home) life is far less stressful than commuting into an office every day. And many of them often wonder why everyone can’t simply stay virtual from now on.
For those in senior leadership positions, who are considering what to do now that we’re approaching some semblance of post-pandemic normalcy, it’s vital to remember that Virtual Natives also are a rich source of experience on what works, and what doesn’t work, from a virtual standpoint. At the very least, they should be respected and solicited for their advice and insight.
Here are a some of things Virtual Natives have told us:
1) Train people on the technologies: teach everyone how to use virtual technology and to develop their personal and leadership presence on-line. Help them understand how conversations and group activities need to be adjusted for the virtual environment
2) Agree as a Group About the “Rules”: Cameras, no cameras, when cameras, etc. should be discussed openly and fairly. (The Virtual Natives say they should be used, and always when a person is speaking.)
3) Plan and Follow-up: Virtual Natives tell me they are well-acquainted with watching the newcomers adjust to the distractions of WFH. Make agendas, do follow-up emails like never before. Otherwise, distractions will make things get lost!
4) Equalize the Experience: If one person is virtual/on camera, everyone should have their laptops out and be online, even if they are all sitting in a conference room together.
5) Take Advantage of the Pros: Virtual Natives point out there are lots of “pros” to the Virtual WFH world that people don’t take advantage of. People are often more open, more accessible, and can adjust their own appearance to increase their presence, if they pay attention.
To summarize, it’s time to accept all our virtual employees, and to help them work with and through the changes that remote work technology has wrought. If you want good advice on how to make it work (and you should), then call on your Virtual Natives – your Kerry’s – and take advantage of what they can bring to the virtual table. You may be pleasantly surprised!
By Cynthia Burnham, MBA
Cynthia Burnham is a Master Corporate Executive Coach, an expert speaker and facilitator, the author of The Charisma Edge, and a member of CRL’s Advisory Council.