On a Friday afternoon in June 2020, Sarah Fricke logged onto a video call with her colleagues, armed with nine test tubes of wine.
Fricke, senior manager of global sales enablement at RingCentral, had just hired three new team members, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it a challenge to have any sort of culture. With her team scattered all across the country, she could no longer rely on her usual battery of get-to-know-you tasks, exercises, and events.
“I couldn’t bring them to Belmont and walk them through our offices because of quarantine,” Fricke says. “So I had these newbies who were trying to figure out RingCentral.”
That Friday, she decided to try something creative: a virtual wine tasting powered by wine-by-post retailer VINEBOX. For an hour, Fricke and her teammates worked through their rack of test tubes, sipping, tasting, and comparing notes. She says it was an odd experience at first, but by the end, it felt like they were sitting in a bar, laughing, joking, and chatting together.
Fricke’s dedication to employee engagement is impressive — but it isn’t unique.
In a Gallup report based on over four decades of research, including the analysis of 27 million employees’ responses, female managers outperform their male counterparts when it comes to driving employee engagement.
Female managers are not only more likely than male managers to encourage their team members’ development, but they’re also more inclined than their male counterparts to check in on their employees’ progress. Indeed, employees working under female managers are 1.26 times more likely to say someone is looking out for their advancement.
In the pre-pandemic, in-person work environment, such differences were subtle. It was easy to overlook them. But now, with workers physically and often socially isolated, employee engagement is more important than ever. And it’s up to leaders everywhere to make it happen.
“Organizational responses are having a tangible impact on employees,” wrote Jonathan Emmett, associate partner at McKinsey. “Compared with respondents who are dissatisfied with their organizations’ responses, those who say their organizations have responded particularly well are four times more likely to be engaged and six times more likely to report a positive state of well-being.”
Working from home requires more empathy
Working from home can be a lonely experience. According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work, loneliness is the biggest struggle for remote workers. Modern collaboration technology has helped connect distributed teams for work — but informal interactions remain elusive.
Remote workers, for example, don’t enjoy the spontaneous, impromptu connections their on-site counterparts do. They don’t walk past someone’s desk and strike up a conversation about weekend plans. Neither do they hang around after meetings to chat about the latest Netflix show.
But it’s not just the isolation that gnaws at workers. The pandemic forced vast swathes of the labor force into remote work without warning. As local and national shelter-in-place orders took hold, our kitchens became offices, and our basements, living rooms, and nurseries evolved into meeting rooms. All the while, kids, pets, and partners bustled in the background. Instead of switching off at 5:00pm, work remained an ever-present presence — laptops always in sight, beckoning us to check our emails or chat messages just one more time.
The unique challenges of working from home may explain why women leaders excel. Today’s workplaces need empathy. Leaders must understand the emotions of their co-workers. They must feel their stress and experience their worries. Only by understanding how their colleagues feel can leaders take steps to improve their wellbeing.
“All of our employees aren’t just dealing with work issues — because life is all in one place now, they are dealing with their WiFi not working, a broken refrigerator, their mom in a nursing home,” she says. “Everyone is feeling the pressure of working from home differently, so we have all needed to operate with a little bit more grace and kindness.”
It’s not surprising that Burke has excelled during the pandemic. A recent UCLA study confirmed that women are better at feeling others’ pain. “Females may be more empathic because they really understand your predicament, your emotional state,” said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, one of the researchers behind the study. “They feel it almost under their skin.”
To improve our workplaces, we must look to leaders, such as Burke and Fricke, who are thinking creatively, innovating readily, and executing quickly. By understanding both how they think about leadership and how they practically manage their team, we can improve our leadership skills and create better workplaces both in and outside the office.
Learning from the best
Technology is at the center of any effective remote leadership strategy. With hundreds or even thousands of miles between co-workers, technology must bridge the gap, helping people communicate and collaborate. But in a work-from-home environment, you need to take extra steps for technology to deliver its best results. For example, at DataEndure, Burke’s team started working from home with few people using video calls. But she drove a video-on cultural shift so people would see their colleagues every day.
“We’ve completely flipped—we’ve got cameras on all the time,” she explains. “I put my camera on all the time because I want them to see me so they can pick up sensory cues, like if I’m smiling or if I’m confused. There’s something to the nonverbal cues that make video necessary to keeping the human connection.”
With the technological foundation in place, leaders can turn their attention to forging stronger interpersonal relationships.
Consider Karen Peterson, CMO at Lendio, who worked in a remote team long before the pandemic. Even back then, she recalls an old manager who intentionally created informal “water cooler” experiences with her remote direct reports.
“My manager would text me random thoughts throughout the day just as if we would have been passing each other in the hall that helped us bond and connect on an informal level,” says Peterson. “She used technology so well to create that connection that it felt like we had a real, informal day-to-day relationship, and I’ve never forgotten that.”
But these interactions are like sparks. To make interpersonal engagement the norm, organizations need persistent spaces. When she’s working on a large project, Jenny Dingus, RingCentral’s associate vice president of customer experience, will set up a virtual conference room.
“We’re creating a virtual office space where we can collaborate,” she explains. “People come in and out of the conference room when they can to work on the thing that we’re doing.”
Instead of being a time-boxed event, Dingus’s conference rooms are a persistent space, just like in-person breakout rooms. She says it’s a sure-fire way to build connections and cultivate connections.
Women leaders also tend to excel at building community on their teams. Instead of muddling through on their own, women are more open to seeking help, support, and guidance. For example, Fricke sought out Arianna Huffington’s networking group, which the author and media mogul launched at the outset of the pandemic. The group puts supportive professionals in touch with each other to help understand the pandemic and cope with its knock-on effects.
“How do you adjust to the new normal is the mission statement,” Fricke explains. “A bunch of us get to talk to each other and share what we tried that week. I learned the VINEBOX idea from a peer at Salesforce. She’s been phenomenal and we keep swapping ideas of things to do with the team.”
Another community-building strategy comes from Melanie King, senior director of public relations at Lendio. As work-from-home became the norm, King became more deliberate about her check-ins.
“I trust my team to run with things and do their best work, and I don’t want to micromanage at all,” she says. “But sometimes that means that I can be quiet for too long. While working from home, I’ve tried to be really deliberate about regular and predictable check-ins. When we have a regular cadence of communication, it maintains rapport and keeps communication lines open for everyone.”
Creating world-class work from home workplaces
The work from home revolution arrived like a tidal wave, crashing across the country and disrupting our businesses. But it need not define our organizations in a negative way. By studying those leaders who have responded best, we can learn to harness remote working and empower our employees.
As Fricke says, “There’s a push with work from home to get folks motivated or help them manage difficult scenarios, and many men are starting to realize that the people who innately know how to do this are women.”
Setting an example is powerful, especially from men. Burke’s CEO chooses one word to share with the company every Friday. “It can be something he’s experienced over the week or something he’s seen,” Burke recalls. “One word has been kindness; one word has been gratitude; one word has been hope. His words are a reminder that we’re going to get through this and that we were created to be in a community. It’s great to see our teams embracing that.”
The pandemic is a fulcrum point for business leadership. The old models of shout-first management are gone, consigned to history with other organizational relics.
Now is the time to dig into what modern leadership means, to explore the value of empathy, communication, and listening. To learn how to best embody those qualities, we must look to those who already live them. We must learn from the relationship and community builders around us. We must learn from women.
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Originally published Feb 12, 2021, updated Dec 30, 2022