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In the age of coronavirus, a prescription for companies with remote workforces

R.I. management consultant calls for harnessing technology and creating a “virtual water cooler” for those working at home

Brian Trahan, managing director of The Center of Phenomenological Leadership, a management consulting firm based in Pawtucket, R.I.Handout (custom credit)

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Brian Trahan, managing director of The Center of Phenomenological Leadership, a management consulting firm based in Pawtucket, R.I.

Question: What advice are you giving to corporations that suddenly find themselves with employees working from home amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Answer: Our immediate advice is for corporations to use technology to try to simulate an on-site environment -- one that has effective communication, teamwork, and feedback. The biggest challenge is effective communication. And I don’t mean sending a well-crafted e-mail. For many companies, this will be a new experience. So it is important to use any tools (software) currently at your disposal and possibly introduce new ones to enhance the experience. These will allow you to touch base and track your teams progress more easily.

Set and define expectations early, set milestones, create the face-face experiences by using your companies preferred tool. It is going to take awhile to figure out what works best for your team. But be open, listen to and acknowledge your team’s input. Be engaged with the team and each individual.


Q: What kinds of technology or computer apps are helpful for a remote workforce?

A: From a company standpoint, you need to have the infrastructure to support all these new remote team members. Use the Cloud, in-house technology, or a combination. After that, must haves are:

1) Video communication and chat tools to give everyone the ability to work together like they were in an office.

2) A secure way to connect and store and share documents.


3) Project management and internal collaboration software.

There are a lot of very cool tools out there to make your remote workforce extremely powerful and collaborative. But when choosing, first determine what it is you want to accomplish, find the tool/software, and then standardize it across your team.

Q: How can a company create a sense of community when employees are in separate locations and not “hanging around the water cooler”?

A: We need to create a "virtual water cooler.” Schedule regular video meetings, have everyone enable video for better interaction, and give them a chance to talk. Set up a chat channel for your team, or have them set one up. Don’t assume that there will be a carry-over of the interpersonal relationships fostered while on-site.

Take the proactive measures of introducing some dynamic questions at the start of a meeting that have nothing to do with work. Encourage everyone to participate. Many will handle the isolation of working remotely, but others may struggle. Managers will need to recognize who is thriving and who is not. Talk about this during a call. Don’t let it linger. Ask what your team members need and engage them.

Q: How can managers know that employees are doing the work required if they can’t see them?

A: This is probably the most asked question I get. My response is usually: How do you know that they are working while they are here? Goals and milestones need to be discussed, set, monitored, and measured. What needs to change, most of the time, is how management handles the team. Managers can stay up to date on team projects with periodic check-ins or monitoring, using any of the communication, project management, or collaboration tools available. But micromanaging, continuously checking in, or over-communicating will be a hindrance.


There is a learning curve, especially for “traditional management.” The management team will benefit from coaching or training on how to work with remote teams. Leadership needs to buy into this and back up their managers and realize that, in most instances, this requires a different skill set.

Q: While the coronavirus obviously poses challenges for corporations, are there any upsides to it for companies?

A: Definitely. There are many companies that have been reluctant to offer a flexible work schedule -- either remote working or a hybrid arrangement. But today’s workforce is looking for these options and are not reluctant to leave an organization. When this happens, someone else -- a competitor, perhaps -- reaps the benefit. It also allows companies to hire outside of their geographic footprint, finding more skilled members. In addition, crisis mode can give leadership a different view of how the different roles, areas, divisions work and integrate.

This is like a stress test. Process will be looked at differently. Companies will have the chance to improve communication and collaboration. All of this can help an organization be ready to execute for the future.

Q: Who will enjoy working remotely the most -- baby boomers or millennials?


A: The instinctive answer is to say millennials. But, OK, boomer, not so fast! What it really comes down to is who has the mindset to work remotely as an individual and, more importantly, as a team member. Statistics show there is not much of a difference in the percentage of the workforce that works remotely -- independent of their generation. The trend actually started with the baby boomers, and millennials have not only embraced it, but prefer it.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.