Are your Expectations Clear?

As we ring in the New Year, it is a perfect time to reassess where you are, where your business is, and if everything is in alignment with your core values. Here are 5 ways to align your 1st Quarter 2023.

  1. Revisit your core values. What are 3 principles that you live your life, and run your business by? There are some great core value exercises out there and my favorite is Brene Brown’s[1]. I visit this exercise every couple of years to make sure my goals and action steps are in line with what truly matters most to me.
  2. Take an honest look at the last year. Review what worked and didn’t work for your business. Cut yourself some slack if necessary. Remember strategic plans are living documents, and at their most effective, they change, evolve, and grow with your business as the year progresses. Strategic Plans are not chains holding you down but wings to launch your business as high as you want to go.
  3. Review your company’s policies and procedures. Start with the employee manual. Do you have one? Is it updated? Every business, regardless of the number of employees, should have an employee manual. These manuals are not just a list of rules and regulations. They are an opportunity to create and record the business culture you truly desire. Updating your manual is an opportunity to revisit your mission and value statements and share them with your staff. 
  4. Re-visit your expectations and reflect on whether they are still relevant to your business. Are they in line with your core values? After you reflect on them make your expectations clear and put them in writing. And make sure your staff is brought up to speed with any changes.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek guidance. Maybe you aren’t sure if your expectations are clear and well-understood, and you need an objective outside perspective. Structure for Success is here to help! We specialize in bringing you that outside perspective. We take a look at your employees, your processes, and your culture to make sure they are in sync with your goals and expectations.

    Don’t let fear paralyze you. Change can be good. Now is the time to set the pattern of excellence for the New Year.

    Contact Wendy at Structure for Success to schedule a time to discuss your how to establish your goals and aspirations for 2023, and how to translate them into actionable business expectations for your company. 

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Why You Need HR in your Business

The nature of business is competitive. What are you doing to put yourself, your business, your product, and your employees above the others in your same market?

I have been in HR long enough to grow a thick skin – and to know that the average business owner does their own HR and doesn’t see the need to outsource it. I also know the average employee has experienced one, if not more, scary encounters with an HR professional. I started my business to prove that HR doesn’t have to be that way.

As your HR professional, I am the unofficial psychologist, teacher, career planner, detective, and peacemaker for your business. I do more than make sure your policies are compliant. I help with business development, employee advocacy and development, change implementation, and problem solving.

HR, and its execution, doesn’t need to be scary or spooky. We take the fear out of HR, we put the human back into HR, and we prove HR doesn’t have to suck!

Want to know how we can help you? Click here to book your appointment with Wendy

This time of year people are beginning to think about pumpkin spice, Halloween costumes and year end performance reviews. Oh you aren’t? That’s just me? And here I thought I was “normal.”

I am a huge Pumpkin Spice fan, but that isn’t what I want to talk about. Year-end performance reviews don’t need to be scary or spooky. They are a year-round process, and they begin with your regularly scheduled one-to-ones.  

One tried and true leadership strategy is to focus on your people. I HIGHLY recommend you host one-to-one meetings every quarter at a minimum. Make it a priority. Not the weekly huddles, but the deeper “what do you want to do with your life” type one-to-one meetings. These meetings help you prepare, and stay on top of, the annual performance review process. They keep you in touch with your employees, and where they are in their job duties, their careers, and their goals.

Reminders for one-to-one scheduling:

  • Schedule them. Put them on your, and your employee’s calendar.
    • Not without warning though. I had an employee freak out once because I added a “coffee chat” to his calendar without his knowledge. He obsessed over if he was in trouble for days before he got up the nerve to ask me what the meeting was about.
  • Do not reschedule them, unless absolutely necessary.
    • You want your employee to know they are a priority, to feel heard, and to know you respect them, and their time. Constantly rescheduling the one-to-one meeting is an action that speaks louder than anything you could say.

Still a skeptic as to why you should hold them. “I mean I talk to my people so why do a special meeting?” Here are some benefits to holding one-to-one meetings with staff members.

  1. The one-on-one time creates a safe space for the employee to vent, celebrate, and problem solve.
  2. The airing of grievances. By being able to meet directly with you, employees can address concerns they have with other employees and not have it overheard.
    1. Airing their grievances in private can often be enough for employees to feel their concerns are being addressed.
  3. Established time to help struggling employees create achievable goals. 
  4. Ask the questions the leaders need to know. Some of my favorite questions include the following:
    1. Does the employee feel significantly rewarded, supported, and valued?
    1. What is their preferred method of communication?
    1. Do they have the resources they feel they need to do their job duties well? If not, what would they add?
    1. If they could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing they would change?
    1. What is the best thing about their job, the company, you as a leader?

Hosting one-to-one meetings with your staff can, and should, be a sharing opportunity. These meetings foster strong communication, they help you keep your pulse on what is happening in your office and allow for a growth opportunity (if they provide feedback that stings). Running a small business can have its challenges. Some are fun, some are painfully excruciating. These one-to-one meetings should not be painful but an opening for you to learn about your people, elevate your business, enhance your communication skills, and most importantly improve your leadership abilities.

Some of my business clients are struggling. The employees who worked through the pandemic are feeling overworked and underappreciated. No one remembers what a true vacation feels like. I know I don’t and as a business owner it feels I can’t take a vacation. After interviewing my client’s employees, they feel the same way.

Here are some small but effective ways to help create and keep a positive work environment. This goes for the business owner and our employees.

  1. Create a positive morning ritual for everyone – In most office environments, people file into the office at different times and some have already endured a stressful commute to get there. I have found for myself, a quiet ritual of organization and check in is essential to structuring my day for success. In contrast, the employees I surveyed said they would love a little time to eat breakfast. Is your kitchen stocked with coffee and a breakfast food? There doesn’t need to be a huge buffet laid out every day, but being offered a pastry, a donut, a variety of yogurts, granola, and of course, coffee and tea can smooth their transition into the work environment. Have specialty creamers (you can even hold a vote on what flavors to offer) or different tea flavors. But the most important factor is to allow a little time for socialization prior to starting on the heavy work. Schedule a half hour (max) as breakfast time and don’t hold any meetings or schedule calls during that time. Sure, some workers may never participate, and will slide in the door at 8:15. But maybe what the employee needs most… is 15 minutes flex time.
  2. Say smaller thank yous – Most managers know how to say thank you to staff for the hours of work they put into the huge report. Or that they worked overtime to finish month end calculations on time. But don’t forget to offer the smaller ‘thanks.’ “You did a great job handling that angry client yesterday, thank you for being so awesome.” “I really appreciate that you helped Sally out with that new quote. I realize that it wasn’t your job, but your help was invaluable.” For us business owners, I suggest celebrating everything – even what we consider a “small” win. Those add up too!
  3. Provide an outdoor space – Humans need sunlight, and studies have shown that being outside can provide a person with a sense of wellbeing. I know I am jealous of the “working by the pool” pictures. When was the last time you worked outside? Maybe not in July in Phoenix, but it is a nice change of scenery. Does your office have a courtyard with plants and tables where smoking isn’t allowed? Offer laptops for workers who want to go out and work in the sun. Just because they are outside, doesn’t mean that they aren’t working.
  4. Offer training opportunities – I am a firm believer in cross training staff. Small workshops that are provided by other employees can go a long way for counting as training as well as improving your staff. Employees that feel they are learning new things have a more positive attitude than workers who feel that they don’t have any growth opportunities. And leaders are always learning, so where can you, as a business owner, expand your knowledge? Watch that quick training video and count it as a win!
  5. Encourage small breaks – Historically, only smokers take small breaks throughout the day. But getting up from your desk and taking a 10-minute walk outside or spending a few minutes talking casually with another employee can help clear their head and disperse any lingering stress before they get back to work. If there are times that breaks should not be taken, don’t be afraid to create a schedule and employees will learn to work around their designated times. I wouldn’t encourage “popping” onto social media during your break – but listening to 10 minutes of your audio book isn’t a bad use of time. What helps you clear your mind and tackle that one issue that has you stumped?
  6. Allow decorations – When we moved into this suite, we found a gorgeous picture that we both love. It is the first thing I see every morning when I walk in. And I admit, after 2 years here, it still brings a smile to my face. Your employees also like their personal touches. Some employees may want plants in their space, others might consider it a waste of desk space. Allowing workers to decorate the space around their desk and add small personal items makes a person feel more relaxed and that they belong.
  7. Avoid negativity – Sometimes an employee needs a reminder to get some work done, maybe they were late for the 15th time and need a write up to help get them back on track. Things like this happen in HR. But remove those things from the immediate office environment, take the employee away from the general population to have the conversation. No one likes to be scolded in public. And for us business owners, don’t beat yourself up if you are late (I am stricter on my hours now than my corporate job was!). Quit beating yourself, and your employees up, over the little stuff.
  8. Celebrate small successes together – Pick a spot in the office, an unused white board, a blank wall – anywhere works – and encourage employees to attach sticky notes to the space to celebrate the small successes in life. Not every note may be work-related (but they should be work appropriate). It creates great workplace conversations and shows employees that there are small things in life that are positive. Add a note for that new client, add a note for the end of a difficult client relationship, add a note for birthdays, holidays, and small silly things like an employee’s child getting a soccer goal. It takes practice to be positive and celebrate small things but it makes a huge difference in attitude.

 Changes don’t happen overnight but be consistent and keep trying. Don’t be afraid to experiment. No work environment ever improved by someone giving up. Positivity, like exercise, is a habit that you can improve on with practice.

During new employee one-to-ones I ask the employees how their Onboarding process went. I often clarify that I do not mean the handbook review, the paperwork, or even the facility tour – I mean the first 30 days in general. The fact that I have to explain what I mean is enough to show me that companies may not have fully grasped the concept of effective Onboarding.

‘Effective Onboarding’ are buzz words that are currently getting a lot of attention. When I ask my clients what they think it means, I typically hear inconsistent answers. They have vague ideas about how to hire people and the required HR and payroll paperwork that needs to be completed, but after that they are at a loss. Is there more? My answer – yes! Onboarding is much more than paperwork. It is an experience which sets the tone for the new employee’s employment as a whole. It is also the company’s opportunity to establish metrics, expectations, and boundaries. Additionally, it’s the perfect opportunity to remind the new employee why they chose your company to work with in the first place. You only get one shot at making a first impression.

Employee turnover is expensive. It costs money to recruit, interview, and ramp up employees. Having a high attrition of employees who don’t make it past the first three months can be a symptom of poor Onboarding processes. Here are some qualities to review when revamping your company’s Onboarding process.

People aren’t just looking for jobs. They are looking for a “forever home.” Remember my social media post about the hiring process being like the dating world? Well, there are people out there who are interviewing to find their one and only. Their “true love,” or in this case, their final job, ever. These candidates don’t enjoy being unemployed, it is far too stressful. The uncertainty of where your next rent check is coming from is never fun. Then they have to go about proving that they are worthy to the company bringing them on. I have seen several social media posts lately showing various interview and job offer nightmares (and not just clips from The Office, but real companies and the questions people have been asked). Let’s add to the new employee’s stress the process of landing an interview, nailing that interview, and then getting hired. Here is how you, as an employer, can help the anxious candidate know your company is a good fit:

  1. Instead of creating a “job” for incoming employees, help them create a “career.” Offer a living wage and benefits. Things like consistent hours, a growth plan, and built-in wage progression, can show applicants and entering employees that they are worth your time, your effort, and your financial investment. This shows the newbie they can be comfortable in their position and can plan to stay a while. Someone who can’t afford their rent is not going to stay with your company. Show them they are valued from the start and show them that they can build a career with your company.
  2. Work culture can be a big factor in employee turnover. Sometimes people just can’t work together, this is a fact of life. A manager may have a different managerial style than an employee can handle or is used to. There may be office politics that are distasteful to the new employee. One way to help flush out these issues before the employee ever starts is to have the employees socialize beforehand. Have them meet for lunch as a group, have them come to a company event, or have them shadow someone before they ever even accept the position. If your goal is to utilize their talents, the fact they don’t mesh in one team doesn’t mean you have to fire (or not hire) them. Shift them to a different manager or employee group. Don’t waste good talent by giving up too easily on an applicant.
  3. Have strong job descriptions that are accurate. So many times people are hired as a receptionist and then end up being given the “account manager” job for which they have not been trained. That can lead to new employees getting overwhelmed and overworked in ways that they aren’t ready for. It seems like an obvious statement, but you would be surprised how many of my interviews involve people saying they left a job because they ended up with a multitude of duties they didn’t want and weren’t hired or trained to do.
  4. Help them settle in by providing a single point of contact for them. Have you ever started a job with a company, walked in the first day, and had someone give you something to do that you have never done before? You sit there all day and struggle with the task and leave the first day feeling heart broken, frustrated, and disillusioned. Instead, have clear guidelines that instruct employees on exactly what their job requires. Have a plan to get them started their first day. If they are answering phones, then provide them with a script, an extension list for transfers, and an answer form for the most common questions asked over the phone. Stop relying on managers to know what to do with new employees and customize those job descriptions and their first day tasks for that employee. Assign them a mentor to help guide them. It’ll only take a few minutes of time and can go a long way at building trust with that new employee.
  5. Be accommodating to “life” while they get adjusted. New jobs mean new hours, new bosses, new coworkers, new commute, new lunch arrangements, new wardrobe requirements, new everything. Try to remember that your new employee has an “old” life that they need to attend to as well. Trying to navigate so many changes at once and juggling their existing life can get complicated. Schools will still call and ask for a sick kid to get picked up, kids still need to get to school, spouses still have cars that die and need help. Life still happens. Be understanding and flexible with your new employees as they settle into their new career with your company. Showing understanding at the beginning helps employees work out the kinks in their life and makes them feel valued in their new position.

Onboarding is a process that encapsulates the first 30 days of new employment, minimum. Ask yourself, what are you doing to aid your new employee in adjusting, understanding their position and expectations, and making them fall in love with your company?

I was lucky and I had an office to hide in during the pandemic. However, for many of my clients, remote work is here to stay. Yes, working from home has become the norm. When the pandemic started, I reminded businesses that it was important to maintain a healthy work/home balance and to respect people’s boundaries. How did that work out for you? For your employees?

I do one to ones with my client’s employees and one of my recent surveys was to find out how the boundary between work and home is going. The overwhelming response was an invasion of space has happened. The stress of around the clock work has begun to wear on staff members. Having your job present in your home 24/7 can have a profound impact on your employee’s stress level and can lead to poor retention and staff turnover.

As I work at home today, I am reminded of these quick pointers to help re-establish workplace boundaries. I wrote these with employees in mind – but leaders – it’s time we started doing this for ourselves as well.

  1. Re-Implement work hours – Over the last couple years, workers and managers alike have become accustomed to sending emails or text messages 24 hours a day and expecting an immediate response. Implementing “quiet hours” forces people to abide by them. Whether setting the email servers to hold emails between the hours of 6pm-6am until the workday starts, creating a strict “Do not disturb” policy for texting, or even shutting servers down, this can aid in releasing the strain of constant communication. It’s time to give your everyone back their free time.
  2. Reintroduce “Notes” – When employees are offered the opportunity to disengage for a few hours, they often think of things they need to discuss with co-workers. Encourage them to keep a list of reminders, which they can then discuss with other employees during workday hours. It can be amazing how much time is saved by employees when they have time to clearly think things through before they jump into action.
  3. Start re-integrating workers back into the office – Make it volunteer. Ask workers to return to the office slowly and let them choose the days (if applicable for their position). With the current childcare shortages and gas prices, forcing everyone to return instantly may lead to a high staff turnover as they struggle to find work alternatives. But if it is on a volunteer basis or offered with an incentive for people to return to the office, this will produce a more positive outcome for all. Remove work from their homes and you will be surprised at how quickly things change.
  4. Allow time flexibility – When my clients first switched to working at home, they found that some of their employees became more consistent in their work output. It wasn’t that the workers didn’t “have time” to work, it was simply that their lives didn’t fit well into the 9-5 of most offices. I remember one of my client’s had a single mom working for them with two small children. This employee was submitting her work at 11:00 pm or even 3:00 am but she was getting it done and met every single one of her deadlines. Be flexible. If they get the work done, why does it matter what time it gets done? And most importantly, remember that why they work better at 3:00 am is really none of your business.
  5. Remind workers that the phone exists – Not every meeting or conversation needs to be a video call. Phone conversations can be just as informative and more focused on the conversation and less focused. Checking out my hair, or being distracted by my cool visual background are a non-issue when I am chatting on the phone.  I know phone calls are a bit “old school” but I encourage you to try it out. Not texting (the HR documentation Queen in me cringes), but a real in person and live phone call. Give it a try, you don’t need to see their desk, or their dog (although that is a perk) just get your information across.

These are common sense, but many of us need the reminder to keep our personal time sacred. If the pandemic taught me one thing, it is that I need time to recharge. If I don’t take that time, I am NO good to anyone. I bet I am not the only one to discover that. Let’s respect each other’s time and space.

Some days I feel really old. I know I am not that old, but now that I am, well, the age that I am, I often feel challenged by the younger generations. I now work with business owners my kids’ ages (late twenties and early thirties), and their employees are even younger—my step-kids’ ages (late teens and early twenties).

It’s not that I don’t remember being that young and full of spunk, knowing everything, ready to take on the world without much of a clue about how to do so (hold on while I adjust this standing desk to relieve my aching back). It’s just that entry-level workers today, though they don’t lack for spunk, seem even less-well equipped than previous generations for making even the simplest decisions.

The reason, I suspect, is that they haven’t had much practice making decisions. As a result, not only do they not know how to make decisions, they don’t even know they’re supposed to. Many of the biggest decisions have been made for them all their lives.

My stepdaughter is now a freshman in college and during her application process I discovered that many parents are now 110% involved in the children’s first big adult decision. (I feel sorry for my kids. I was not this involved, though I prefer to think of it as teaching them independence.) I watched her friends’ parents choose their children’s college, their major, their dorm, and even their extracurriculars. When my stepdaughter asked one of her friends what she had done for an optional video presentation for one of the applications, the friend responded, “I’m not sure. My father did most of it.” What the…! (Of course, my husband and I walked the perfect line between support and independence! We tried to, anyway.)

Is it any wonder that new workers find it difficult to make decisions? Have they ever seen a Pros-and-Cons list, let alone created one themselves? How can we expect them to make decisions if they’ve never been allowed to, if they’ve never been taught to? And what can we do about it?

It’s simple really. The first step as team leads, managers, or business owners is to give our teams permission to make decisions and teach them how to make these decisions in an informed, logical, strategic, and integrity-based way. And this seems like a contradiction—you teach them how to make good decisions by giving them more direction, not less. I advise clients to “dial up your directions.” WAY up. Explain what appropriate attire for a conference is. Why they must document their conversations with clients. How to properly answer the telephone. That text-speak is not appropriate for business communication. All the things you think they should just know, but don’t.

You can do this in the form of checklists and desk manuals and other job aids. In this way they know exactly what their duties are as well as the expectations for their performance. Once they get these down, they’ll have the foundation and the tools to make their own decisions. By providing this kind of basic training early on, companies have the opportunity to grow and nurture their employees to be strong assets and independent thinkers.

How do we do this without losing our cool? Here are some strategies for empowering our employees to become independent decision makers.

Give Employees Solo Projects

Give your employees a small project of their own that they are solely responsible for. For example, ask them to put together a PowerPoint presentation on some aspect of the business you want them to learn, maybe a company policy such as the dress code, the monthly production expectations, quarterly sales revenue.

Provide them the parameters to work with (time limit, branding requirements, and a deadline), but then let them decide everything else—background colors, fonts and font size, special effects, the actual information. Provide only minimal guidance if they ask for it. Let them struggle a bit. Then have them present the result at a staff meeting. If public speaking isn’t their thing, all the better. Everyone in a company should learn how to express their ideas before a group.

After the presentation, provide constructive and gentle feedback one on one—not in front of the group. This is an opportunity for learning, not discipline. Help them improve for next time and watch their confidence soar. Make sure there is a next time.

Teaching teamwork is important, but if an employee can’t work on their own, how are they going to contribute to a team? Projects like these help employees work on their skills and give them the time and space to create their own wins and face their own failures (if that’s the case). This helps them understand, learn, and refine their personal decision-making skills at every step. It also lets you know how they work, and what level of involvement they need from you to perform a task.

Then Cut Them Some Slack

New employees aren’t used to making independent decisions and some of their decisions will be outrageously awful. Just remember, we’ve all made cringeworthy decisions. Maybe the purple background with a tiny orange font wasn’t the best choice. Maybe their question-and-answer session was scattered and unprofessional because they started talking about the Marvel metaverse. The good news is, they did this in a safe environment among co-workers, no damage was done to the business, and they can learn from this feedback.

Focus on the positive. Even if the presentation was less than stellar, they made actual, independent decisions every step of the way, and this will lead to more independent decisions down the line. Ask them what they learned by doing this project, and what they would do differently. You’ll be surprised by how insightful they can be about their own work. Part of what you’re teaching them is how to listen to that better angel in their head.

Then bring this attitude into the real world. Let’s say, to diffuse a tense situation, one of these young, excited workers promises a client something the company simply can’t deliver. Instead of going off on them and fixing the problem yourself, ask the employee what they could have done differently and then give them the opportunity to do just that—to call the client and fix the mistake without penalty.

Don’t expect perfection immediately—or at all. Learning effective decision-making is a journey, not a destination.

Watch Out for Decision Fatigue

After making decisions all day long, I admit there are nights I get home and the simple question “What do you want for dinner” puts me in a meltdown.

We’ve all had that moment, even the most experienced among us. Realize that your younger employees, who are not accustomed to making so many big decisions each day, may have more of them, at least at the beginning. They will get mentally exhausted. What happens when they reach that level of exhaustion? They will react instinctively. They won’t think things through. They will make bad decisions, one after another. They will create a huge mess.

First, teach them how to pause and regroup. We experienced business owners have learned how to take a minute and take a breath. I walk up and down the stairs of my office building or go out in the parking lot to feel the sun on my face. What works for you? Pass on your hard-won wisdom to your employees.

THEN help them with the mess. With your years of experience, you can often see a simple solution to the problem. Unless it’s a matter of life and death, teach them how to find the solution, don’t give them the solution. Whenever possible, let them unravel the mess themselves even if it feels painfully slow to you. Guide them to the correct path and give them a gentle push if you have to, but don’t hold their hands the whole way.

Feed Employees’ Confidence

Every time a younger employee makes a bad decision, their ego and self-worth takes a hit. That Negative Nelly lives in all our heads. If the employees are working hard to impress you, their boss, a minor snafu may cause Nelly to roar.

They are newbies and need our guidance. They haven’t had the time to build their business knowledge and self-worth. We all know that learning any new skill can be a challenge. When they make a good decision, encourage and praise them, without going overboard. Give them the time to learn to trust and develop their decisions, their skill sets, their business acumen.

Some days will be frustrating, and others will be rewarding—for both you and your younger employees. What a fabulous opportunity to be the leader they rave about when I ask them during a one-on-one: “Who’s your favorite boss and why?” and they say “Good old So-and-So, because they taught me how to make a good decision and stick with it.” I had several very special leaders throughout my career who taught me exactly that, and I’ll bet you have too. Let’s pay it forward.

Once upon a time, employees were expected to put up and shut up, to fulfill their jobs with unquestioning obedience. If they had a problem—with the job, with the boss, with clients, with co-workers—well, that was their problem. They needed to fix it on their own, with no fuss, and if they couldn’t do that, then they were expected to suffer in silence. Because that’s what they were paid to do, and because workers who brought up problems were troublemakers with bad attitudes. And the last thing the worker wanted to do was involve HR. That was the kiss of death for their gainful employment, usually.

This approach of “just do your job” might have worked with older generations brought up by authoritarian parents and used to command-and control leadership, but those days are past. Beginning with the Boomers, really, and growing more pronounced through Gen X, the Millennials, and Gen Z, parents took up a more child-centered approach to child-rearing with emphasis on meeting their children’s needs by asking what they wanted, acknowledging their feelings, and developing their autonomy and self-esteem.

We can make plenty of jokes about “participation” trophies and how, as in Lake Woebegone, every kid is now above average, but the fact is, whether we are ready or not, the younger generations of employees come into the workplace with certain expectations. These expectations include being taken seriously, experiencing some level of job satisfaction, having their work praised and acknowledged, and having a voice in what they do and how it is done. They never learned to suffer in silence. If they see something, they say something. If no one is listening, they say it louder.

I can imagine leaders out there nodding heads and thinking, “Yeah, what a bunch of complainers. That’s the problem.” And I already hear the “ugh millennials” comments coming out of our mouths –But it doesn’t have to be that way. I am going to propose that we make a small adjustment in your attitude, you can turn your problem makers into problem solvers. We learn a lot by listening to others. Knowledge is power, right? I call this approach strategic venting.

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

Let’s be honest. Sometimes things happen at work that can really test an employee’s temper, something they really need to get off their chest. How managers handle their employees’ anger or other strong feelings can make the difference between establishing a positive or toxic workplace.

As a manager, you can do one of three things: ignore the employee and the problem, try to tamp them down, or acknowledge what’s happening and let the worker have their say—let the worker vent. The first two may work in the short term, but almost always lead to bigger problems down the line as pressure builds towards an explosion. Letting the worker vent, however, is the first step toward solving the problem. Because if the worker needs to vent, there is a problem—that’s the smoke that points to the fire. And what is venting after all? It’s a way to release pressure, to blow off steam, to prevent the inevitable explosion that comes when nothing is done.

My dad managed a team of computer repair techs (when computers were as big as a desk). Their work was high pressure, with demanding clients who needed the job done yesterday and a front office pushing for more. He kept a stuffed animal in his office that squeaked when you strangled it. He laughed whenever he walked in and found a client’s name pinned to the toy. Sometimes the name was that of a team member or even his own! He didn’t get angry though. That’s how he handled the venting in his office. People didn’t yell, but because they were allowed to vent their frustrations in this silly way, they calmed down enough to handle the situation, either with my father’s help or on their own.

For years I worked in offices where venting was forbidden as “dwelling on the negative,” and bringing problems to the manager meant you couldn’t do your job. Those offices were horrible places to work, rife with tension and resentment that hurt our teamwork and eroded client service.

The first thing I did when I became a manager was to allow, even encourage, discussion and venting. I instituted Whiny Wednesdays, when employees could come to me and vent about anything personal or professional for five minutes. And yes, I set a timer. This helped employees de-stress and calm down, and once they felt heard, they shifted into problem-solving mode. Sometimes I just sat there and nodded until they came up with the perfect answer on their own. Other times I’d brainstorm with them to come to a solution or a plan to follow up. Either way, the worker was almost always able to work through their strong feelings and take a more practical stance. (For some employees, though, nothing was ever good enough, and the problem solving on my part involved how to manage them out.)

Venting With Purpose

Although venting can be an effective way to give employees a voice and pinpoint challenges in your business or office, we should distinguish venting from simply going off. Venting is strategic; going off self-indulgent. As the leader or manager, you’re using venting as a tool. For venting to be an effective leadership tool, it must:

  • Take place in a safe space. Let an employee vent in an office with a closed door, a soundproof conference room, or on a walk around the block. It’s important for employees to be able to vent without affecting other employees or being judged by them.
  • Be with a supervisor or project team members, not random coworkers. If too many workers are privy to the venting session, there’s the danger of spreading those strong feelings throughout the office. Venting with co-workers who have the same issues or work with the same client, on the other hand, may lead to a new perspective and solution as well as building a stronger, more collaborative workplace.
  • Occur within an established time frame. The supervisor should say “I have X minutes to discuss this, tell me what’s going on” and stick to that time frame. This helps move the employee into problem solving mode.
  • Be fixable. When employees express repeated frustration about something that can’t be remedied (a coworker they don’t like who won’t be let go, a rude client who brings in a lot of money, arbitrary rules that come down from corporate) then venting can quickly turn into whining and become a distraction rather than an opportunity. Intractable issues like these are one and done. Give the employee one session to vent, then indicate that that’s it for that issue, since nothing can be done about it. Sometimes “Deal with it” is a full sentence.
  • Be followed with an action plan. Not every frustrating situation has a simple solution, but one of the goals of the venting session should be to plan for the future. Is there a way to handle the client differently? Can we change the way they communicate with us? Can we switch the client point person? Can we set up a conference with the supervisor, the employee, and client to address the challenges together? (This is when venting and strategizing with coworkers on the same project can be beneficial.) If the issue is with a co-worker, can meeting with them help solve the problem? Once the issue is defined, be proactive about a solution.

How do you show your employees how to vent properly? Ask them. In an email or during a staff meeting tell them “If you have any frustrations with a client, co-worker, or the company itself, please come to me so we can work out a solution.” After helping the workers through the process a few times, they’ll no longer need your intervention. Learning to express their frustrations and find solutions independently will lead to fewer workplace issues in the long run.

That’s when allowing venting in the workplace pays off.

When the pandemic started in early 2020, most employers and employees had no idea what working from home was all about. We knew about video calls, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex, but we had rarely used them. We had to learn as we went, a crash course in scheduling virtual meetings, turning cameras and microphones on and off, aiming the camera so it framed us properly, setting up video backgrounds and filters, and, in the interest of family harmony, using noise-cancelling earbuds and headphones.

Overnight our homes doubled as offices and classrooms (as well as gyms and yoga studios). We rearranged furniture, repurposed dining rooms, bedrooms, and guest rooms, created elaborate multicolored work schedules for who worked where and when. Little things like clothes on the floor or unmade beds became potential career killers and the source of family arguments. What if you needed to take a shower while your partner was on an important video call? Electric bills skyrocketed with the extra heat and AC.

For those of us who had the luxury of working from home, it was a new, and to some, liberating experience. How exciting that you could wear pajama pants all day and no one would know (except everyone else doing the same thing)! We were more involved with our kids, saw our spouses more often, and were able to cuddle with our animals all day long. (We had no idea the dog liked to sit on the coffee table to stare out the front window.) We learned how to stay safe, be productive, and become a full-time parent and part-time teacher all while holding down a full-time job.

Meanwhile, employers had to learn on the fly how to manage remotely and were pushed to innovate in ways they never expected. How do you take in-person management styles online? Managers had to learn how to give their workers freedom and trust them to use it wisely and effectively, while at the same time keeping them engaged, not letting them feel like they were marooned on a virtual desert island. It was a fine line.

If remote work offers employees flexibility in how they get their work done, remote work also offers employers flexibility in how they put together their work teams. Because location no longer matters, remote work opens employers to a whole world of talent—literally—that wasn’t available before. With many of their workers virtual, many companies have been able to downsize costly office space. Even once Covid restrictions were lifted, many continued to limit the number of workers onsite.

In short, remote work has changed what we expect, require, and want from work, both as employers and employees.

What remains, however, is the need to get the job done, whatever that job may be. Although the new normal has created a workforce of teams spread across the world, these teams must still work together toward a common goal, to collaborate without the built-in structure of bricks and mortar and traditional work hours. That’s not always easy. In the absence of everyday engagement, many dispersed work teams struggle. Their sense of team and teamwork is stretched thin by the distance. Team building suffers.

Virtual team building is difficult but not impossible. It requires patience and determination. It is also not optional, as it is critical for success in the post-lockdown hybrid workplace. To successfully build the culture and morale of your team of remote workers and keep their bond strong, you must establish an atmosphere of familiarity and provide tools and processes for effective communication.

Creating Familiarity

For remote workers to function as a team, they must get to know each other. That’s obvious. But how do they do that when separated by time and space? Here are a few thoughts.

  • Schedule meetings that every member can attend.
    • Time zones are challenging when scheduling team huddles. Be flexible in your scheduling, and respectful. For some the meeting will be at 7:00 a.m. and for others it will be 8:00 p.m. Figure out the sweet spot so all team members can attend and change times (within reason) so it’s not always the same team members inconvenienced.
    • Don’t let team members ignore the meetings; they are important now more than ever.
  • Play online games. These are great for engaging team members and building bonds between them. Try these links for online team-building activities and games:
  • Get creative with ZOOM-friendly activities. Projects such as painting pictures on ZOOM, doing group scavenger hunts, virtual happy hours, soap making, or other activities can be easily organized, with materials shipped to each employee. (If you are shipping materials, send them well in advance so everyone can receive them.)
    • Yes, these sound goofy and I was skeptical. UNTIL I tried an easy scavenger hunt with one of my teams. Their natural competitiveness came out, and we had a blast trying to find a pink highlighter.
  • Have each team member create a virtual tour of their workspace and present it to the team.
    • Knowing your team members’ environment helps create familiarity. While coaching a young executive, I saw her “dog” come in the doggie door. I am a sucker for a cute pooch, so I asked her the breed. Come to find out it was a pot-bellied pig! Who knew that Shannon owned a pot-bellied pig!
  • Encourage informal meetings and virtual water coolers. Eat breakfast together and discuss your lives before starting formal meetings. Employees can share how much or how little they want, but knowing more about their private lives goes a long way toward creating familiarity.
  • Don’t get hung up on the occasional interruption by a pet or child (or clueless spouse). These things are going to happen, and we’re all in the same boat. “Hi Madelyn” or “Hi Kitty” can diffuse the teammate’s embarrassment and provide a comic interlude.

Fostering Remote Team Communication

A large percentage of communication is nonverbal, more than half, say some thinkers on the subject. Remote workers, then, start with a huge disadvantage. Sure, one can see nonverbal clues on a Zoom call, depending on how big the screen is, but it’s not the same as in person.

To overcome the communication deficit, remote workers and managers must work hard to be direct and intentional in both written and oral communication. When writing emails, be clear and direct, yet diplomatic. Don’t assume people will “know what I mean.” Be thorough but succinct. Tone can be easily misinterpreted in writing. Resist the urge to be snarky and over the top. Be polite.

When communicating via videoconference, your mantra should be “know your audience.” For more formal meetings, be more formal. Use your words and complete sentences. Even if you’re not presenting per se, speak as if you are—slowly, directly, articulately. And this is critical—allow space for others to speak. Talking over someone may work to a degree in person, but if videoconferencing has taught us nothing else, it’s how distracting talking over someone can be online, how frustrating and ineffective for clear communication. Finish your thought, then listen. If you are leading the meeting, it’s a good idea to establish this guideline at the start and remind participants as necessary.

Here are other thoughts on how to create and support more effective remote communication:

  • Host group “venting” sessions.
    • You want your employees to be happy and productive, but that isn’t going to be the case one hundred percent of the time, especially in these challenging days. Don’t try to suppress dissatisfaction—it will just come out in other, even more negative ways. In one of my most successful team meetings, I gave each member five minutes to grouse about their work-from-home challenges. All of us could relate, and it brought us closer together.
    • Group venting has a hidden virtue—it often turns into problem-solving. When you get a bunch of smart people talking about a challenge, someone’s going to find a solution. Remember when no one knew how to do backgrounds on Zoom? Wasn’t there that one tech-savvy person in your meeting who taught everyone how to do it?
    • For more information about venting in the workplace, check out our upcoming newsletter about constructive venting.
  • Install a group chat program for all the employees to interact casually throughout the workday. Being able to communicate instantly and informally will help solve problems more quickly and foster stronger communication.
  • Use carbon copy emails but with very specific parameters.
    • For a group project, CC all group members even if they are not directly involved in the issue at hand. If Donna and Steve are emailing back and forth about the project, CC Louise even if she isn’t part of that specific conversation. That way she knows what’s going on, and it helps her feel she’s not being left behind.
  • Create goals as a team, then celebrate when you hit those goals with a video party.
    • Those goals can be as simple as everyone completing a training, or as complicated as hitting financial or production goals for the quarter. Working together to establish these goals ensures that all members are invested and on the same page.
  • Don’t forget to provide positive feedback. Everyone likes to be told they are appreciated and cared about. Since those assurances are absent with remote work, it is vital that a manager go above and beyond in offering those small positive interactions online.
    • When employees submit work to you in person, you provide positive feedback without even thinking about it. You might smile and say, “Thanks for putting a rush on this. Great job,” and literally pat them on the back or shoulder. In-person employees also get positive energy from the workers around them. Someone leaves them the last donut, someone tells maintenance the bathroom is out of TP, someone buys the receptionist flowers for her birthday and everyone enjoys them. But when employees work remotely, they miss out on all those small, positive, daily interactions and may not even be able to articulate what they are missing.
    • Some of the things I have seen work for remote team appreciation: sending your employees digital cards, sending flowers to employees who are sick or out having babies, telling employees good job more than you are accustomed to (but you have to mean it—people can see through false praise). These can make a huge difference on the mental health of your employees and can be the most important factor in building a strong and resilient remote work team.

Don’t Maroon Your Teams

Now that we are one year into vaccines, many employers have moved all their employees back into the office. Some have spread their employees across the country (and world) to work 100% remotely. Others have established a mix of the two.

Building strong teams under these conditions is possible and achievable. Some fixes will cost money, such as new chat platforms, whereas others will cost nothing but time and effort, such as a ten-minute bull session before a formal meeting or encouraging notes to remote team members. It takes time, patience, and determination for remote teams to feel bonded, but it’s worth the effort and will increase team morale and efficiency. Apply tried-and-true in-person techniques to your remote workers—get to know them, listen to them, let them vent every once in a while. At the same time, experiment with out-of-the-box virtual methods—best background contests, the most unusual workplace set-up, virtual coffee breaks.

Above all, don’t forget to actively lead your remote teams. This is when you earn your managers’ stripes. Don’t leave your team members marooned on virtual islands. That will benefit neither employer nor employee.

We humans are a curious bunch and very social. Talking to the people we work with all day is natural and healthy. It’s great for camaraderie and team bonding and helps us feel engaged and connected.

But when healthy conversation turns into gossip, it can have the opposite effect, distracting us from doing good work by creating a toxic workplace that fosters division and dissension and contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia. If Jim is saying that about Randall, then what’s he saying about me? Allowed to run unchecked, gossip can have devastating ramifications for workplace morale and productivity. Like any other potential workplace issue, the sooner you address the effects of gossip, the sooner you can limit them.

Every workplace is vulnerable to gossip, whether it’s a day care, retail store, or office. Keep in mind that not all conversation is gossip. Gossip is not sharing accurate, necessary, and appropriate information, and it is not talking about causal, neutral, and friendly topics. Gossip is talking about someone who is not present in order to show them in a negative light or harm them in other ways. Listening to gossip can be just as bad as spreading it because it creates an audience in which the negativity can take seed and flourish.

What Does Gossip Look Like?

Gossip can be about family issues:

  • I heard Sally and her husband are having trouble. He’s drinking again, you know.
  • John’s son got busted for speeding, and it’s not the first time.
  • Ann’s father has dementia. Poor women, no wonder she’s so tired.

Gossip can be about work issues.

  • Joe really tanked that last project. He’ll probably be demoted or fired.
  • What a brown-noser that Maureen is. No wonder she keeps getting promoted.
  • I saw some suits in here last week, all very hush hush. I think they’re selling the company.

Gossip can be personal.

  • Sam’s lost a lot of weight lately. Is he sick?
  • Do you think George has had work done? His skin seems tighter than it used to.
  • Ever since her divorce, Mary’s been a little wild, don’t you think?

We’ve all heard stories like these, and maybe even passed them along. If as the owner or leader of a firm or team you’ve told such stories, then stop right now. Gossip is particularly destructive coming from the top, but any gossip can have negative impacts on the company, including:

  • Low employee morale.
  • Low employee productivity when gossip is the focus instead of work.
  • An erosion of employee’s trust in each other and their managers.
  • Lack of teamwork.
  • An adversarial work environment.

Sometimes employers attempt to prevent gossip by including anti-gossip policies in their handbooks, and that’s it. They think the problem is fixed. Such policies are a good start, but these policies 1) don’t hold up in court and 2) do little to actually curtail gossip without more hands-on follow-up. 

Ways to Combat Gossip

A multi-pronged approach is the best way to limit gossip in the workplace.

  • Update all your company’s job descriptions to include “maintain a gossip free workplace” as an important goal.
  • Make a clear “Gossip is not tolerated” statement to employees and hold a meeting with all employees about the negative impacts of gossip. Follow up with this message regularly in huddles and other meetings.
  • Educate employees on problem solving strategies and collaboration to minimize gossip due to workplace friction and frustration.
  • Encourage employees to speak up against gossip when they hear it with such responses as, “I am not comfortable talking about that person when they’re not present.”
  • Ask employees to consider the information they share with their coworkers more carefully. Employees often unwittingly create their own gossip by oversharing. As with the children’s game of telephone, the story can morph and get distorted as it spreads through the workplace.
  • Provide a positive work environment by celebrating employee successes as often as possible. It may seem like a small thing, but rewarding positive behavior can go a long way to preventing negative behavior such as gossiping. When people feel good about themselves, they are less likely to try to bring down others with gossip and backbiting.

The Most Important Factor

The most important step any manager can take to stop workplace gossip is to set a good example by not gossiping themselves.

By limiting gossip in the workplace, leaders can foster a culture of engagement, trust, and collaboration and go a long way toward generating high employee morale, productivity, and retention.
Do you think your workplace needs help limiting gossip? Give Structure for Success a call and we can schedule a workshop addressing your particular needs.