It was March 2020 when Southeast Asia’s (SEA’s) national borders closed, one after another. I was watching from Singapore, my home country, as the lockdowns were announced. The pandemic had arrived, and outside of China, we were the first region hit.
As a general manager in a region with 11 countries, 6 of which are homes for my SEA team, even after decades in the industry, the pandemic has been a steep hill to climb.
The value of catching up face to face
For almost two years now, I’ve been facing the crucial task of knowing how effective I can be in managing my team without face-to-face meetings. You see, before this health emergency, we have the freedom to build a rapport with our team through physical meetings.
Previously, I used to travel quarterly to speak with my local teams, get a feel for local markets, chat with partners and customers, and help in case of high-level issues. Now that I cannot, my toughest challenge is figuring out how to assess situations on the ground — particularly, knowing how my team is feeling and what it’s facing.
I am still learning, but I would like to share some lessons I have learned along the way.
As a manager working thousands of miles away from my teammates, I need to be sensitive. That means I listen, very closely, to get a sense of how things are really going, and if something is not right. For example, if a team member is quieter than usual, he or she may be facing challenges I don’t know about. So, as a manager, I take a closer look. But is that always reliable?
Without physical meetings, we have to rely on the Internet and media coverage to understand even a bit of local happenings. It is important for me as a manager to have at least a high-level view of things that can affect my team physically, emotionally, psychologically, even financially. Add that information to your previous understanding and you can make an educated judgment and generally feel the pulse on the ground.
For example, a country manager may be speaking only about the local COVID situation, but knowing him well, I can ask how the economic and foreign exchange aftermath is affecting local partners’ cash flow.
Be an example
Welcoming a newcomer, however, poses an extra challenge. I have welcomed several teammates during this period, and I started with a completely blank slate. What can a manager do when the rapport is not yet there?
My strategy, as simple as it may sound, is to turn on my camera. I do this for both team meetings and one-on-one calls, but I would say it is most effective for one-on-one conversations with new personnel. We humans are visual creatures, and with a camera on, you can see facial movements, hand gestures, and the other nonverbal cues that tell a far more-detailed story than you’d get just listening to voices. By adding video to remote meetings, you can get to know your team better — and vice versa.
I also leverage on my fellow executives, core team, in SEA. We share different touchpoints and varied conversations across our internal team and stakeholders, hence their views are also valuable.
Be willing to trust
Managers should exercise understanding and empathy throughout this crisis. In Singapore, most of us have our own space. We can find our own corner. We have a stable Internet. We are lucky. But that is not the case in every country.
Some of my teammates are living with their extended families, and some are shelling out a lot of money to pay for a meager broadband connection. I have to communicate to them which key meetings they need to attend, and also balance that with showing understanding when their work-from-home setup falls short.
Personally, I also do not micromanage because everyone on the team I am managing is a knowledge worker. You cannot micromanage and judge them strictly by the numbers (in my case, sales numbers). Sales numbers are a very crude metric that can be affected by a country’s economy.
Therefore, we need to look at other variables. For example, how are conversations with local partners going? Are we having enough dialogue with the right customers? Are we communicating campaigns and programs effectively? Those are outcome-based metrics that we can measure. And as far as I’m concerned, you need to trust that your team can be effective wherever it is. Team members are your gateway to local customers, and you need to rely on them.
When we had to pack up our offices and work from home, my first concern was ensuring every member of the team, across multiple countries, had the tools to continue working securely. That means, at minimum, everyone needed a VPN, a secure laptop, and secure keys on their mobile phones — and yes, we all know workers access e-mail and files through their phones.
In fact, in SEA alone, Kaspersky blocked 382,578 mobile attacks during the first half of 2021, a 14% increase compared with the same period last year. You need to secure your team to secure your enterprise network!
In addition, managers have to be able to jump in and help their teams, remotely as well as locally.
As a manager, you can build trust by helping team members either with escalating issues or by generating ideas and pointing out blind spots. Be a mentor, not a master — you are part of the team and you have a role to play as well.
Lastly, I’ll say it’s crucial to stay calm and pay attention to even the smallest signals from your team. Jumping from one meeting to the next ends up being pretty numbing. It’s essential to pause and listen. If this pandemic has taught us managers anything, it’s to recalibrate — and recalibrate, and recalibrate again.
Situations change constantly. Depending on the country, pandemic numbers are going up or down, some political turmoils are happening, some team’s close relatives may be falling sick, and such things can take a toll on them. It can be demoralizing. So we got to constantly recalibrate based on the situation on the ground. We need to put ourselves on their shoes because the same yardstick cannot be used across all countries.
Everyone adapts differently so it is important to hear and know your team better than you do before the pandemic. Obsess not about meeting KPIs, deadlines, etc., because those things are within reach as long as you have a good (and healthy) remote team.