At BlackRock, People Managers play a critical role in bringing our culture to life and driving performance, engagement and belonging among employees. As we transitioned to a new, virtual environment with over 16,000 employees working remotely, it was imperative that our managers felt capable to lead in this moment. Here, three members of our Human Capital Committee share advice on how to successfully manage teams in a remote setting.
At BlackRock, we believe that our culture has always been critical to our success. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we realized we were about to embark on an extended period of instability and physical dispersion, we outlined a series of steps to not only protect, but also enrich our culture. One of these steps was to ensure two-way dialogue and team cohesion, with a particular emphasis on making sure our people managers were informed and empowered to lead, so their team members could feel connected and productive while working from home.
To turn this from an aspiration into a reality, we enlisted the help of our Human Capital Committee (HCC) – our top “culture carriers,” as we like to call them. Comprised of nearly 40 senior leaders from around the globe, the HCC partners closely with our Human Resources team to help shape and drive our talent, diversity and culture priorities across the firm.
Starting in March, we kicked off a series of People Manager Enablement sessions, led by HCC members and external experts. This series was designed to help managers become better leaders by sharing tips and resources for managing virtually.
In this article, a few of our HCC members – Joe DeVico, Karina Saade and Martin Syms – share six strategies for how to successfully manage teams in a prolonged virtual environment based on their experience leading teams at BlackRock.
Joe DeVico is a Managing Director and Head of the National Wealth Manager Business for the US Wealth Advisory Group. He is based in Princeton, New Jersey.
Karina Saade is a Managing Director and the Chief Operating Officer for Latin America. She is based in São Paulo, Brazil.
Martin Syms is a Managing Director and Head Aladdin Product Group Alternatives and Cash Engineering. He is based in London, England.
1. One on one conversations are #1
According to our 2019 Employee Opinion Survey, employees who have weekly 1:1 meetings with their managers are 17% more engaged, 23% more enabled in their role, 25% more satisfied working at BlackRock and two times more likely to report that they receive timely and actionable feedback.
While we typically pride ourselves on having a casual workplace culture, we can all agree that the increased virtual work environment is less conducive to impromptu check-ins and spontaneous collaboration. Given this, we’ve continued to focus on encouraging our managers to have frequent, consistent and high quality 1:1s with their direct reports.
“I’ve been having more 1:1s,” says Joe. Given this is a new environment for all of us, “people need more feedback. Especially given that we don’t have the [in person] body language to work off of, it’s also important to remain present during these conversations and not multitask,” Joe added.
While 1:1s help employees make progress on their work, they’re also an important way for managers to demonstrate that they care about their team members as human beings, not just as employees. “With each team member, I separate my work check-ins and personal check-ins throughout the week,” says Karina.
Martin agrees, adding, “think about the timing and the context. Try to break up your conversations into different topics like current workload, career growth conversations and more informal ‘coffee catch-ups’ to discuss life outside of work.” Instead of one 30-minute check-in each week, this might mean two 15-minute check-ins or three 10-minute check-ins every week – preserving the total amount of time managers and direct reports are meeting, but spreading out the interactions into shorter, more targeted conversations. “I’ve found that more frequent feedback also lowers stress levels,” adds Karina.
Karina participating in a virtual meeting along with her two children
2. Rethink performance objectives
No one could have predicted the way that 2020 has panned out. For many of us, the priorities and objectives we outlined at the start of the year have been completely turned on their heads given the environment in which we’re operating. Acknowledging this, it’s important for managers to revisit, reset and realign on performance objectives and expectations with their teams, and have constructive, honest conversations about priorities, workload and work/life balance.
“The world has changed since we each outlined our objectives,” remarks Joe. “I’d encourage managers to double down on performance reviews and consider spending more time than usual preparing for these conversations.” He suggests assessing team and individual objectives into the following categories:
• What can we still get done?
• What can we still do but might require us to change the path we take in order to do it?
• What can we no longer do, and what no longer makes sense to do in this environment?
“It’s important to have reasonable expectations,” Karina emphasizes. As managers work with their teams to restructure priorities and projects, it’s important to make sure they’re keeping an eye out for red flags that might signal employees are feeling disconnected or disengaged. “Managing performance issues is always hard, and it’s even more difficult in these times,” says Joe. He also advises that, “managers need to distinguish between performance issues and engagement issues.”
Performance should be handled as “normal course of business” – have a conversation to reset the expectations and shared agreements on what success looks like and the paths to get there. But when it comes to engagement, managers should handle this with great care and empathy to make sure their direct reports have the resources and support they need to succeed both personally and professionally. That said, it’s also important to remember that not everything is binary. Engagement and performance often go hand in hand.
3. Mix up your meetings
Just as managers should help team members revisit and realign on their objectives, they should also reconsider the cadence and structure of other standing meetings with their teams to ensure they’re still relevant and effective in the current environment.
Martin says, “in the Aladdin Product Group, we upped the frequency of team meetings but shortened them.” This way the team gets more bite-sized opportunities to connect and engage with their colleagues. “We also shifted our Town Hall meetings to be structured in a more rapid-fire style – more speakers, 5 minutes or less of content for each – and this led to higher engagement,” Martin added.
Also, be mindful of the different “phases” of remote working; what got people through the first few weeks and months is likely different from what people need today. If you implemented daily team check-ins in the spring but have seen a dip in attendance or engagement, consider adjusting the frequency or surveying your team to get a sense of what they’d find most helpful today.
Martin working from home with his dog
4. One size doesn’t fit all
While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted each of us in some way, how it’s impacted each person varies considerably. Joe shared, “this is super personal for most people, and everyone’s having a very different experience inside and outside of work right now. As people managers, we need to recognize one size doesn’t fit all and tailor our response for employees.”
Many of us grew up learning the adage “treat others how you want to be treated” as a lesson about being kind and compassionate. While that sounds like a reasonable rule of thumb, when you break it down it’s actually not the optimal approach. We should strive to treat others as they want to be treated, also known as the “Platinum Rule,” which is more inclusive and takes into account that what works for one person (or what works for you) might not work for everyone.
Martin echoes that sentiment, adding, “listening is as important, if not more important than sharing advice. Let employees do the talking, set the context and ask questions.” That might sound pretty simple, but don’t be fooled – active listening is a skill that takes practice and effort to develop.
5. Ramp up recognition
Recognition can be a key source of motivation for many employees but unfortunately, notes Martin, “recognition has become a bit lost.” In the current remote environment, given the increased volume of emails, IMs and the like, it’s easy for praise to start to fall to the wayside.
However, finding meaningful ways to acknowledge your team’s work and celebrating learning, progress and key milestones is part of your responsibility of being a good people manager. When thinking about how to recognize your team, it’s important to remember that the way in which each person enjoys being recognized can differ. For example, one person might appreciate a public gesture of gratitude like a shout-out in a department-wide meeting or an opportunity to present their work in a large forum, whereas another member of your team might prefer a personal note or phone call from a senior leader. This is another example of a situation where the Platinum Rule comes into play – know your people and know how they want to be treated and recognized.
“In the team setting, you need to be thoughtful and deliberate about giving those shout-outs. It’s one of the few ways you can guarantee that recognition is going to come through and get noticed,” Martin says. Joe agreed, adding, “people want to feel valued in normal times, and a lot more in these abnormal times.” He also recommends that managers help their team members connect their individual objectives with the firm’s mission and purpose to help reinforce the value and impact of each person’s work. In 2019, BlackRock introduced something called a “purpose tool,” to help employees do just that – identify their strengths and passions, both inside and outside of work, and connect them to their roles at BlackRock, with the overall goal of helping employees enhance their experience at work.
Joe working from home with his two children
6. Lead with empathy
Empathy is key – always. And because no two people are experiencing the pandemic in the exact same way, managers should do their best to understand what their individual team members are dealing with and how they’re feeling. “Listen more than you talk,” reiterates Martin. However, you can’t force it. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable speaking with you (their manager) about a particular topic, that’s okay too. In that case, he notes, “share relevant resources that you think could help if an employee is struggling and in need of support.” For instance, at BlackRock we have an Employee Assistance Program which offers our employees and their family members free, confidential counseling as well as emotional well-being resources for all types of situations.
Additionally, consider the various communication channels that are available to set the tone from the top of the organization in a way that intentionally demonstrates empathy. For example, Manish Mehta, BlackRock’s Global Head of Human Resources, has periodically sent out function-wide emails to thank people for their work, acknowledging the stress the current environment has created for everyone and reminding employees to be there for each other and look out for their own well-being. No matter the medium, taking the time to show compassion is always important.
Creating designated time during team check-ins for people to share how they’re doing or to reflect on an ice-breaker question helps people stay connected while continuing to build trust and relationships virtually. In doing this, both managers and their teams can get a better understanding of what different colleagues are experiencing and, in turn, make people feel heard and seen at work.
To close things out, there’s no playbook for how to manage virtual teams during a global pandemic, and no crystal ball to predict what the coming months will look like. However, as with all things in life I’ve tried to approach the current environment with a glass half-full attitude. The pandemic has reinforced so many things I’m grateful for (never again will I take for granted time spent in person with my team!) and challenged me to think about how we sustain our culture, maintain connectivity and keep people motivated in an unprecedented, virtual environment. But at the end of the day, whether working from the office or your kitchen table, what it all comes down to are the basics: know your team, check in often, express gratitude, and show compassion.