People & Leadership

GAIN Capital: ‘Coronavirus has waved goodbye to micro-managers. This needs to be an era of trust’

In our ‘Your Story’ series, we speak to business leaders about the challenges they are facing and the steps they’re taking to overcome them. In this interview, Global head of HR at GAIN Capital Holdings, Christine Sheedy, shares how she is shaping the culture of her company’s virtual office.

For human resources leaders, the element of change comes built-in.

In my six years as global head of HR at GAIN Capital Holdings, we’ve managed a lot of change—most of which was driven by ourselves, but now is driven by outside forces. For example, we expanded to nine countries across North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific and we implemented a digital human resources management system to support our international workforce.

To support this type of growth, my team and I had to change our processes and leverage technology to help us do our jobs quickly and effectively from anywhere around the world. This flexibility prepared us for the changes brought about by the coronavirus outbreak and we used our skills to respond in the same flexible way.

There’s a lot more involved with managing a remote workforce than just sending everyone home with laptops and phones. Our employees fall into a number of groups—client-facing teams, marketing, technology developers, and financial traders. Trading is at the core of what we do and, more importantly, what our clients do. Traditionally, traders are tied to their desks, looking at screens all day. I’ve been married to a trader for almost 25 years, and he never worked a single day from home.

Managing a remote workforce during a pandemic has forced us to re-examine our processes and adjust our thinking about workforce management to build a virtual environment for employees to thrive–but what does that entail?

Build trust between managers and teams and forgo meaningless status updates

It can be challenging for people managers, especially new ones, to adjust to the different style of management that a remote team requires.

Many are used to being hands-on in the office, where you can walk over to a desk and get immediate updates. Before coronavirus, I would stop by my team’s desks six to eight times a day to catch up on things.

Now that everyone is remote, managers can indeed still instant message, video call, or email when they want a status update. But we need to recognize how much time we waste doing that and be more thoughtful about the interruption. I think it’s still great to connect directly with the team with a surprise call or text, but also give them time to focus and minimize the distractions we can create.

We have to let our teams do their jobs without trying to control them. Working from home forces managers to trust that their teams are doing their best without constant supervision.

Working remotely for the last two months has shown our managers that you don’t need to physically be sitting next to someone for them to do what’s expected of them. That frees up time managers need back for other things like strategizing and planning.

Send your managers clear guidelines for how you want them to manage a virtual team and suggest tips on how to keep it fun and stay connected. Training and tools for managers who aren’t as familiar with virtual management and leadership are invaluable.

This is an opportunity for you to shift your mentality; most notably understanding and accepting that people will work hard when they feel appreciated and given the freedom to do so, whether they are in an office or not.

Adjust your focus to business continuity planning – how can you influence employee performance?

What’s changed the most for me as an HR leader is that I have shifted my focus away from employee relations–those tasks have been made so much easier now that the process is totally digital. Instead, my focus is on business continuity planning, focusing on employee safety and security.

COVID-19 has created a demand for the HR lead to create an environment where employees can perform in the face of challenges to their personal life, health, and balancing priorities.

It is helpful to curate a set of guidelines for managing wellness, in all its components, that can be shared company-wide. We gave our employees tips on managing their work, mental, physical, and financial wellness, recognizing that we’re all balancing personal and work commitments now more than ever. This pandemic is common ground for every employee—executives and managers included.

We’re all dealing with daycares closing and health concerns and staying safe, and it lends a sense of inclusivity and reassurance when the HR team recognizes the correlation between challenging work environments and circumstances and their likely impact upon each employee’s career development and performance at work.

We could all use a little empathy and guidance for managing all of these things, so be sure to offer resources for creating a sense of wellness, beyond providing tools and guidance for working effectively.

Enable an employee-driven strategy with regular feedback

Communication is critical for managing a remote workforce during a crisis, and more effort should be taken to ask for feedback from employees, especially when a live, real-time Q&A is not possible with senior members of the business.

For example, our CEO at GAIN Capital usually holds bi-monthly, live employee town hall meetings which now take the format of a bi-weekly, bite-size, pre-recorded video that our employees can watch when they have time. As our CEO doesn’t get real-time feedback from these, it’s vital to have smaller, more frequent team meetings to gauge how well staff are receiving the company strategy and what to address in the next communication.

The employee survey tool in our human resource management system is essential for us. We surveyed our workforce to estimate how converting to a 100% remote team would impact employee morale and productivity.

That insight helped us to see many of our employees feeling positive about working from home, and it enabled us to view the potential challenges upfront and to resolve them immediately.
We’re going to use feedback from our survey tool to gauge how people feel about going back into an office as we begin a plan to return.

My top five takeaways

Here’s what worked best for our business

  1. Encourage managers to empower their teams. No one likes a micro-manager, especially during these times. Encourage your managers to set out their goals for their teams and allow each individual to decide how to achieve their goals—maybe even decide their schedules and ways of working so they can maximize their productivity.
  2. Streamline your hiring and onboarding processes. We closed our offices in March, which was the busiest month for us in company history. Volatility in the market drives our customers to our phone lines, so we needed to hire 40 people within two weeks of closing the office. We changes our processes to do virtual interviews and continued to onboard new hires who were given offer letters before coronavirus. If your organization is busy enough to need more staff, you now have access to a much larger talent pool if you consider the broader pool of candidates. They don’t have to work in close proximity to your office anymore. Explore how you can take advantage of this opportunity to support your business needs.
  3. Stay diligent with employee relations support. I’ve challenged my team to check in with managers and staff regularly to ensure we are still supporting them. One of the worst things for me would be if an employee relations issue was left to stew for three months and it becomes a real challenge for an employee by the time we’re back in the office. We’re working to keep a virtual connection with our staff members to let them know we are here to help them tackle any challenges head on before they become problems.
  4. Stay tuned to local safety guidelines. Guidelines for how to legally and adequately address coronavirus at the workplace vary by jurisdiction. It’s imperative that you communicate applicable guidelines clearly to your managers and individuals in every jurisdiction your workforce resides. Make sure they understand what their rights are should they become sick or if someone on their team does.
  5. Recognize symptoms of burn out early. Encourage your workforce to use their time off benefits even if their vacation plans are cancelled. It’s easy to feel like you shouldn’t take time off because you’re already working from home. The truth is, we all need a break from work. It’s critical to be able to recognize signs of stress and suggest a break even when you aren’t seeing your team regularly.

Christine Sheedy spoke with Sage Advice’s Ashley Hindsman