Free seminars tackle the challenge of managing employees virtually

Leadership Institute training funded through $300K federal CARES Act grant
​Jerry Poling | January 4, 2021

For many businesses and organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a challenge that likely wasn’t an issue before 2020: how to manage employees who are working from home.

The pandemic has resulted in a wave of telecommuting. Legions of people have gone weeks and months without entering the office or having personal contact with management.

The Leadership Institute at University of Wisconsin-Stout is addressing that issue with a series of free, virtual seminars titled Successful and Healthy Virtual Leadership. Two more seminars are coming up, one Jan. 14 and Jan. 28; and the other Feb. 11 and Feb. 25. The sessions, on Thursdays, are from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Registration is limited.

Three seminars also were held in the fall. They were created as part of a $300,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration University Center CARES Act — Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security. The grant was awarded last spring to the university’s Discovery Center, which includes the Leadership Institute.

The 24-month grant is designed to “assist companies and communities in COVID response and recovery,” said Randy Hulke, Discovery Center director.

Marya Wilson
Marya Wilson / UW-Stout

Additional COVID-related programming will involve applied research by students and faculty. Programs for the public will address technology implementation, strategic planning, product development and employee retention, Hulke said.

The virtual leadership seminars grew from a void created by the pandemic and people suddenly telecommuting, said Assistant Professor Marya Wilson, who leads the sessions and is director of the Leadership Institute.

“We are getting feedback from leaders that they are exhausted with virtual leadership,” Wilson said. “They just aren’t sure how to make it successful.”

Wilson stresses the importance of leaders developing a clear communication plan with their employees when managing virtually. “They have to pick a plan that works for them,” said Wilson, who provides participants with a toolkit of resources.

The seminars also address screen fatigue and mental health, how to monitor productivity, technology options and more.

“The pandemic has pushed us to do things differently. What I hope leaders get from this is how they’re going to work differently,” Wilson said.

Plus, managing and working virtually won’t disappear with the pandemic, she predicts. “Telecommuting is here to stay. This is forcing a lot of leaders to recognize that it works. Productivity is up 20 to 30 percent, except in the retail and hospitality industries. Employee morale has gone up.”

Feedback has been ‘really positive’

Feedback on the fall seminars, which included managers from around the country, has “been really positive,” Wilson said.


David Sperling
David Sperling / Contributed photo

David Sperling said he is a better communicator since taking the course. “I have been more willing to meet virtually with my customers and have learned to ask better questions. I know post-pandemic work will include more virtual supervision. The course helped fill my toolbox with resources and strategies to better function as a manager.”

Sperling, a 2015 UW-Stout graduate in engineering technology, is an account manager in Orange County, Calif., for Accurex, a division of Wisconsin-based Greenheck. Accurex makes commercial kitchen ventilation systems. 

He manages 20 to 30 projects at a time while communicating with designers, contractors, engineers, consultants and end users, along with co-workers, across the country.

“They all have individual needs and require information presented in different ways. Using the emotional quotient lessons from this course, I am able to better communicate with each group,” he said.

Along with the two virtual sessions for each seminar, registration includes a one-hour individual coaching session with Wilson, who previously worked in the Silicon Valley and has many years of telecommuting experience.

Wilson, from the operations and management department, teaches and does research in organizational leadership, development and behavior, operations management, and quality management. She has a Ph.D. in human and organizational systems.


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