We’ve been writing for years about the desire of workers for greater flexibility and the parallel need for managers to develop skills for managing remote teams. However, COVID-19 has fast-tracked this societal change – making the ability to manage remote teams an essential skill for managers.
In 2020, the global pandemic kicked off a digital transformation that fast-tracked years of change into a just a few short weeks or months. Remote working had to be – suddenly and rapidly – made possible through organisational and technology changes.
Today, as Europe heads into another lockdown and America finally takes a science-led approach to dealing with COVID-19, many businesses are coming round to the idea that – far from being a temporary response to the pandemic – remote working is here for the long haul.
As such, we need to revisit our strategies for workforce management, productivity and employee satisfaction in the context of long-term remote working.
There are challenges inherent in remote working. Recognising and adopting strategies to counteract these challenges is a key part of managing a remote team.
Managers often worry that employees will not work as hard. Meanwhile, employees can struggle with the lack of direct access to managerial support and communication.
Loneliness, one of the most common complaints of remote work, is further exacerbated by the lockdown scenarios many of us are living through – cut off not just from managerial support but from the support networks of friends and family too.
The challenge of isolation makes communication a key part of remote team management. Checking in regularly and predictably should be your first priority. Scheduling a team video conference first thing every morning might seem like overkill, but it can be a lifeline for staff who are struggling with isolation and a sense of disconnection. Likely, you will all find it half an hour well spent.
The Harvard Business Review recommends establishing rules of engagement for remote team communication. For example, video-conferencing should be used for daily check-in meetings, but instant messaging should be used when something is urgent. Opting for an integrated communications platform that combines these various communication methods, such as Microsoft Teams, makes life easier for staff and ensures the business has a coherent and searchable record of communications.
For more ideas, read our tips for effective communication in remote teams.
Another key change when managing remote teams is a recognition of the changing dynamics of teamwork and performance monitoring. Managers must adapt to focus on results, rather than measuring time spent or trying to micromanage.
It can be hard to let go, especially if some team members lack the confidence or commitment to self-manage their output and productivity effectively. Recognising which of your team is thriving with the greater autonomy and which are challenged must be a priority.
For those staff that need extra support, schedule one-on-one conference calls and don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions. Check in regularly. Ask “how is this remote working situation working out for you?” and “what additional support would you like from me?”. Opportunities for remote social interaction can also shore up struggling team members. HBR suggests virtual office parties with care packages sent in advance and enjoyed simultaneously can help to promote a sense of belonging which aids productivity.
HBR also stresses the importance of leading by example, since employees take cues from leadership about how to respond to work situations.
Once you have removed as many practical considerations as possible (secure laptops, access to a high-quality Internet connection, an integrated communication platform), your emotional intelligence is paramount. Recognising that different employees are facing different challenges will be the first step: who is trying to balance work with parental or carer responsibilities? Who is dealing with isolation? Or grief? As a manager, don’t forget to lean into HR for support where you need it.
HBR states: “Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as ‘we’ve got this’ or ‘this is tough, but I know we can handle it’. With this support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus.”
Something we all need during these difficult times.
For tips on being remote and productive, read more here.
What are the business trends we forecast for 2021? Read more here.