Managing remote teams

Dec 17, 2020 | Blog

How do you motivate employees? How do you identify team members who may be struggling with workload or inspiration? How do you monitor productivity and acknowledge effort?

These have always been important questions for managers but they take on greater significance when a majority of employees are working from home. When staff are together in the workplace, their triumphs and tribulations are played out in plain sight. When they’re working remotely, not so much.

So given that mass homeworking is here for at least the next few months, and mass hybrid working likely to follow, here are five tips for managing remote teams.

Have a regular video check-in

Have check-ins regularly: daily if necessary, but at least weekly even with more self-sufficient staff. They can take the form of one-to-ones or small team meetings if staff tend to work collaboratively, but you need to see your employees and they need to see you, so conduct check-ins by video rather than phone. “The important feature,” says the Harvard Business Review, “is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.”

Judge by outcomes, not inputs

You can’t easily monitor how long employees spend at their desks when they’re working from home, and nor should you. In fact, wherever staff are based, the important thing is the quality of the work produced and not the quantity of hours racked up in front of a computer. Agree reasonable deadlines with employees and let them work towards their targets in a way that suits them best. There are disadvantages to working from home, like isolation and loneliness. The clearest benefit is that employees can fit working hours around family time and other commitments. Don’t take away this advantage by micro-managing desk time.

Don’t forget to have fun

Are we sick of Zoom quizzes yet? While lockdown continues, it’s still important to schedule social time with teammates. This needn’t be elaborate. If you can’t stand another video quiz on hit singles of the 1990s, you can just pencil in a little social chat time for the start or end of more formal meetings. Ask about people’s weekends, an upcoming birthday or holiday plans. Encourage employees to talk to each other. But do fit longer virtual social events into the calendar too, at least every now and then. If you can’t stand another quiz, how about a virtual pizza party (get a pizza delivered to every team member)? Virtual social occasions can feel a little forced at first, but leaders who have managed remote teams over a long period say they don’t stay that way, and can help nurture a sense of togetherness as a team.

Take advantage of technology

Phone calls and email won’t suffice if remote working is likely to be anything but occasional and temporary. Use different communication technologies for different purposes. Video is key, because it allows teammates to pick up on both verbal and visual clues, and feels more personal and intimate than audio calls or email. But speedy collaboration is important as well, and instant messaging (IM) is ideal for short question and answer conversations.

It’s important to establish usage conventions. Use email for more formal conversations and those where a permanent trail is required, video for check-ins and team meetings, and IM for urgent queries and informal chats. If you don’t have all those technologies at the moment, it’s worth knowing that a good cloud-based unified communications solution can let your staff access all relevant channels from anywhere.

Tune up your listening mode

Employees who are struggling may find it easier to disguise their anxieties at home than they would in the office. They may shy away from talking about feelings of isolation or being overwhelmed for fear of being considered a weak link. It’s up to you to give staff permission to talk about their concerns and to acknowledge their difficulties. If a clearly struggling employee isn’t communicating, ask them in general terms how remote working is turning out for them, and listen for clues in their answers. Remember to always offer encouragement and positivity. According to the Harvard Business Review, “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.”

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