The trend to remote work has been gaining momentum for much of the last decade. However, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 crisis that work-from-home arrangements became the norm rather than the exception. The pandemic forced mass remote working, and companies have had to adjust quickly.
Because of COVID-19, the way we do business has changed radically. What is more, many of these changes might be here to stay. A recent survey from Gartner indicated that 74% of American companies plan to shift to more remote working when the pandemic is over:
Managing a remote team can be a challenge, but is going to become - and remain - a reality for more managers. If you want to know more about managing a team remotely, read on. I will discuss the most common difficulties you’re likely to encounter and how to effectively mitigate them.
Many managers say that creating a positive company culture is one of the greatest challenges when working with remote employees. The culture of a company or team is often heavily influenced by its physical working environment, including factors such as the location, office layout, and the casual social interactions that occur throughout the workday.
When you work with a remote team, these factors are no longer at play. This is especially true at the moment as in person meetings are off the table. However, even under more ordinary circumstances, remote teams often miss out on building a cohesive, positive company culture.
Consider the key factors that make up a company’s culture:
Source: Surpass Your Goals
Not all of these will be within your direct control, of course. However, you may well find that there are more areas where you can have a positive influence than you might think.
Here are some ways you might be able to improve the culture within your team:
- Communicate clearly, ensuring your staff are clear on expectations.
- Advocate for your staff, particularly around key issues such as pay, promotion prospects, and workload.
- Make sure your staff have what they need to do their jobs, whether this is information, support or equipment.
- Take the time to say “well done” and “thank you” when it is warranted.
- Get to know your staff as people, too. Ask them about their weekend, their children or pets, or their hobbies.
- Show empathy and understanding when someone is unwell or experiencing difficulties.
As a manager, it is your job to ensure that your company’s core values are reflected in your team’s culture. This requires planning and intentionality. It does not happen overnight or by accident. Lead by example, and your team will follow you.
Create Time for Interpersonal Relationships
In order to work well together, colleagues need to develop warm and collaborative relationships. This can be challenging even in an office environment, especially if there are personality clashes. It is even harder in remote teams, because people miss out on many of the small moments of bonding that can happen spontaneously when they are physically together.
For a regular team, you could plan an occasional social get-together or hold a quarterly all-team meeting at your headquarters. Unfortunately, these solutions are unlikely to be viable for a remote team. You’ll need to find creative ways to build relationships within your team.
Try planning a virtual event. Virtual movie nights are another popular choice, though finding a movie that everyone likes might be a challenge. Another great idea is to run a virtual pub quiz on a webinar software platform like Zoom.
Create a few rounds of questions and offer a prize to the winner. Other options include Virtual Bingo, Virtual Book Club, or even a remote happy hour. Whatever your team enjoys doing, you can probably find a way to adapt it for the online world.
Maintain Clear Channels of Communication
Remote teams can find it difficult to keep the lines of communication open. It’s critical, however, to know what individual team members are working on and whether they need any help or support. Email is fantastic, but it is not a substitute for face-to-face conversations.
Productive remote teams work around these issues by using a dedicated tool for quick communication. Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams are good options. You can also use a tool like Slack to organize conversations into channels.
When you need to have a team meeting, you can use Zoom, Webex, or GotoMeeting. All of these applications have chat, video conferencing, and screen-sharing features, and you can even record sessions for future reference.
Finally, it’s a good idea to schedule regular team check-ins. Schedule at least one 15-30 minutes team meeting. At Voila Norbert, we do 10 minute daily check in calls. It helps us keep track of what people are up to, and tasks that are being achieved.
Take Into Account People’s Timezone
Arranging a meeting time that works for everyone can be hard enough even working in the same physical space. With remote working, it becomes even more challenging, especially for teams spread out across time zones or with unusual working arrangements.
Use scheduling tools to make it easy to see when people are available. Microsoft Outlook’s built-in calendar is great for this, though you can find premium alternatives.
Flexible working does give you the option to schedule meetings outside of ordinary business hours. This might be necessary if, for example, people are in different time zones or have caring responsibilities for children. As far as possible, however, you should avoid inconveniencing your team or asking them to cut into their off-hours. Be respectful of your employees’ schedules and go above and beyond to accommodate them, and they will do the same for you in return.
Tracking productivity is perhaps the greatest concern for managers who are new to working with remote teams. It can be difficult to keep track of exactly what everyone is working on, as well as who is at capacity and who might have time to take on additional tasks.
The key as a manager is to find a way to track your employees’ productivity without micromanaging, being invasive or forcing your team to jump through lots of additional hoops. At Voila Norbert, we use kanban-inspired applications like Trello.
Project management tools help us assign tasks to team members and track their progress. You can categorize tasks using color-coding, and move items between columns. You can also set notifications and share progress updates. This helps you as a manager get a bird's eye view of how things are progressing and if anyone is not pulling their weight.
If you need to keep track of hours worked, you can use a time clock app like ZoomShift to track your employees’ time. Many of these trackers can accommodate special arrangements such as the Pomodoro Technique.
Trust Your Work Colleagues
Establishing trust between managers and team members takes a lot of work, but it is absolutely vital in a remote team. Setting honest, reasonable expectations about working hours, project deliverables, deadlines, and updates keeps everyone on the same page. Regular check-ins, as we discussed above, gives everyone the opportunity to voice any concerns and ask for any help they need.
For first-time remote managers, it is easy to fall into the trap of micromanagement. There are some workers for whom this type of leadership might work, but the vast majority of workers do not appreciate it. Being micromanaged betrays a lack of trust in your employees and is likely to make them feel resentful and stressed.
Instead, keep an open line of communication with your employees. Position yourself as a supportive presence, not someone who is constantly bugging them for updates. Listen to their concerns, and lead by example. Unless they show you otherwise, assume that your employees want to work hard and do their jobs well.
Provide Honest Feedback
Something that newly-remote employees report missing is the regular feedback they get from their manager when in the office, both in scheduled one-to-ones and on an ad hoc basis. Therefore it is important to build in time to give your remote employees feedback. This gives them valuable knowledge about how they are performing and what they can do to improve.
If you don’t give feedback regularly, it can make your employees feel like they’re out of touch and unimportant. It can also make them feel needlessly worried that something is wrong with their performance. Take time to give accurate, actionable feedback about their performance. And don’t forget to give praise and say thank you when someone is doing well!
Managing a remote team can be difficult, even for experienced managers. Remote working is here to stay, and it’s likely to get even more popular. This means that you need to work on your long-term strategy for improving employee engagement, boosting morale, implementing new communications and collaboration tools, and effectively supporting your team.
Remember the golden rules for great remote teams:
- Build a strong and positive culture.
- Take the time to nurture warm working relationships within the team.
- Communicate clearly, transparently, and often.
- Use the tools available to you to manage everyone’s time, schedule meetings, and track productivity.
- Give regular feedback.
- Trust your employees, be trustworthy, and assume good faith.
All the essential ingredients of good management can also be applied remotely. You just need to get a bit creative!