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Managing remote workers is challenging under the best of circumstances. And if you’re leading a team that’s working at home during the coronavirus pandemic, you’re certainly not working in ideal conditions.
However, you’re far from alone. With global employers like Twitter, Microsoft and Chevron asking their workforce to go remote, a whole lot of managers who are used to leading teams on-site are having to get used to doing things very differently. That might mean learning how to use new technology or troubleshooting problems from a distance when you’re used to being a hands-on leader. It will certainly mean being much more proactive about communication and team building, even if you have good habits and a solid group of direct reports.
Here are a few tips for managing remote teams when you’re used to collaborating in person:
1. Know That Some Things Will Be the Same
First, some good news: your day-to-day may be different, but your goals and deliverables are still the same. Your business (probably) hasn’t changed overnight just because you’re not working in your usual way.
“We have a tendency to overcompensate and approach remote workers and virtual teams as these mythical beasts,” says Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, speaking with Harvard Business Review. “But you shouldn’t think about them in a fundamentally different way. They are still people working in an organization to get stuff done. Treat them as such.”
The challenge lies in adapting your existing systems to support those goals.
2. Anticipate obstacles
It’s important to anticipate what could go wrong, provided that you’re committed to finding a solution.
As a manager, your first priority when managing a newly remote team is to figure out what the obstacles will be and prevent them from becoming problems. A few possibilities:
- Technical difficulties arising from using unfamiliar technology. These include connectivity problems, security and permissions issues, and user error (e.g., team members forgetting to hit mute when it’s not their turn to speak during a Zoom meeting). Talk to tech support as soon as possible to iron out issues before they become a big problem for your team.
- Communication glitches due to the new normal. If many of your direct reports are new to working from home, expect a bit of a learning curve. It takes practice to develop remote communication skills. Do your part by setting clear expectations for how you’d like to check in. That means scheduling regular one-on-ones and stand-ups and keeping them.
- Childcare issues and other conflicting priorities. In ordinary times, you should have a remote work policy that outlines expectations regarding childcare and other responsibilities during work hours. However, we’re not working in ordinary times. Prepare to be flexible about interruptions to the normal workday. As women still perform more childcare and housework than men, this is also a gender equity issue. Fail to accommodate workers on this issue now and you could wind up regretting it later, when high performers jump ship.
- Game out how you’ll cope if team members are out sick. Now more than ever, it’s essential for workers to feel that they can take their PTO when they’re sick. But it’s also important to have a plan for how to get things done in their absence. Ask yourself if there are projects or responsibilities that currently depend on one team member, and then do your best to spread the wealth. Emergency situations like these are a reminder that it’s always a good idea to share these responsibilities.
- Isolation and anxiety. These are anxious times, and even the most inspiring leader won’t be able to allay their team’s fears. But you can make people feel more secure by maintaining a virtual open-door policy. If possible, it’s also important to project calm yourself. You can’t promise your team that everything will be OK, but you can maintain a steady hand at the wheel and make sure that your leadership isn’t one more thing to worry about. Make sure you’re available via all the normal channels, e.g. Slack, email, Zoom, phone, etc. And check in with your folks.
3. Foster Human Connection
One of the most difficult aspects of managing a remote team that was on-site only a few weeks ago is helping people connect with each other. Although in normal times we prioritize getting stuff done over shooting the breeze, socializing is an important part of maintaining a functional team. There’s a reason companies invest time and energy in team-building exercises. Without that connection between coworkers, it’s difficult to foster the kinds of relationships that lead to true productivity.
Folks who are forced into an unfamiliar remote work situation aren’t used to socializing virtually. As a manager, you have an opportunity to help them connect. The team at Slack offer a few tips over at their blog, including holding Zoom happy hours, starting a Slack channel for random watercooler chit-chat and incorporating icebreakers into team meetings. Now’s a great time to invite team members to share their home workspaces, or pet photos, or hobbies. You might end up learning more about each other than you would have if you had stayed in the office.
It’s also important to be flexible with yourself during this time. If your primary role has been keeping your team on track and motivated, it may feel like you’re wasting company resources to spend time sharing dog pictures and comparing work-from-home spaces. But remember that if you were in the office together, you’d likely spend more time chatting in the breakroom or grabbing coffee for informal brainstorming sessions. All work and no play leads to reduced productivity.
4. Assume Your Staff Is Trustworthy Until Otherwise Indicated
“One problem people are already encountering: A lot of managers have no idea how to manage remote workers,” writes Alison Green of Ask a Manager at Slate. “As a result, they implement bizarrely tyrannical restrictions—telling their staff to leave their webcams on all day, for example, or instructing people to alert their manager every time they leave their desk for a bathroom break. (Witness this leaked Wall Street Journal memo.) The underlying message is clear (and insulting): We don’t trust you to work when we can’t see you.”
Obviously, this is not the message you want to give your direct reports. However, if you’re new at managing remote teams, it’s also understandable if you’re dealing with a bit of a learning curve yourself. One way to gain trust is to set expectations. Just be sure to keep those expectations reasonable.
“Sometimes, companies are not willing to embrace a remote workforce because there’s an uncertainty about whether or not the work will get completed at the same level as if they were in the office,” says LaKiesha Tomlin, of Thriving Ambition, Inc, speaking with Forbes. “To combat this belief, set up work-from-home guidelines, such as emails must be responded to within 24 hours, use text for urgent matters, and no calls between certain hours to make sure teammates are not working around the clock.”
It’s also important to communicate the fact that you don’t expect workers to be working all the time, just because they’re temporarily working out of their home.
5. Look for the Lessons
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25% of American workers worked at home at least some of the time in 2017-8, the most recent year for which data is available. However, it’s safe to say that many more workers could work at home, due to the nature of their work, and are not allowed to do so – perhaps because employers fear that productivity will decline if workers aren’t on site.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced perhaps the world’s largest remote work experiment. Employers may come to realize that working remotely has benefits as well as drawbacks – increased productivity among them.
Should decision-makers choose to go remote on a regular basis once the crisis has passed, they can learn from the experience of the past few weeks. Likely among those learnings: the need for a remote work policy. A good one will spell out the expectations and parameters of a remote work arrangement, including expectations around schedule, childcare and equipment.
Ideally, this impromptu work-from-home experiment will also teach leaders the most important lesson of all: the most important thing is what workers can achieve, not how or when they do it. You don’t have to go full ROWE to understand that it makes sense to prioritize KPIs over facetime. Whether your team stays remote or goes back to the office, you can bring that lesson with you.
Tell Us What You Think
Are you working from home during the coronavirus or managing a remote team for the first time? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.