How to Successfully Manage Your Remote Team
The percentage of the workforce that has needed to adapt to remote work has been astounding. Of course, the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 meant that people in all countries had to begin working from home as offices were shut down.
Familiar routines involving a daily commute to an office were cut short, with many members of the workforce needing to adapt to remote communication.
Not only would this prove to be a challenge for employees, but team managers also needed to think on their feet to establish ways to transition from the office to home-based work.
The last few months have shown that there are so many facets of work that need to be considered when uprooting a team from a familiar office environment to a potentially stressful home environment:
- Productivity. How will employees continue to work at their highest capacity without being surrounded by colleagues? Will home distractions play a part? When managing a remote team, it is crucial to keep a consistent level of productivity in line with what would be expected in an office.
- Communication. What can be done to replace face-to-face meetings? Whether this is a team meeting or a one-on-one chat, it is a tough task to replicate from home. There has, naturally, been an uptick in the use of video conferencing technology, but it is not always easy to harness its usefulness.
- Team morale. When in the office, it’s easy to boost the mood with quick lunch breaks, a lighthearted chat or a congratulatory pat on the back. Suddenly, each employee has to learn to work from home, alone, without this positive reinforcement so easily obtained.
- Organisation. If not managed efficiently, managing a remote team can quickly descend into chaos. As team members muddle up their working hours, oversleep or fail to send an all-important email reminder, the lack of accountability that would normally be found in an office setting becomes all too present.
- Trust. Employees need to feel like they are trusted by their manager when working from home. Whether this be through flexible working hours or being permitted to skip certain meetings when busy, it is important to allow people to feel some freedom. Holding all employees on a leash is a surefire way to stoke resentment.
As seen in the above graph, in February 2020 only 3.4% of the USA workforce was regularly working from home. By the time that the COVID-19 pandemic had taken a hold in March and April, this number had risen close to 100%.
With the first few months of remote work under our collective belt, managers will have been on quite a steep learning curve. This article presents some of the main lessons that have been learnt in successfully managing a remote team.
Fostering a Healthy Company Culture
While your team is working in the office, everyone usually has a pretty good idea of what the accepted etiquette is. Company culture is clearly defined and everybody is quite comfortable with their role.
As soon as the same team begins working from home, it is possible that lines become blurred. Suddenly, people are unsure which messaging channels are suitable for ‘water-cooler chat’ and which are strictly work-related. Without the comfort of face-to-face interaction, people might become anxious about bothering a colleague too much through messaging, hence missing out on asking important questions and uncovering vital information.
- Set up dedicated communication channels. Slack does this quite well. We will go into more detail on the benefits of different communication platforms later on, but Slack is definitely strong at sorting chats into subjects. With clearly labelled chats, your employees will know better than to post a funny GIF into the #important channel.
- Give a brief of expected conduct as soon as possible. Let your team know what degree of humour is acceptable within messages. Let them know how strict you are with ‘out of office’ communication. Let them know if there is a dress code for video meetings.
- Set up some entertaining video meetings. On the topic of video meetings, ensure that you give as much importance to informal chats as you do to important calls. Setting up a fun quiz once a week, for example, would give people something to look forward to. Make sure that you mix it up a little so your team doesn’t dread meetings.
- Make it clear how much effort is expected. How often will employees be expected to send email updates or attend meetings? Will they be allowed to go offline if they have finished their work for the day, or should they always be available?
- Give recognition for completed tasks. Remember to send your team a virtual pat on the back for a job well done. It can also be a nice idea to have everyone in the team send a report of what they’ve achieved throughout the week, just so everyone can congratulate each other and build team spirit.
A Buffer report in 2019 on the state of remote work indicated that it can be difficult to foster a healthy company culture on both ends of the scale.
22% of remote employees describe “unplugging after work” as the biggest challenge they face, while another 19% state that loneliness is their main negative. This shows you that it is tough to keep a remote team somewhere between overstimulated and under-stimulated.
Picking The Right Communication Tools
Reliable communication platforms are everything to a remote team. The lifeblood of the workflow, they are the only way that team members can touch base and move forward on tasks to be completed.
Figure 2, above, shows us how the increase in remote working has coincided with an equally dramatic increase in the number of daily users of the most popular video conferencing apps.
Between February and March 2020, the number of downloads for Zoom jumped from just under 5m to 26.9m. People needing a way to chat to family and friends was a contributing factor here, but large swathes of the workforce have adapted Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams as video communication options.
Many of the video chat services provide similar quality options, so it might be better to delve into the messaging services.
- Slack remains the market leader for professional messaging, providing users with an inbox-free interface that makes messaging individuals or groups extremely simple. Supporting emojis, GIFs and everything else that helps to keep work-based messaging bearable, you can also set up channels for each topic. It can integrate with Google Drive, making it a suitable solution for teams that work with Google Docs and Sheets.
- Microsoft Teams is an extension of Microsoft Office, meaning it integrates well with Excel, Word and other Microsoft products. If you run a team that is used to working with these tools, Teams might be a better option for you. Additionally, Teams has a simpler command toolbar whereas Slack sometimes requires you to perform more complex tasks to add a GIF, for instance.
- Asana and Trello are a little different than the tools discussed above. Instead of professional messaging tools, they are more like project management software. With Asana, you can create and assign projects (and their sub-tasks) to different team members. People can mark tasks as ‘complete’ when they’re done. Trello works similarly, but is particularly strong for making digital lists and planning future tasks to be completed. Much like Asana, different team members can also take on individual tasks in Trello.
Importance of Video Calls
Just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Microsoft released a piece that delved into the statistics behind the benefits of conducting frequent video conference calls with your remote team.
Let’s take a look at some of the key stats from this report:
- Simply put, video calls appear to result in much higher employee engagement than audio calls. According to Forbes, 62% of executives believe that communication quality is increased. Exactly half believe that understanding of the material being discussed is increased.
- Also, team video calls help to build trust between members. This goes back to what we discussed before about fostering a positive remote culture. Seeing each other’s faces helps us to pick up on non-verbal cues such as smiles, waves and other expressions that are the basis of human relationships.
- A survey showed how 89% of respondents believe that video conferencing increases productivity through minimising the back and forth involved in email chains and written communication. Since video meetings are held in real time, participants are able to ask questions and hash out project details much faster than they would via messaging.