The abrupt transition to work from home has dramatically changed the way we work. There are some significant advantages: no long commutes, greater flexibility in organising the workday, and the chance to spend more time with family. At the same time, leaders are facing unique challenges. With teams working remotely, certain leadership tasks have become tougher. How can you effectively track progress under these circumstances? How can you nip problems in the bud before they turn into full-blown issues? How should you boost team morale?
Another obstacle is the loss of typical office interactions between leaders and their teams. Be it a quick chat by the desk or in the cafeteria – these brief, informal exchanges were a vital source of information for team members. In the Harvard Business Review article, How Managers Can Support Remote Employees, Sabina Nawaz elaborates:
In the global transition from corporate hallways to home offices, we’ve left something behind: meaningful access to managers. Gone are the instant answers to unblock progress, information streams that managers are privy to before the rest of the organisation, informal feedback and coaching while walking together after a meeting, and predictable process and structures for communicating about work and ensuring mutual accountability.
When working out of the office, it was possible to spot and address issues instantly. Clearly, this is no longer possible.
Leaders, too, are struggling to keep their finger on the pulse of their teams without face-to-face supervision. When working out of the office, it was possible to spot and address issues instantly. If you saw a team member struggling or seemed disengaged, you could intervene quickly to motivate them or redistribute the workload. Clearly, this is no longer possible.
With these challenges on our plates, my message this week focuses on how leaders can run their (newly) remote teams more effectively. Remember that there is no existing playbook on what to do. This is a learning process for all of us. Here are 10 recommendations that could help you boost your remote team’s engagement and performance:
1. Assess workload of team members
In the HBR piece mentioned above, the authors offer excellent advice to take stock of staffing:
Do a quick census of employees who work on teams: how many teams are they serving on currently? Has that number gone up or down? Who is assigning members to teams, and is there consideration of people being on multiple teams? Look for star performers, senior leaders, and members of critical functions being pulled onto teams without full recognition of the competing demands on their time and attention. Also, look for pockets of employees who are currently experiencing excess capacity and could possibly shore up overstretched teams.
While some team members are pushed to the limit, others aren’t being fully utilised. The goal is to be more systematic and balanced when it comes to staffing teams.
2. Identify overworked members
Reach out to team members who are part of multiple teams – they may be struggling to keep up with the slew of demands. Does frequent switching between projects affect their productivity? Are varying time zones adding to the strain? Are they finding it difficult to juggle the different teams’ working styles, expectations and schedules? Avoid placing people on numerous projects to reduce the chances of burnout and optimise productivity.
3. Connect frequently
You may have told your team to reach out to you whenever they need, but people are often hesitant to approach their bosses with problems – even at the best of times. In this new work-from-home scenario, it’s better to be proactive and err on the side of over-communication.
Check-in with each direct report at least a few times a week. Keep it simple: a brief text or quick call to ask “Are there any questions I can answer today?” or “Do you need support with what you’re working on?”. Listen carefully to their concerns, help to resolve any issues, and provide encouragement. Don’t communicate anxiety or helplessness – remember, during times of crisis, team members take their cue from leaders.
4. Hold office hours
When working in the office, leaders share a surprising amount of information via informal chats and passing conversations with their team members. Without this, molehills can quickly turn into mountains. One way to clear small roadblocks before they escalate is to hold regular “office hours”.
The idea is simple, as outlined by Nawaz: Make yourself available for an hour, for team members to call you with any doubts that can be addressed in under 10 minutes. (Anything longer or more complicated than that warrants a meeting.) If a team member gets a busy tone when they call (which means you’re already speaking to someone else), they should try again in 10 minutes. Depending on the size of your team, you could hold office hours daily or twice a week. Stick to the same time slot and days of the week to establish a regular routine.
5. Leverage different technologies.
While email and chat are reliable channels of communication, they should ideally be complemented by video conferencing. In the absence of face-to-face interactions, video calling is the next best option: it allows you to read facial cues, sense the mood and pick up on non-verbal signals. It also helps to minimise isolation and misunderstandings among teams. For quick clarifications or time-sensitive updates, a messaging app might be the best choice.
6. Balance structure with flexibility.
Define clear guidelines around communication. Set expectations around the frequency of meetings, ideal timings to connect, and preferred technologies. For example, you might settle on video conferencing for daily morning meetings and instant messaging for urgent work.
At the same time, leaders must offer flexibility based on individual circumstances. Many of our team members are working without a dedicated home office, home-schooling their children or looking after elderly family members. As a recent Gallup report states:
Managers have to figure out where structure is required and where it is flexible – like shortening meetings by five or 10 minutes to allow people to transition between calls and reset an activity for a child at home.
7. Align work with reality.
Rethink the objectives and tasks of your teams for current relevance. If there’s a mismatch, it’s time to make some changes. How can you bring the team’s priorities and way of working in line with the new reality? Would a different direction be more suitable for the coming months?
These are vital questions as we move forward, not just for the organisation but also for individual employees. Research has consistently shown that meaningfulness is crucial to job satisfaction, which makes it all the more important to ensure that your team’s work is still creating value.
8. Create predictable rituals.
The sudden switch to remote work, combined with lockdowns and lifestyle restrictions, has filled our lives with uncertainty. Small, repeatable team rituals can help to restore a sense of normalcy and psychological safety. The possibilities are endless – from starting meetings with a quick mood check-in, to having a virtual pizza party at the end of the week. Design 1-2 rituals together as a team and give them a try. (For more details on creating new rituals during a crisis, please see my post from last week: http://www.monday-8am.com/create-some-rituals-to-boost-your-effectiveness/).
9. Set boundaries.
As you begin new interactions – be it individual check-ins, office hours or social team rituals – it’s a good idea to build in an escape hatch. Some team members might love the idea of chatting every second day, while others might find it overwhelming. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve (connection, support, belonging), and give people the option of taking some space if they need. Also, set your boundaries with the team; for example, “I have lunch with my family from 1-2 pm every day, but I’m happy to schedule our calls around that.”
10. Be open to discovery.
The Gallup report mentioned above suggests a wonderful way to approach remote work:
Be open to finding out things about your business that might surprise you. You may have a team or role that you didn’t think could be effective remotely – or inversely, a team that you were confident in that ends up struggling. Be open to learning lessons from this experience and even having some of your thinking about your work, your organisation and your customers turned upside down as a massive field experiment in remote work is currently underway.
As leaders, it’s up to us to help our teams adapt to the changing scenario. I hope you’re able to find value in some of the above suggestions. Are there any other points you would like to implement or have had success with already?