The coronavirus pandemic has meant that teams who might normally work together in an office have been forced to operate remotely. This has brought new challenges for everyone, but particularly for business owners and leaders who have had to adapt to managing people spread across disparate locations.
Learning to manage remote teams is not just a useful skill for now. Remote working is a phenomenon that has been gathering momentum for a number of years, with 74% more people working from home in 2018 versus 2008, and 70% of people saying that flexible working makes a job more attractive. Enforced working from home during lockdown has accelerated this growing trend, making it otherwise non-optional.
Managing team members in multiple locations presents several new challenges. Staff working from home might struggle with the distractions of family members or pets; they may lack motivation or feel isolated; communication might be more difficult without the option to ask casual questions across the desk; and a lack of communication may lead to team members pulling in different directions, resulting in conflict and cliques.
But with careful thought, these challenges can be overcome. Many of the principles of managing remote teams are the same as managing teams that work in the same location, simply with more attention given to communication.
A core idea to bear in mind is that it is vital everyone understands the team’s aims and strategy, recognises the role they play in delivering it and feels a sense of belonging. You may need to spend more time upfront clarifying the team’s purpose and individual responsibilities. You can also help create a sense of belonging by looking for opportunities to share success and celebrate individual achievements. And with no chat around the kettle or water cooler, consider virtual tea breaks or finishing early on a Friday and sharing a glass of wine via video call to ensure team members can bond and appreciate each other’s personalities.
Think also about the support that team members might need from you. Whereas in an office together you could set a task and easily monitor how well an individual is coping with it, this will be less obvious remotely. Think about how much help an individual might need to achieve what has been asked of them, ensure comprehensive understanding at the start, offer ample opportunities for questions and make regular contact to ensure progress is being made.
Communication is key: more time needs to be allocated for meetings to replace the unstructured and informal conversations that happen when the team is together. Hold meetings in the morning where possible: research has shown that people are generally at their most productive between 9am and 11am; holding meetings later in the day makes attendees less likely to make and act on decisions. Try to reply quickly to e-mails and voicemails to avoid colleagues feeling isolated and ignored. Although physical meetings have not been possible during lockdown, under normal circumstances, effort should be made for some face-to-face communication. It is estimated that 55% of communication is non-verbal and, with research suggesting that 65% of people are doing other work when on a conference call, getting together in real life cannot really be replaced and is the only way to get someone’s full attention.
Finally, remember that your employees are your most important asset. Remote managers need to work harder at relationships to foster a strong sense of team, and they should focus on the individuals as well as the tasks at hand. Try to understand what drives people, what is important to them and how they like to communicate. Handle any conflict or issues promptly and face to face where possible.
Remote management is here as a key part of our new normal, but it doesn’t require a whole new rule book. It does, however, take more consideration of the individuals on your team, more communication and more creativity to bring a scattered team together.