If you're suddenly managing your team remotely, these tips can help you communicate effectively, calm fears and keep your business running smoothly.
- The best thing you can do for your employees as they transition to remote work is to be as transparent as possible and maintain regular communication.
- Schedule regular meetings with your team to encourage collaboration and reduce feelings of isolation.
- In addition to team meetings, check in with each member of your team to set expectations and find out what they need from you.
Businesses big and small have had to shift to remote work, and now-virtual leaders and their teams are scrambling to adjust to an entirely new management style while attempting to keep a sense of normalcy. For many businesses, this has meant developing a new communication strategy, calming fears, managing expectations, and figuring out how to make roles that are not typically suited to remote work function until things get back to normal.
Many leaders are being asked to step up and meet these expectations on the fly. To help out, business.com spoke to several small business owners and business leaders with remote teams to gather tips on how to be a good leader for a newly remote workforce.
The biggest challenges of managing a remote team
Remote teams can work together effectively, but the dynamic poses some unique challenges. Anticipating issues before they arise will help you make better decisions for your team.
These are the top challenges of managing a remote team:
Communication: As the Harvard Division of Continuing Education's blog says, communication is important in any type of workplace, but especially businesses that interact virtually. When communication isn't working for a team, the members don't all have access to the right tools to achieve corporate goals.
Scheduling: One of the reasons that many prefer to work virtually is scheduling flexibility. However, that can prove difficult when you're trying to set up a convenient time for everyone to meet online. Most significantly, this turns into a problem if you have employees in different geographical regions.
Productivity: As a manager, you're expected to remain on top of progress on all team projects. When employees are in the office, you can easily check in on progress, but you may find it challenging to confirm productivity with a remote team.
Shared data space: When teams work remotely, there isn't always a shared space to find information on a project. Managers are expected to provide easy access to the materials necessary to complete projects efficiently, and team members might find it difficult to get answers to their questions in a timely fashion.
- Onboarding: Bringing new hires onto a remote team can be a challenge. Even if the remote team is running smoothly now, adding in a new person can interrupt workflow. Without proper onboarding, output levels for you team, especially the new members, might be compromised.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Because these are turbulent times, one of the best things you can do as a leader is to be transparent and forthcoming with your team. Your newly remote employees are uncertain about a lot right now – how long they will be working remotely, when their children will return to school, if their relatives are healthy and safe – and you can be most helpful to them by communicating with them openly and often.
"You can't overcommunicate in times of turmoil," said Laurie Battaglia, CEO of Aligned at Work. "People need to know all they can in order to make the best decisions for themselves and their situation."
This does not mean, however, that you need to be overly transparent and share confidential information about the company or talk about everything going on in the news to properly manage remote teams.
"You can take [communication] too far, but informing people of the real risks they face is responsible and ethical leadership," said Battaglia.
How to calm COVID-19 fears
As for what to say to your team, think about your company's purpose, your team's purpose and how this crisis might impact those goals. Explain clearly to your employees what will change, what will not change and what might change, as well as what you expect from them. You can also share details of what your company is doing in response to COVID-19, such as transitioning to remote work or donating money for medical supplies.
"Offer transparency to your employees during this time, but keep an optimistic tone," said Russ Hill, senior partner at Partners in Leadership. "There is no need to spread fear, but allowing employees to see the full picture of the situation [helps] them to see what they can do to take control of what they are accountable for."
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Tips for effective communication with a remote team during a crisis
Here are five things you can do to keep the lines of communication with your team open while everyone works from home.
1. Have regular "face-to-face" meetings.
Consistent, open communication is a common difficulty with remote teams, so you must put in a little extra work to make that happen while your team is temporarily remote. Put at least one weekly video conferencing meeting on the calendar – you can call it a check-in, an update or a status meeting – and devote that time to project management, providing your team with any pertinent updates, seeing how they are doing with their work as well as personally, and taking questions.
2. Gather feedback.
It can be helpful to have a "we're all in this together" mindset, acknowledging that you and your team are all navigating this new situation of remote team management, and welcoming feedback on any new practices, like the weekly check-in meetings. Make your team aware of all avenues they can use to contact you – like email, Slack or text message – and try to implement their suggestions where possible.
3. Find the balance between acknowledging fears and carrying on with business.
It may seem practical to adopt a "keep calm and carry on" approach as you try to continue business as usual while managing remote employees. However, this may make employees feel that their fears – and the enormous disruptions to their lives – are being ignored. On the other hand, you don't want to make every conversation entirely about the current crisis.
Try to recognize your team members' fears and feelings, and bolster their confidence in the company as best you can. Employees are more productive when they feel secure, so do as much as you can to reassure them that things are OK and will eventually return to normal.
4. Create opportunities for fun virtual connections.
Socializing is a huge part of work, and working remotely may be difficult for team members who feel isolated and cut off from regular social interactions. As a leader, you can create opportunities for remote socializing using apps and collaboration tools like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or other instant messaging tools to help your workers stay connected remotely.
"Happy hours, wigs, Zoom backgrounds, virtual yoga, extra town halls and cooking classes are all helping keep everyone connected," said Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at Visier. "We rely heavily on tools like Slack and Zoom to be social outlets." [Check out our reviews of 8x8 and Ooma Office, the best phone system for video conferencing and remote work.]
5. Make context a key part of your communications.
A lot of meaning can get lost in an email. A terse "yes" response from a team member to your three-paragraph query might come off as frosty to you, but it may simply mean that the responder was running late to a meeting.
Train your team in collaboration and overcommunication, while also emphasizing that they should try not to make assumptions. A simple miscommunication between employees can lead to resentment and offense, which can seriously impact your team and company culture.
How to engage and empower your remote team
Once you have effectively communicated with your team all that they need to know, empower them to make decisions regarding their work and their role in the current environment. This gives team members a stronger sense of control over their situation and creates an opportunity for new leaders to emerge. Here are some best practices to keep in mind.
1. Have individual check-ins.
If you have not done so already, and if it seems appropriate, check in with each individual on your team to clarify what you need from them, see what they need from you, and get their personal expectations and thoughts about working from home indefinitely. Individual meetings are more effective than repeating in every group meeting that anyone can speak up, as remote workers won't feel that they are wasting others' time and may feel more comfortable speaking in one-on-one conferences.
2. Remember everyone on your team.
If you manage a large team or are responsible for your entire organization, make sure that you are checking in with everyone, not just the people you interact with on a daily basis. This may include administrators, IT personnel, support staff or janitorial workers. This will go a long way in boosting morale and give you insight from every level of your company.
3. Be flexible about how the work gets done.
Keep in mind that many employees have a lot of new stressors right now besides working from home. For example, you likely have employees with children now at home with them all day, or employees with medical issues being exacerbated by the quarantine.
Make it known that you are allowing more flexible scheduling for as long as the remote work continues. Ask for employees to consistently communicate what they need to maintain productivity as remote workers, and do your best to meet those needs. If you need to adjust your time tracking or project expectations, do so in a way that still accomplishes your goals.
4. Offer more technology options to your team.
Never rely on one single technology to interact with team members. For instance, email is often considered the least engaging way to build up teams. Virtual conferencing works best, but consider meeting in small groups. Large virtual conferences can quickly become confusing and unproductive. Audio conferencing calls work for quick meetings, but if any sensitive data needs to be shared, take the personalized approach of video calls. Time-sensitive communications should be handled via live chat apps.
5. Create an agenda before a meeting.
Video meetings can be ineffective without preparation. Create an agenda at least a couple hours before the meeting and share it with all the invitees. You can allow deviations from the agenda, then use it when you need to get the meeting back on track.
6. Set clear guidelines for all team members.
Remote team members must understand the need for accountability. Allow for some flexibility, but if you're too laid back, project goals might not be accomplished on time. Let everyone know your expectations: punctuality, preparation and participation.
"Empathy [is key]," said Abhi Lokesh, CEO and co-founder of Fracture. "This is an unprecedented time that is impacting people's daily lives, and management needs to recognize and appreciate that."