As more and more workers opt through necessity or preference to work from home, their managers are front and centre in giving them the direction and support they need. But in an age of social distancing, how do you maintain a cohesive team when people are increasingly not co-located?
The answer is a tall order: You need innovative ways to tie your group together like never before. We are fortunate that technology has given us the means for many jobs to be performed away from a central office location. Internet connectivity, mobile devices and collaborative applications have become more and more sophisticated. The emergence of robust new technology, including tools powered by artificial intelligence, makes it even easier for employees to work from home — or anywhere — seamlessly and productively.
But your technology can’t supply the leadership and real unifying force remote employees need. That depends on you. Here are some ideas for managing a remote team.
1. Put your communication efforts on steroids
Regular and informative communication is the lifeblood of a dispersed workforce. In fact, in the beginning at least, overcommunication is key. Schedule regular calls with project teams to mutually evaluate progress on their goals. Do the same with the full team.
Make an extra effort to keep everyone who’s working from home in the loop on company and departmental news. As a leader, you should give your take on the workload and any priorities that may be shifting. When done, step out of the way and entertain questions and opinions.
Suggest creative ways staff can maintain strong customer service with colleagues through internal communications — how to rework delivery schedules, mutually alter priorities or use technology, for example. Perhaps offer guidelines as to how administrative support will now be handled within the team. And since there will be limited interpersonal contact, explain the importance of prompt response times for emails and phone calls.
Consider conducting video conference calls rather than just audio ones. Platforms like Zoom or Skype for Business can be easy to set up. Seeing colleagues in their home office environment gives a sense of “we’re all in this together” and builds camaraderie. Be creative. What about online celebrations, such as a virtual baby shower for someone giving birth soon or a virtual birthday party? Other services such as Slack and Google Hangouts can help your workforce keep in touch with each other throughout the day.
2. Show empathy
Check in frequently to demonstrate your concern about people’s well-being and potential sense of isolation. Consider daily 15-minute video calls with your team just to check in on non-work matters and give participants a chance to tell the group how they are coping. In other words, make them comfortable discussing how are they faring with their new situation — as people.
How have their daily habits changed? Are they able to walk the dog more often? How are they handling everyday disruptions when they can’t disappear to the relative quiet of the office? What tips can they pass on to others to make working from home easier or more productive? Share whatever news you have, even if it’s a small update or to say there’s no news to share.
3. Offer them flexibility
Let your team know it’s OK to vary work hours — to the extent possible. Tell them it’s entirely reasonable to leave a quick email that they’ve gone outside for a brief walk.
4. Shore up resources
Make sure essentials like production schedules, project timelines, background documents and the like are stored in a central online location, like SharePoint, Smartsheet, Dropbox, Google Docs or a wiki, that all remote employees can access.
A simple online calendar app can help ensure that everyone on your team can easily share and view the latest schedule details in one place.
5. Don’t allow tech tools to fail
Let’s face it: Telecommuting programs can’t happen at all without technology. Discuss on your regular conference calls how people feel technology is helping or hindering their work. Ask them which tools — and which features of those tools — they use to stay productive and connected.
No matter which tools they use, everyone needs to be on the same page about how these systems work, why they’re being used and who can fix them if troubles are encountered. For the latter, you may be able to set up a chat feature with an appointed representative in your IT department.
6. Give extra attention to new remote workers
Veteran telecommuters may not need as much support as those new to the idea. People may feel particularly disjointed or uneasy when they first start to work remotely if they have not really done so before. Consider the value of teamwork in the workplace, even a remote one.
7. Remember that trust is crucial
Although frequent communication is paramount, avoid going too far and micromanaging remote employees. Employees need to feel confident that you believe they’re working as hard as they would in a regular office, including keeping similar hours and maintaining productivity even if they aren’t visible. If you’re unnecessarily checking in several times a day with remote workers just to see “how things are going,” those employees may feel like you don’t trust them.
Remember that remote employees can be as effective as on-site employees, but only if they have a manager who is constantly tying the team together — work-wise and emotionally. Don’t make the situation sound daunting. After all, employees don’t need special skills to work from home, just support and direction. Emphasize that it’s still a great team and everyone will be up to speed with the new processes and procedures very soon. In short, be not just a boss but also a friend.
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