Managing a remote team in a pandemic
While some people have been working remotely for years, fully distributed remote working across teams has previously been rare. However, within the last few months we have seen a complete shift in working practices. With unparalleled speed and agility, most business operations moved to fully virtual environments due to the pandemic.
Although restrictions are beginning to ease and workers are being encouraged to return to the workplace, many firms can only allow a proportion of their staff to return to obey social distancing rules, with several employers implementing a phased return on rota systems. For some businesses working from home will be the new norm, even when restrictions are fully lifted. Many companies are now working more efficiently and employees are benefiting from the eradication of commuter journeys and having a better work-life balance.
With flexible working likely to continue for some time or indefinitely, managers must work out how to influence employee performance and engagement, satisfaction and wellbeing within a new working environment.
It’s important for managers and employees working remotely to meet more often. This ensures individualised attention and appropriate support is given to each team member.
For effective one-on-one meetings, consider prioritising the following four things in each conversation:
It’s easy to rely on the convenience of email, but when a team is working remotely, multiple modes of communication are recommended. For example, instant messaging can be used for quick questions. Phone calls offer information-exchanging opportunities in the same way that hallway and breakroom conversations do in an office environment. Managers should also encourage video-conferencing so that some meetings include face-to-face interactions. Even when used sparingly, video is an effective means of building relationships remotely.
Social support is an important driver of employee engagement, wellbeing and retention.
When working remotely for long periods of time, people may begin to feel isolated. They may be more likely to feel passed over for promotions or overlooked for the recognition they deserve. They are also more likely to get stuck on a project because they are not sure where to turn for help.
Proper social support and recognition can mitigate the anxiety and stress that leads to burnout or exhaustion. Managers must establish remote practices that foster trust, support, and knowledge sharing.
To build your team’s virtual culture, schedule time to convene as a group. In team meetings, make it the norm to invite participation from everyone. This gives quieter employees the opportunity to be heard. Managers can also encourage and role-model behaviours that promote productivity and knowledge sharing. This includes:
Managers can also encourage efficiency when exchanging information. Relying on email to collaborate and share files can easily become difficult to track. Instead, consider using services that allow for shared virtual workspaces and simultaneous collaboration.
In addition to meeting each week to align on work, virtual teams can also benefit from meeting regularly just for fun. These social gatherings should be inclusive, relaxed and provide opportunities for employees to celebrate milestones, share personal updates and find common interests.
One of the unique challenges facing remote workers in the current pandemic is the sharing of remote workspaces with spouses, roommates or children. During extraordinary times such as these, managers should demonstrate flexibility, while establishing important boundaries.
It’s generally recommended that managers align with their remote employees on certain expectations, such as an appropriate work environment and hours of availability. Having a quiet, distraction-free place to work may not always be achievable during a crisis, but clear expectations can still be set for committed response times and core hours of availability.
Trust is fundamental to successfully managing remote work. Managers must shift to assessing employee performance based on results, instead of observed effort. Remote managers will benefit from focusing less on how and when work gets done, emphasising instead whether work meets quality expectations and is delivered on time. For this management system to be feasible, employees and managers must work together to set clear objectives, identify specific tasks to achieve, and document timelines for completion.
Keep in mind that allowing people more autonomy without the skills, experience and resources they need is likely to result in stress and confusion. Whilst training and development may not have been a priority initially, as we accept that remote working may be a reality for some time to come, it’s important to re-focus on employee learning and development to ensure engagement and motivation.
Coaching is an important element of the employee-manager relationship. But many managers often find it difficult to provide specific, timely and objective feedback, even when they observe performance daily. The following tips can help you maintain productive coaching sessions with your remote staff:
Without the opportunity to read non-verbal and contextual cues, remote managers need to rely even more heavily on open-ended questions. Some may find it useful to leverage a structured process or set of questions to guide each conversation. It’s also advisable to invite others to contribute to the agenda and ensure there is ample time to discuss role and organisational expectations as well as employee wellbeing.
As in any coaching situation, managers should focus on understanding each employee’s unique challenges and strengths, while growing their capacity to handle decisions autonomously. When it comes to employee discretion, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Increased autonomy is generally related to higher job satisfaction for remote workers, but some employees experience strain when offered increased autonomy. It’s important to discuss the amount of autonomy you will require from employees and check in with them frequently to determine if they need additional support.
Managers should regularly inquire as to where support is needed and help employees overcome challenges without being overly directive. Most people would appreciate if managers directly inquired about their needs and preferences more often. This sets a baseline for transparency and sends a clear message that managers are open for discussion about topics that are important to employees.
Listening compassionately and collaborating to find a helpful way forward is a good way to be supportive and ensure employee wellbeing. Familiarising yourself with the support networks and opportunities within your organisation and having contact details at hand means you can respond quickly and signpost people to the help they need.
Research shows that showing warmth, compassion and curiosity when a person is in difficulty or has made a mistake, fosters better relationships between employees and managers than more traditional punitive measures. As we are especially sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders and managers it’s important that anyone in a leadership position effectively role models empathic and compassionate responses.
‘Compassion is the ability to notice and respond to your own and others distress in ways that are helpful and to act proactively to alleviate and prevent.’ (Paul Gilbert 2010)
It can be challenging to be empathic when you are dealing with overwhelm and stress yourself. So, it’s important that managers prioritise their own wellbeing and develop an effective source of support for themselves from senior management.
Ultimately, managers and senior leaders alike should strive to build stronger relationships with their remote employees. To do this effectively, they can relinquish control and trust remote employees to exercise more discretion, while at the same time determining what they can do to help meet the unique needs of each team member.
CABA can help you manage the impact of the immense challenges the last few months have brought and empower you to take on what comes next at your own pace, visit cabamywellbeing.org.uk. All of CABA’s services are available to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students and their close families around the world.