Global Workplace Analytics tells us that the number of people working from home rose by 140% between 2005 and 2019. [i] Then along came a global pandemic, and those organisations and individuals yet to embrace remote working suddenly found themselves pivoting fast.
With home working a reality for the foreseeable future, managers are faced with the challenge of keeping a remote team connected, motivated, productive and happy. Our executive coach, Pippa Isbell, shares what managers and leaders must be mindful of.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach
The hard-won flexibility of occasional working from home and the enforced version we’re dealing with now are two very different things. Every individual on your team will be having very different reactions to the situation, depending on their personality type and circumstances. As a team leader, use your virtual 1-2-1 sessions to tap into those differences, and discuss how you can flex your leadership to support each individual more effectively. Some people, for example, might be unused to home working and find it difficult to switch off. If you’re sending emails at midnight or on weekends, make it clear that’s just your approach, and that they’re not expected to be on call and responding 24/7.
Now is the time to ramp up clarity and explicitness
Poor, absent or unclear communication is the cause of almost every management issue. If you’re unsure on how often to connect with your teams, err on the side of over-communication. As we all know, rumour and speculation flourish in a vacuum, even among remote teams, so share facts appropriately. Now is the time for transparency too, so if there’s stuff going on around the company, share with your teams what you’re able, ensuring them that issues and problems are being tackled and that you’ll endeavour to bring them up to speed wherever you can.
Choose your communication method wisely too. Consider the purpose and tone of the communication you’re initiating. Video conferencing is great for co-creation, workshops and team talks. Chats are by their nature quick and informal. But email still trumps for more formal updates to large groups of people, though it can lack the emotional angle. Be crystal clear about your expectations; if you’re vague you won’t get the results you need.
Strike the balance between keeping in touch and stepping on toes
If your teams are working on projects run by a project manager, check in to see how things are going. If you do this in an informal way, it won’t confuse reporting lines or be seen as meddling, micro-managing or going over someone’s head. Avoid giving direction; see this as an opportunity to be visible and demonstrate that you care. Listen to what your team members are telling you – not just what they’re saying but the tone of voice and what’s not being said. One role you can plan in this scenario is being the person who reiterates the mission of the project – letting teams know exactly what it is they’re doing to contribute to the wider purpose of the division or organisation. When people have a clear goal and a common vision, it’s much easier to focus.
Keeping routine versus enabling change
It’s important to keep some semblance of routine within the team (ultimately, it’s still the leader’s task to ensure everyone’s focused on the mission and goals and sometime the right structure is half the battle). If you used to have a culture of stand-up meetings every morning to review progress, that might be something you can keep doing in the virtual world. But there’s another balance to be struck here, and that’s between maintaining established team routines and structures, and empowering yourself and others to do things differently where appropriate or necessary. Disruption creates opportunity, and you should both expect and welcome people to change things up. You might, for example, need to review the structure of your team or re-organise into smaller teams with clear objectives to get the work done more efficiently.
Find ways to bring people together
Remote employees are statistically more likely to report feeling mistreated and worry about colleagues talking about them or making changes to projects behind their backs. As remote working becomes increasingly normal, there’s more scope for these kinds of feelings to take hold. Your job as a leader is to be alert to changes in behaviours and take steps to put this right, quickly and effectively. Putting your trust in others – and making it clear they have your trust – is fundamental. As Ernest Hemingway said: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” So give others the benefit of the doubt, step up your empathy, tuning into when and how your communication might cause problems. Work towards open and honest feedback and welcome feedback about your leadership. Let people know they can metaphorically pop their head around your door as they would have done when you were in an office. Try to build in social elements if you can. If you used to have a Friday pizza or share coffee breaks, can you make “live lockdown lunches” or “virtual coffee breaks” a thing instead? Take note of what makes people laugh and look for ways to bring humour and lightness to team communications where possible.
Don’t forget to look after yourself too
You can only lead your team if you are taking care of your own wellbeing. Make an effort to dress for work as this will help change your mindset and enable focus on the day’s goals. If you’re able, separate your working and living spaces. Structure your day and minimise disruptions as much as you can. Decide when you’re going to stop for the day and ‘switch off’ in all senses, putting your work bits and bobs to one side, out of view if you can, before getting on with your family, personal or down-time.
Discover more tips for getting the best from your virtual team in our webinar with executive coach Pippa Isbell, Getting the best from a virtual team.