It may not be widely known that heading into this pandemic about a quarter of the workforce in the United States already worked from home – at least a portion of the time. So, it is safe to say we can glean a few valuable tips from managers already exhibiting these best practices.
And while it is always preferable to establish clear remote-work policies and training in advance, in times of crisis or other rapidly changing circumstances, this level of preparation may not be feasible. Fortunately, there are specific, research-based steps that managers can take without great effort to improve the engagement and productivity of remote employees, even when there is little time to prepare. Guess, what? The time is now!
To start, managers need to understand factors that can make remote work especially demanding. Otherwise, high-performing employees may experience declines in job performance and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially in the absence of preparation and training.
That said, the majority of many well-intentioned organizations are made up of already actively or passively disengaged employees. So, imagine how working remotely impacts their level of engagement, performance, and connection to the mission?
Challenges inherent in remote work include:
- Lack of face-to-face supervision
- Lack of access to information
- Social isolation
- Distractions at home
- Enhanced issues with already existing silos
- Here’s How Managers Can Better Lead Remote Teams
As much as remote work can be fraught with challenges, there are also relatively quick and inexpensive things that managers can do to ease the transition.
1 – Schedule daily check-ins
This may seem like overkill, but for managers and teams new to remote working, this is key. And where email, phone, and texts may have once sufficed, managers successful in their remote leadership endeavors are trending toward more frequent use of video conferencing to establish the face-to-face interaction that is now lacking.
2 – Over-communicate
Beyond the simple daily check-ins, over-communicating is imperative when it comes to the team’s tasks, duties, responsibilities, and desired outcomes, which we’ll cover more in a minute. In a normal workplace environment, lack of communication can already be a challenge. But when employees are working remote – and potentially now focused on new or different tasks and goals, communication is paramount.
3 – Take advantage of technology
By now, most of us have been forced down a path of digital transformation that can take most organizations months, if not years, to adopt. Tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams – which most of you are already using on a daily basis – provide simple platforms for tackling tips 1 and 2. I’ll admit, it was a bit uncomfortable at first, but once fully adopted, it has been a fantastic way to support engagement strategies. And just for getting stuff done!
4 – Establish rules of engagement
Or ROE’s as we call them in the military. Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers set expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication for their teams. For example, “We use video conferencing for daily check-in meetings, but we use IM when something is urgent.” Also, establish expectations on the best times of day for team members to reach their manager (maybe that’s you) and the manager to reach each team member. And make sure peers are sharing information as needed.
5 – Manage expectations
This is always an imperative but has become increasingly more important in this current environment. As previously mentioned, many organizations and teams have had to pivot (some significantly) which means the same employees may now be refocused on new tasks which impact ability and motivation…and therefore performance and outcomes. Set clear expectations and request feedback to ensure alignment. Don’t simply assume the team understands where they need to focus their energy.
6 – Focus on outcomes, not the activity
This is widely known as a best practice for increasing engagement and empowering employees. Clearly defining the goals and desired results, then allowing employees (that have the training and resources to execute – that part is important) to develop a plan of execution enhances creativity and ownership. In a remote environment, it is even more difficult to micro-manage people anyway. Oh wait, that’s a good thing, right?!
7 – Define the purpose of those outcomes
Here’s where we tie the first six tips together. Again, defining the WHY is always critical for emotionally connecting employees to the mission. But on a new battlefield, with new initiatives, new enemies, and vast amounts of uncertainty and complexity, ensuring everyone knows the overall purpose and their role in achieving success is the bedrock of high-performance for remote teams.
8 – Provide resources
No great battlefield commander sends their troops into the fray without proper training and resources. Ok, maybe that’s not totally true, but you know what I mean. Many remote teams now need new laptops, better WiFi, and new technology such as headsets and webcams. This may mean shifting already strained budgets towards critical tools. Set the team up for success.
9 – Remove obstacles
We’ll cover the importance of flexibility and empathy below, but it’s important to note some of the new unforeseen obstacles remote employees face: physical and emotional isolation, distractions at home pulling them in multiple directions, children engaged in home-schooling, Amazon ringing the doorbell every hour. You get the idea. Then there are the potential new obstacles faced by the organization placing undue pressure on teams. Change. New Silos. Fear. Complexity. One of the many burdens of command in leadership is to protect the team so they remain focused on their immediate responsibilities. Remove as many obstacles as possible.
10 – Encourage remote social interactions
Many of you have heard of – or even experienced – these types of events: virtual happy hours (preferably not before 9 am!), pizza parties, and recognition sessions. And while they may seem a bit forced and inauthentic, research (in large part derived from the best practices of managers who have led remote teams for long periods of time) shows that this actually works. My recommendation is to not overdo it and mandate even more Zoom meetings, but rather carve out time during already scheduled meetings for non-work-related conversations and activities. Then, on occasion, plan that happy hour or pizza party!
11 – Show flexibility
Here is the big challenge. Every member of a team has a different home environment. Some will have spouses and children. Some won’t. Some will have private home offices while some will be taking meetings from the closet, bedroom, or bathroom. Some maybe are at Starbucks. Some may be experiencing challenges in their relationships. The point is that a manager needs to understand the unique circumstances of each employee. Knowing that it won’t be perfect is just the new normal of 2020 anyway! But if we can endure global pandemics, social unrest, economic downturns, fires, hurricanes, locusts, and meteors, then managing remote teams sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?
12 – Exhibit Empathy
Especially in the context of an abrupt shift to remote work, it is important for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles. Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations. As we say in the Navy SEAL teams, “Calm is contagious.” But guess what? So is panic. So, chill out.
13 – Mentor more than manage
The best managers mentor and coach more than “manage.” They also understand the not-so-subtle nuances and differences between the disciplines of leadership and management. And just because we are in the midst of volatility, complexity, and ambiguity, that doesn’t mean we halt any and all efforts in developing our teams – and ourselves. Sometimes that requires outside help, new initiatives, and making the time. So, get on it.
Each of the tips above falls into the category of simple but not easy. They each require time, attention, and consistency. But trust me, your team will thank you. The organization will benefit. And you’ll be more equipped with the battle gear necessary for navigating the murky waters of change.