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The sudden and dramatic onset of remote working is a massive change both for those working from home and for those who have to manage them. It’s a change that most managers won’t have prepared for and might be nervous about. If you feel like this, you are right to; because managing a team remotely is difficult and needs a different mindset and skills to managing the same team in an open plan office. If you have been thrown in at the deep end with remote managing, here are a few ideas that might help.
Get the basics right
Tsedal Neeley has written about this in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. The first important task to accomplish is to get the basic infrastructure and technology in place and working; and make sure people know how to use it. This might seem like obvious advice, but much of the anxiety around remote working is caused by not knowing how to use the technology properly and feeling too shy to ask (‘they’ll think I’m stupid’). Make sure people know what they are doing, rather than assuming that they do.
Structuring the work
Is it possible for remote teams achieve the productivity of the office-based team? Research published in Academy of Management Discoveries suggests that remote teams who communicate in short bursts of activity, interspersed with periods of intense focus perform much better than remote teams whose communication is less structured. It might not be distance per se that limits remote teams, but the manner in which they communicate. Another piece of research in Behavioural Scientist, supported this idea. It concluded that what they called ‘bursty communications’ worked best in remote teams. For many remote teams, constant communication is the norm, but actually bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence and intense ‘deep work’ are the best predictor of high performance teams.
Supporting the team
It’s a truism to say that change makes most employees anxious. However, change, combined with the current existential threat will raise people’s anxiety levels very significantly indeed. In crisis situations people look to the leader of their team for guidance, support and reassurance. If you are a leader, working at home, and also anxious, it’s easy to forget your role in leading the remote team and containing this anxiety.
You can do this in three ways. In an article in HBR, Barbara Larson and colleagues emphasise the importance of establishing scheduled, structured daily check in meetings and clear expectations and ways of working. In other words, being extra clear about what outputs you expect from your remote employees, clear about exactly when virtual meetings will happen, and clear about your availability to support them.
A feeling of isolation and disconnection is one of the biggest problems in remote working. As well as the business of communication, it’s also very important to structure in, and encourage, opportunities for informal social interaction. This will support team cohesion and a sense of belonging, which can otherwise quickly dissolve in crisis situations like the one we presently face.
Supporting the individual
Face to face interaction and supervision rapidly declines for remote workers. Also, much of the subtlety and richness in communication is lost when you connect with emails and phone calls. Interaction tends to focus on business and task issues. Bear this in mind when communicating with your remote working colleagues and incorporate some friendly personal interactions, just as you would if you were in the office.
It’s also important to actively encourage the remote working employee to look after their wellbeing. Encourage them (give them explicit permission) to take breaks, eat properly and exercise. Look out for the signs that an employee might be struggling, such as a drop off in emails or silences in video calls. If you notice this, talk to them individually and give then some time and space to express any worries they might have.
Finally, remember when you are leading a remote team, you have to be more active and more visible than normal to hold things together.