While some companies have used telework and collaboration systems for years, others found themselves thrust into it when the pandemic hit. Even companies accustomed to Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom have faced new challenges.
What have we learned about how best to manage a team remotely?
We could talk about what infrastructure is needed. For this discussion, though, let’s assume all that is in place. What matters most are two concepts: communication and community.
Communication, communication, communication
Communication has always been key to success in the workplace. Its importance grows exponentially when the parties no longer interact in-person with each other. When employees lose the ability to see workplace exchanges and conversations in person, they risk feeling isolated and out of the loop. They used to identify social groups by observing breakroom chats. They could become part of a group by initiating quick personal conversations on the side. Without visual cues and casual contact, rumors can flourish. This is particularly true in uncertain times or when management fails to communicate.
Community: More than a hilarious TV show
Most organizations want employees to feel like they are part of a team working toward a common goal. That feeling can be elusive once people are working from different locations without meeting in person for professional or social interactions. Employees who are new to remote work might feel they’re bothering their colleagues if they reach out. Others might feel they’re being ignored by their supervisor or colleagues if the level of contact doesn’t meet their needs. Home-based stressors also come into play, blurring the separation between the office and home life.
So how can you achieve communication and community?
Are you ready to face the challenges of managing your team remotely? These five specific measures can help you strengthen both communication and community:
1. Be transparent
Include your team in discussions about management’s plans. Seek their input when appropriate and listen to their fears and concerns. Don’t let not having the answers stop you from communicating. It is almost always better to reach out to your team and say you know “x” is a problem, but you’re working on it and will keep them posted as the situation unfolds. (And then actually do so.)
2. Find the right amount of contact
Some managers micromanage, asking for daily check-in meetings with employees accustomed to operating more independently. Others managers go to the other end of the spectrum, having almost no contact at all. Balance is crucial.
3. Prevent misunderstandings
When people feel uncertain and anxious and have limited information about their own work situation, they often become hypersensitive to tone in email and to facial expressions and body language in video calls. Maintaining open communication channels can help address misunderstandings promptly.
4. Teach technology
Sure, everybody knows how to Zoom now. But there’s a world of difference between knowing how to dial into a Zoom call and understanding the bells and whistles that can enhance the group experience. The same goes for collaborative sites, group text chains, and instant messaging systems. Seek out and provide training on lesser-known features. Ask your team what they find frustrating about the current technology. Often a solution already exists and they simply weren’t aware of a certain feature.
5. Ask the right questions
Ask individual employees about their preferences when you need to connect with them. Do they prefer spontaneous phone calls or ones scheduled in advance? When an employee is struggling, start by asking something like, “Am I communicating clearly?” or “What else can I do to support you?” This will help the employee feel that it’s a team issue and not something that is his or her fault.
Accepting the shift in work-life balance
Remote working means we have now seen the inside of our colleagues’ homes, their pets, their children, and sometimes even wet-haired spouses dashing by the screen. Employees may be struggling with financial uncertainty or anxiety due to a partner who works in a high-risk environment. They may be experiencing plain despair as a result of having to homeschool while working their own job from home.
Ignoring these realities comes across as tone deaf and uncaring. Instead of fighting the new normal, embrace it. Start meetings and conversations with a roundup of what’s new in people’s lives. Try to find things you have in common: who else enjoys running, or cooking, or binge-watching trash TV?
Arrange morale boosters for your remote team. Have a competition for who can make the best outfit out of office supplies. Ask everyone to come to a weekly meeting in some sort of fun hat, or hire entertainment for a virtual team-building event.
The tighter your team’s sense of community, the better their communication will be. With strong communication, work outcomes improve. Community and communication—your keys to excellent work and job satisfaction.
All my best,