It is 2020, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and I suspect that many people reading this never thought they’d be managing their teams remotely. I have been remotely managing teams of analysts, engineers, data scientists and project engineers in the US and Latin America for more than a decade. I have found that remote teams can be highly effective, but there are a few keys to success.
To start, let’s assume you have hired a team of responsible and self-motivated people because that part is essential to your success. The difficulty with remote work is that as much as I would love to tap someone on the shoulder and grab a few minutes with them, I can’t, at least not physically–and it’s easy to let the hours roll by without talking to anyone. It’s also harder to ‘read the room’ or intuit when people are not motivated by a specific effort, as well as plenty of personal cues that managers usually use.
Out of necessity, many managers are having to adjust to leading a remote team and are doing it for the first time. While it can seem like a daunting task, I’ve found a few ways to help ease the load. Here are a few tips to help you set up yourself and your team for success:
1. Check-in Individually
Have a weekly regular check-in with each team member. This time should be outside of a project standup or other group meetings, because it is the important 1:1 time you get with your team member. They can tell you things in confidence, talk about work or personal items they may be struggling with, or celebrate successes as well. If it’s not already on your official schedule, make sure you set aside time to chat with each member of the team weekly. This is particularly important with team members who are new to working from home. I have found that a check-in or quick chat with new members at least once every working day helps set expectations that this new experience should not be treated as a “work-cation”.
2. Use Good Tools
Keep tasks organized and clear. We’ve had project managers use anything from Jira, Trello, Azure Boards, to BaseCamp. Whatever you choose, find something that’s affordable and easy to use for keeping tasks clear and assigned. Try to pick tools that minimize the time you’ll spend “fighting with technology”. Bad software isn’t always the reason we find ourselves facing this issue. Choosing tools that suit your usability preferences, as well as ones that meet your technology needs are two factors that are well worth considering for your team’s sanity. Your time saved can be time spent on projects rather than cursing the dang conference call.
3. Encourage Creativity and Reward Proactivity
Let team members propose and initiate work, rather than having it all dictated by you. Team members need to know that if they have an idea for improving a core service, additional training, etc., that you’ll support those efforts. Setting the proper schedule and priority is still your job as manager, so let the backlog be your friend. In many cases, you can motivate someone to get something done so that the New Feature they really wanted to work on can be placed in the ‘Up Next’ column.
4. Prioritize Tasks as a Team
Be sure to solicit opinions from your team when deciding task priority or choosing a way forward. A healthy debate, with the manager moderating, can cause competing ideas to be brought to the surface and validated. Some team members will be quieter than others, and it is simply harder to feel someone’s reluctance in a remote environment. This makes it important to get everyone involved in the discussion. A simple “Jason, I haven’t heard your opinion on our most recent COVID-19 Forecasts. What’s your take?” can prompt someone to share incredible insights and perspectives.
5. Be Available
Be online during working hours and expect your team to be as well. This is important for the virtual “shoulder tap” to work. Encourage team members to let each other (and you) know when they’re out and when they will be back. It is OK to ask a team member where they’ve been when their IM status has been “Away” for much of day and you weren’t given notice. Accountability starts with clear expectations for yourself and everyone else on the team.
6. Set Clear Meeting Expectations
Have an expected protocol in place for client meetings. Is video turned on or off? Pets (particularly barking dogs) and crying babies may be tolerable during an internal meeting but a definite no-no during client meetings. Judicious use of the mute button can help but it only takes one miss to have the perception of professionalism melt away. If an important meeting is scheduled, make sure all invited team members know their professional expectations. Expectation setting is paramount to ensuring the meeting is successful and maintains your brand image in the client’s eyes. All that said, we are living in interesting times during this pandemic. Kids are home from school, spouses and partners are also working from home (perhaps in the same “office”), so keep in mind that some disruptions will be difficult to avoid.
7. Assess How Remote Work Impacts Different Teams
Every team will have different challenges when going remote. Keep in mind that remote work may provide an uneven redistribution of responsibilities across the company. Some managers may have to reorient as we discussed above. Some teams may become more efficient due to less travel time, while other teams might take on more responsibilities due to setting up remote tools, troubleshooting work at home problems or even figuring out new efficiencies related to remote work. Higher Level managers should be aware of the increased demands for such teams and set expectations sensitively because these employees may also be struggling with unforeseen circumstances at home.
8. Be Social
Spend some time on social catch-up. We’re all still human; and even if we’re miles apart, technology shouldn’t keep our team from feeling connected. It doesn’t always have to be about the Business. Take some time to talk about their personal interests, personal lives and let your team members get to know you as well. A few minutes at the start of a chat or meeting for pleasantries will go a long way towards making your remote team feel part of the family and more connected to team goals. If managed well, your team’s personal investment into each other can help everyone be more productive. Virtual team happy hours, virtual exercise classes, online gaming tournaments are all good ideas for connecting online to share fun experiences and build a closer remote team.
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