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Managing remote teams

The concept of remote working is not new.  Large organisations have adopted remote teams and remote working policies for many years.  But the COVID-19 epidemic of 2020 has thrust the popularity (nee the necessity) of remote teams to the forefront of business operations.  Only those businesses that have been able to adopt and successfully implement remote working have been able to maintain some form of business continuity.

Remote working and managing remote teams however presents a different set of challenges for an organisation.  It is much more difficult to maintain group norms and build culture.  It is much more difficult to ‘see’ if people are working; and if your organisation isn’t equipped with the technology or workflow processes, then it can be almost impossible to achieve.

It is important to note that the majority of Generation Y (or Millennials) workers value work-life balance over career pursuit – a far cry from previous generations.  Furthermore, a Gen Y’s lines of where work finishes and home begins are becoming more and more blurred with the increased dependence on email and technology.  This means that remote working is an option that Gen Y’s value first and foremost when making a career decision because it finely balances these requirements.  As Gen Y’s will be the dominate generation in the workforce for the next 20 years, it is important for organisations to embrace remote working.

Organisations that are too rigid in their policies around remote working will simply not attract the best talent without it; and as the COVID crisis has shown us, organisations will not survive without remote working either.  So how do organisational leaders combat this?

Maintain your humanity

Re-thinking your biases

Managers and Executives need to understand and embrace that remote working is required – so stop fighting it.  A worker asking for remote working is not being lazy (studies have shown they actually work longer and are more efficient).  So as a leader, ensure that you try your best to remove any negative bias you have toward these requests.

Conduct welfare checks

If there has been a forced remote working (such as during COVID), then it can be a very challenging time for workers.  Whilst some will embrace the change and love not commuting to work, there will be other workers who are uncomfortable with the change.  Furthermore, they may be feeling distress from the situation or isolated from their peers.  Never underestimate the power of the water bubbler gossip on staff wellbeing.

Conducting regular welfare checks on your staff is very important in managing remote teams.  I am not talking about performance checks – what work have you done or not…these don’t count.  I am talking about genuine welfare checks.  It adds that level of humanity and certainty that all workers crave and is really easy to do.  This can be in the form of a phone call or video call, but should never be done via email.

Clear, consistent and open communication

Be the calming influence

Always an important leadership trait; but during a crisis it is even more important.  Your communications to your team should be delivered clearly such that it does not incite angst, undue stress or ambiguity to the situation.  Your workers want surety in your message and how you communicate it will dictate this.  It is important even when not in a crisis that your remote workers feel they have the psychological safety and support of the leaders.  Not being in the office means they may feel they are missing out on opportunities and news etc, so it is important that you maintain a calming influence in setting this psychological safety.

Regular communication

Information is critical to the success of remote teams.  When in the office, the office chatter or a quickly called office meeting can communicate breaking news effectively.  But those in remote teams need to have some form of mechanism to receive this news too.  So it is important for a regular schedule of communication be established in order to keep the culture alive and ensure you are manging remote teams effectively.  This can be in the form of a daily update, a daily team video call or updates on an Intranet – there are so many different ways it can be achieved.  What is important is that it is regular and consistent.

Embrace new ways of working as innovation opportunities

Whether remote working is forced (such as in the COVID crisis) or mutually agreed, there are opportunities to improve on a current process.  Companies such as Amazon and Google constantly search for innovative new ways to work through necessity or otherwise.

Review the current processes for improvement

There is a definite opportunity for organisations to review and innovate their internal processes or even at times, their revenue generation processes during a change.  Challenging the status quo forces managers to think about actions and processes, but the problem is, few managers are inclined to challenge the status quo.  Embracing remote working challenges traditional ways of working so therefore there is an opportunity to see if your workflow process can be done better.

Listen to your staff

But innovation isn’t always led from the top.  Often times, workers who are engrossed in the day to day operations have great and innovative ideas and ways to work.  The problem is they aren’t given an opportunity to communicate or trial these ideas.  This is important for leaders and managers to establish some form of innovation communication channel for their workers to put forward ideas and for them to be genuinely heard.

Galvanise the team through team communications

Maintain (or improve) workplace culture

One of the hardest challenges that remote teams face is culture building.  Establishing group norms and social norms are generally executed in an office/workplace environment.  This is so much more difficult to do when teams are geographically dispersed.  So it is important for leaders to establish effective team communications and allow the team to use it effectively.  This could be in the form of a team IM chat (such as using Microsoft Teams), regular team learning sessions via video conference or even establishing a Yammer site (workplace social media).

Maintain employee mental health

I have already mentioned the importance of welfare checks on your staff earlier, but the other reason that team communications is important is for the mental welfare of your staff.  Remote working presents different challenges for everyone.  But being isolated from work colleagues can have negative effects on the mental health of staff.  Even if that staff member requests to work remotely, their mental wellbeing can be grossly improved if they still feel part of the team.  This is why effective team communications are key in maintaining productivity and employee wellbeing.

Give them the tools to succeed

Technology

A decent investment in technology is needed for a successful remote working situation.  First and foremost, the employee must be able to do their work from home.  It is no good if you are an accountant that has an accounting system that can only be used when you access a server and have a file in your hand.  Furthermore, it is no good have remote server access and a basic 10MB business internet plan.  The more staff that require access, the more bandwidth you need to have etc.  This is where your IT provider should be able to assist with the right operating environment.

Processes

Your business operational processes need to be robust enough to be mobile.  If they rely on a portion of the job to be conducted in the office, then they will need a review and overhaul.  But once you have your processes tested, they need to be easily accessible.  Gone are the days of the printed Standard Operating Procedures – in are the days of organisational intranets and Sharepoints.

Support

It is no coincidence that I have harped on about supporting your staff throughout this article.  Even today, there is still such a negative feeling that employers have toward remote working, which is so unfounded.  The role of you as a leader in managing remote teams is through support, to ensure they have the right resources and opportunities to be successful.  From providing them the psychological safety of open communications; conducting welfare checks; maintaining and improving workplace culture; to embracing innovation and new ways of working, there are many different ways that leaders can support their staff during remote working.  If you are still unsure how, check out our range of leadership courses available.

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