5 tips for effectively leading a remote team during the pandemic
One-on-one meetings with your team members can help them adjust to the sudden shift to remote work, build connection and clarify expectations (Getty Images/Westend61)
Some say it takes three weeks to form a new habit. Yet weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, as physical office locations continue to close temporarily, your team struggles to work remotely.
Like any transition, there is an adjustment period that team leaders must not only acknowledge, but support and guide staff through as well.
Here are five tips for leading a newly remote team successfully.
1) ACKNOWLEDGE THE LOSS
As teams work remotely, leaders need to be on call to offer guidance and support. This goes beyond ensuring they have laptops, VPN access, and other resources they need to do their jobs.
Your employees may feel lost, not to mention stressed by the headlines. Many find a sense of community at their workplaces. The “water cooler” chitchat, cubicles with personal touches, and the structure and clear divide between professional and personal life that an office offers have been stripped away.
“It’s so important to first understand the grief that people are feeling. These are sad times,” says management consultant Angela Schafer, who recently led a webinar, Managing an Unexpected Remote Workforce, through the Conference Board of Canada.
“People love their routines. People go into work at roughly the same time every day. They grab a coffee and chat with the faces that are familiar to them.”
Be available to discuss collectively, or one-on-one, what your employees are experiencing as well as their professional and personal needs.
“We can’t underestimate the impact that this is having on people. There are different levels of emotional stress and anxiety,” says Mike Shekhtman, regional vice-president, of management consulting company Robert Half. “You need to show as a leader a tremendous amount of empathy. You must talk through that. It’s not something you can skirt away from in the conversation.”
2) LEAD DYNAMIC MEETINGS
When working remotely, virtual meetings are essential for keeping teams engaged and on track. With an abundance of tools out there, such as Zoom, Skype, Slack and Microsoft Teams, it is simple to get up and running.
When doing so, consider this:
- Schedule check-ins and additional brainstorm meetings, breakout sessions or project updates on a set day and time.
- Keep meetings structured with a facilitator and agenda, sending out necessary prep work in advance.
- Take minutes and send a follow-up email summarizing discussion points or outcomes.
- Test technology in advance, particularly if presenting to a larger audience.
- Allow for banter, while keeping the meeting on track.
3) USE VIDEO TO FOSTER A TEAM
It’s easy for team members to disengage virtually, perhaps responding to emails or running to grab another coffee while a meeting is in session. Temper this by using video to boost presence, accountability and connection.
“As much as people are uncomfortable with it [video], under these circumstances, we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Shekhtman. “It is a part of increasing engagement and keeping people focused.”
Lead the way and others will follow, adds Schafer. For those who refuse to use video, find out why, then explain it’s imperative to maintain team dynamics.
“I’ve heard all of the excuses but, at the end of the day, video makes a much stronger connection than any audio conversation would make,” she says. “Seeing people’s faces, seeing their expressions, eyeball to eyeball makes a difference. If you ‘role model’ it, it will become the norm.”
4) KEEP UP CONNECTION
Communication should come from the top down. The intranet and company-wide emails can relay regular updates, messages from the CEO, blogs from executives, and tools and resources from human resources.
“In the absence of information, people will make things up ... you need to make sure people are getting the facts,” Schafer says. “A regular drumbeat of communication is key.”
Maintaining connection goes beyond company communication. Teams can find creative ways to keep in touch such as virtual coffee breaks, fitness classes and even book clubs.
“The conversations that happen outside of the regular business conversations are so critical and needed,” adds Schafer. “There are lots of tools out there ... Don’t underestimate the value of this.”
5) LET TRUST BE YOUR GUIDE
Lead a remote team with trust rather than skepticism, especially when it comes to measuring performance, Schafer says.
Accept that productivity may dwindle in the first few weeks and adjust expectations. Set outcomes aligned with the company’s strategic objectives, ensuring they are clear at the team and individual level.
“Most people will figure out how to get things done, sticking to the articulation of the outcome,” she says. “In times of disruption, you need to get out of the way and let that happen.”
Lastly, recognize the individual needs of your employees, allowing them the freedom to establish what works best for them. This can include accommodating flex hours (varied start and end times) and breaks for chores, exercise or errands. With set outcomes, consistent communication and support in place, teams will not only perform adequately, but perhaps exceed expectations.
“If you are kind and can be empathetic to people’s lives, business will continue, and people will rebound,” says Shekhtman. “There is a silver lining in how humankind is actually adapting and we are becoming stronger because of this.”
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