Managing Remote Teams. How to Stick Together Whilst Working Apart.

Never before has the subject of remote working been thrown into such sharp focus as it has been during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Plenty of commentary exists as to what those forced to stay at home should do to create a productive environment and effective routine, but what about those charged with managing a remote team for the first time? What should they do differently and what should their key focus be?

After years spent working with senior managers to improve their effectiveness, here’s my take on the essentials, and what key areas need focus in order to create a motivated, effective and efficient remote team.

Show them the money – openness and honesty

If you are a business owner or manager party to key company financial and performance data – share it. The one thing of paramount importance to everyone at this time is their own financial well-being, how secure their job is and what the implications of the crisis may be for them personally. Fail to address this properly and update them regularly and you have little to no chance of creating a focused team committed to the cause.

Be as open and as honest as you can be – share your business projections including best, worst and ‘probable’ case scenarios. People are not naive, nor do they need to be shielded from reality. Managers must explain likely timelines and the specific implications for the business and their teams based on projected sales, revenue, customers served or whatever is the most relevant metric to your business.

By showing them the big picture, you can emphasise how important they are in working through this and also remind them that things are rarely as good as they seem and seldom as bleak as they appear. As a team, you must hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but you must work through it together.

Managing performance – the need for dynamic standards

Dealing with poor performance is the biggest failing in business today – whether it’s a small SME or a global conglomerate. With a few rare exceptions, managers of all experience levels just don’t tackle the issue. In this climate, it is essential everybody plays their part and poor performance needs to be dealt with swiftly – either with intensive coaching and mentoring or by more drastic actions such as management out of the business. Sound too harsh? When you consider it is the entire company that is at stake, it would be harsh and wrong not to address it.

However, in these most exceptional of times, as a manager, you need to use discretion as to what results you should realistically expect in the circumstances and what KPI’s should still be measured. Does the team have the resources to deliver? What impact does remote communication and lack of face-to-face contact have on what they are expected to deliver? Does the technology used have an impact on the effectiveness of their role as well as how efficiently they can perform it? These things, and more, must be factored into your criteria. And, as the situation evolves, so should targets and objectives so that dynamic management becomes the norm. Remember, your team needs to be crystal clear on exactly what is expected of them, especially if this differs from their current job description and KPI’s. If not, you are completely stuck, because you cannot hold anyone accountable for a standard they are not aware of or lack the resources to deliver. Remember, performance (good and bad) must always have consequences.

Communication is to communicate – not check up.

Reporting is essential but, particularly in the short-term, managers should look to spot their team doing the right thing, not catch them out for doing the wrong thing.

It’s a mantra used by some of the more enlightened leaders who have little frequent contact with wider teams and it’s an essential philosophy for managers full stop.

Be clear on your intentions and don’t use communication purely as a means to ‘check-up’ on staff. If you trust your team to work in the office, why would you not trust them to work at home? If you’re not sure of the answer, you’ve got more fundamental issues to address.

Just as there should be a clear and valid reason to meet if it were a physical meeting in the office, so should there be with a virtual or remote hookup. Remember people have got work to do – let them get on with doing it. When you do meet, keep virtual meetings concise. Large groups especially, tune out more readily on remote meetings. Stick to core business and focus on clarity and understanding. Aim for 30-40 mins max. (Zoom is free for 40 for a reason!)

And last, but never least, check it’s relevant to the group and avoid at all costs large group comms that only apply to a few attendees. Keep it intimate and plan for smaller groups or 1-2-1 comms to review issues directly relevant to them. (Yes, this takes more of your time as a manager, but it’s your job to make sure the team works more efficiently – not you.)

Maintaining a virtual culture. Your No 1 priority.

When it comes to human behaviour and performance, ENVIRONMENT (both physical and cultural) has by far the biggest impact. Even individuals and teams that are experienced, well trained, competent and highly motivated can find a change in environment detrimental to performance. There are many practical considerations to manage with regard to the PHYSICAL environment of staff, but your focus needs to be on maintaining a working CULTURE that allows your team(s) to thrive. To do that, you need to keep working in the same way you would in the workplace. Whether your working norm includes lots of feedback, collaboration and a rumbustious spirit, or quiet contemplation and considered individual work, it should remain the order of the day whilst working remotely. Culture is a vital constant in a sea of change and maintaining it should be management’s number one priority.

Adapt to thrive, not just survive

Survival of the species is governed by how we adapt to our environment – not necessarily by how strong or fit we are. The current harsh reality is some businesses, without the resources to survive, will flounder. But those organisations, and teams within them, that are the most resourceful and flexible will flourish. What core skills do you have that could benefit other areas of your business? What do you provide to clients and customers that you could provide to others in a different sector?

What different services could you deliver to your existing client/customer base? Most businesses are full of latent potential in their people. Use this opportunity to encourage some lateral thinking and it will benefit your future irrespective of the current crisis.

Think ‘why’ not ‘what’ and cherish your vision

All companies, organisations and teams need a clear vision of what they are striving for, and this is even more important in uncertain and changing times. A clear vision is the one constant we can control and WHY we are doing something is far more compelling than WHAT it is we want to achieve. Aspirations should not be lowered – but changed.

Timescales might need to be pushed out and short-term outcomes overhauled, but a long-term vision remains just that – and a compelling vision of the future is often the only thing that can sustain us in challenging circumstances. Now is a rare and important opportunity to revisit your business vision with your team. It’s a great time to forget about the immediate and short-term negativities and focus on a brighter future.

The future’s bright, the future’s in your hands

Remember, nobody knows what the future will look like, we can choose a half full or half empty perspective – neither one is more-right, but half-full is a much better journey. Importantly, people are far more resilient and resourceful than we think. Sometimes it takes a crisis like this to bring these talents to the fore so, look for the signs in yourself as well as others and, if we follow a few simple principles and stick together, whilst working apart, we can all come through this stronger.

Stay safe everyone.

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