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Managing Remotely in the Days of Covid 19

Ask most experienced managers and they will say the first rule for managing a remote team is to hire people who are comfortable and capable of working remotely.  Being an effective remote worker requires personality, skills and circumstances that may be different than that of an effective on-site worker, and likewise, managers who may be very successful in leading a team collocated in a single site may struggle with managing a team they don’t see face-to-face every day.

The many shelter in place orders, quarantines and office closures brings immediacy to the many challenges of having people work remotely, especially when they have been hired to work in an office.  These challenges stretch well beyond the logistical aspects of the work. For many, the home may not actually be a comfortable, appropriate, distraction-free space in which to work.  Some workers may be uncomfortable with the idea of remote work, and others may be temperamentally challenged by the whole remote work concept.   Let’s not forget that today we can also layer on uncertainty and anxiety about just what the future holds.   What are the things managers should be doing to overcome these challenges?  Having managed remote and widely distributed teams for 25 years and I want to offer several tips that may be helpful during this time.

It starts and ends with communication

Recognize that many employees will fully embrace working from home, and in fact may be reluctant to come back to an office.  Other employees may not feel comfortable sharing their challenges with remote work.  Think about how difficult it might be to tell someone about the roommate that never shuts up, the overly needy dog, the challenge of self-discipline, focus, or about their loneliness and disengagement especially in these anxious and uncertain times.  When hiring a remote team, we interview to make sure that these kinds of obstacles do not exist or can be reconciled.  In this situation, we need to take positive steps to identify and deal with these issues.  

  • Be sure to have open conversations with the employee about the challenges, asking probing questions.  I might start the conversation talking about how my own dogs are an endless distraction for me working at home.  Then I will ask the employee how they feel about this work at home situation, what challenges they might face.
  • Brainstorm and offer solutions.  It is critical to identify and solve these challenges early and monitor their success. Is an alternate or split work schedule more conducive to eliminating distractions?  Is there equipment such as a better headset monitor that can help?  Almost no problem is insurmountable when addressed directly.
  • Check-in often to encourage and assure success with regular and deliberate communication and interaction and vary the style of check-in to fit the employee.  I have had employees thrive with regular Slack messages or texts, and others that need a formal short check-in conversation.
  •  Assure that there is social communication to overcome isolation and engagement.  A team call that ordinarily might be “all business” may benefit from some icebreakers or personal conversation to help people engage.  Tools such as fitness challenges or other competitions can be especially useful to pull people in to feel supported and engaged.
  • Encourage more informal communication.  Today there are innumerable tools, such as Slack, and other business and informal channels that engage employees in a variety of ways that encourage developing relationships, collaboration, and flow of information and ideas.  As a manager definitely engage in these less formal communications to keep a pulse on where people are. 
  • Just as in the above picture, encourage the use of video on zoom or other conferencing tools.  We all know it’s easy to zone out on conference calls but using video encourages employees to engage and establishes personal interaction as well.
  • Encourage the use of collaborative tools, google docs and other tools to share work, solicit input and recognize progress.  Remember that remote workers have to be much more deliberate in how they collaborate.  Establishing these tools and expectations as a manager is important.

Productivity will change

As a leader, it’s important to recognize that there will be productivity changes, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.   Currently the circumstances around remote work are temporary, and people have anxiety across a spectrum of concerns, so be open and honest about the challenges to productivity.  In my experience, managers unaccustomed to managing remote teams often think that the biggest issues are about getting people to work a full day – some managers imagine employees sitting at home watching sitcom reruns or YouTube videos.  In truth, the challenges are quite the opposite.  Workers sometimes feel guilty or disappointed about changes in their productivity, the distractions they face, or the logistical or tech challenges they encounter.  They will often compensate with working long hours.  In other cases, employees may get progressively less engaged as productivity falls and they feel more isolated.  The Covid-19 crises will pass, it’s temporary, and ,while the remote work may be temporary, these feelings of disengagement may last, and we’d all like to emerge from this with a happy, committed and productive workforce.

Stay Healthy!

Michael

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