Across the globe, businesses and employees are adjusting to a new way of working in light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As part of an effort to protect against the spread of the virus, many companies have instituted a work-from-home or remote work policy for all employees. Although 70% of the world’s workforce worked remotely at least once a week prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, having 100% of the workforce work from home full-time presents new challenges for employers. This abrupt shift in the way we work also means managers have to immediately figure out how to effectively manage and motivate a fully remote team.
Harvard University instructor Julie Wilson explains, “Managing a virtual team requires managers to double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly and leveraging team members' individual and collective strengths.” Successfully managing a remote team is challenging, even for the most seasoned managers. It takes time, patience and a lot of practice, but with the right processes and tools in place, it's possible to have a productive and engaged fully remote team. Here are six tips for successfully managing a distributed team.
6 Key Strategies for Managing a Distributed Team
1. Set clear expectations
When transitioning to a fully remote team, managers should prioritize the development of clear guidelines and expectations. Most teams are made up of a diverse group of people. Some employees may have prior remote work experience, while other employees may be completely new to working from home. To ensure everyone is operating on equal footing, it’s important you set clear and realistic expectations for your entire team right away.
Not clarifying expectations early on can lead to problems and misunderstandings down the road that can cause major disruptions in your team’s workflow and performance. Clarify what tools your team will use, how you will communicate, what hours everyone is expected to work, how and when projects will be completed and, when things change, communicate that as well. Your expectations should be written down, sent in an email and readily available to your entire team. This will ensure everyone is on the same page and there is no ambiguity in what is expected of each team member.
2. Use the right tools
After you have clearly defined your expectations, it’s time to find the right tools that will help your team meet those expectations and make their workdays run smoothly and efficiently. Research shows that the average office worker has 5 or more apps open at any given time, so it’s important to choose wisely to avoid creating even more app fatigue or confusion concerning where employees should go to look for information.
There are hundreds of collaboration and communications solutions and countless productivity tools designed to help distributed teams be productive. Cloud-based video conferencing tools like Lifesize and chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams make it easy to stay in constant communication with your remote team members. Project management tools like Asana, Monday.com and ProjectManager.com help with time management and keep your team on track to avoid wasting time on distractors and nonproductive work. In light of the recent coronavirus situation, many companies are offering their services for free, including Lifesize. With Lifesize, you can access a wealth of features unavailable on other free video conferencing services like Google Hangouts or Zoom. Do your research in order to find the tools that will work best for you and your team.
3. Create a video-first culture
Without the daily in-person interactions that traditional in-office employees are accustomed to, it’s easy for remote workers who are working from home for the first time to feel lonely and disconnected from the rest of their team. By creating a video-first culture that places priority on using video conferencing tools for communication, as opposed to audio-only conference calls or text-based apps, your team can have meaningful and engaging face-to-face interactions. Video conferencing provides more of an “in-person” interaction and adds a human element to the conversation that is often missing in other forms of digital communication. By being able to clearly see and hear your teammates, you’re able to better understand them by picking up on nonverbal cues and connect with them on a deeper level.
WP Engine is the leading WordPress digital experience platform with over 500 employees located in the United States, Europe and Australia. As a company that makes their culture a top priority, they were faced with the challenge of bringing unity to teams spread out over three continents in six different offices. By having Lifesize in meeting spaces throughout each office and on every employee’s laptop, coworkers can instantly connect with one another and managers can effectively manage remote employees in one-on-one video calls. Human interaction helps employees have engaging conversations and personal connections with managers and team members thousands of miles away. Read full case study
4. Host regular one-on-one and team meetings
Constant communication is the key to keeping your distributed team productive and engaged. Plan for regular team meetings early in the week using video conferencing to discuss project statuses, obstacles that team members are facing and goals for the week. Getting on the same page like this is especially important if your team is scattered across different time zones. Then, later in the week, consider hosting longer “wrap-up” meetings to talk about team accomplishments, along with stand-up meetings to check-in with employees and ensure the team stays focused. You can also use this time to recognize outstanding work and plan for the following week.
In addition to team meetings, regular one-on-one meetings with each of your employees are highly recommended to ensure everyone stays connected and engaged. In fact, studies show that employees of managers who do not have regular 1:1 meetings are four times more likely to feel disengaged at work. While 1:1 meetings can be time consuming for managers with large teams, they play a critical role in making team members feel valued as individuals while also giving them the opportunity to ask questions, discuss problems or raise suggestions that they may not feel comfortable sharing in a group environment.
5. Overcommunicate goals to help employees succeed
For many employees, the abrupt shift in where and how they work will be extra challenging. As Bill Gates once famously said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
For employees who find remote working arrangements to be difficult, overcommunicating individual goals and tasks is an effective way to ensure they are focused on the right things. This means using clear and precise language that employees can easily understand for each project. Utilize project management tools to help employees stay on task, understand each stage of the project and know when the project is due. Effectively managing a distributed team won’t work if you are simply focused on tracking employee’s work hours. Instead, the best way to measure an employee’s performance is to focus on their results. Creating a results-oriented culture means trusting your team and letting go of the arbitrary and forced nine-to-five, 40-hour workweek. Instead, focus on individual team member contributions. How and when they complete tasks should not matter as long as the work is done well and done on time.
6. Offer bonding opportunities
Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. Since in-person get-togethers for most companies are currently not an option, find other ways to have your distributed team bond outside of your regular team meetings. Employees can establish work-appropriate social media pages, book clubs and private chat groups where they can play games, have light-hearted conversations about their work and personal lives, post pictures of their families or pets and share personal success stories. Some companies are even hosting regular virtual happy hours to let employees casually interact and catch up through video conferencing while working remotely.
Sheel Gupta, Chief Growth Officer at Humble Dot, shared on Quora how she keeps her remote workforce engaged, “One of the most common challenges to remote work is that team members feel lonely and disconnected. Being remote means your team is less likely to have spontaneous conversations and non-work related activities. I encourage remote teams to bring in-office traditions into their remote work style. For example, my team has biweekly game nights and during our remote experiment, we held a virtual game night.”
Managing a fully remote team can be challenging, especially in the current environment of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. But with the right processes and communication tools, you can create an engaging and productive environment that reaches beyond physical limitations. Hosting regular team and 1:1 video meetings will help your team stay connected and keep projects on track. The face-to-face interaction adds a human element to the conversation and helps coworkers connect on a deeper level. When employees feel like they are part of a team and are invested in the team’s goals and mission, they tend to be more engaged with their coworkers and take pride in their work, even during this time of apprehension and uncertainty. If you want to hear more good news, check out our coronavirus positive stories!