Ace managing your remote team in the age of social distancing

Managing your remote team during COVID19
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Going digital has never been more critical.

With the COVID-19 pandemic evolving at breakneck speed, many companies have been forced to close their offices. Working from home is no longer a privilege, it’s the new normal.

This raises new challenges for leaders everywhere: How do you lead effectively when people greet each other on Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts instead of in the office?  How do you move your team remote overnight, while keeping them productive and engaged?


Is managing your remote team that different from what you know?

You might assume that this unprecedented situation demands an entirely different approach, but Julie Wilson, founder of the Institute for Future Learning, disagrees. She believes that managing your remote team during this crisis requires you 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”. The real challenge is accomplishing all that from a distance. Fortunately, this is very much achievable through technology, empathy and with a well thought-out approach.

At Moonstar, we’re no strangers to remote work. With an international team located in various city hubs, we learned to be creative and resourceful. Our challenge was ensuring that each of us is aligned on goals and metrics and delivers on the company’s vision, while fostering a sense of belonging. We’ve distilled our experience and experiments into the following six best practices. You can use them as a starting point for managing your remote team and adapt them to fit your particular needs.

1. Ensure all tech-related issues are covered

In the rush to move operations remote, be sure you don’t sacrifice cyber-security or send your team home without the proper tech assistance. Work with your IT department to ensure that everyone has the necessary equipment or at least a laptop. Decide if your team needs access to the company’s intranet, cloud-based solutions and sensitive data and grant permissions accordingly. Make sure all members dealing with company data have full-disk encryption to protect against theft or loss.

The first step to managing your remote team without hiccups is ensuring a smooth tech transition.

2. Set clear expectations

Both leaders and team members often feel uncomfortable with the lack of direct supervision and guidance inherent to remote work. That’s why you should set clear expectations from day one and constantly reinforce them. Be explicit when defining tasks, deliverables, deadlines and success metrics. Ensure they align with the company’s priorities and resources at this time.

What’s more, set up boundaries for availability: be clear about working hours, downtime and when colleagues can be reached for different needs. These boundaries are especially important for the go-getters on your team: without the constraints of a regular office, they might be tempted to clock in endless workdays and burn out fast.

3. Encourage your colleagues to create a work ritual

The daily routine of going to the office is like a trigger, signaling to your brain “Time to work!”. Likewise, the ride back home indicates it’s time to disconnect. In the absence of this external nudges, some people might find it hard to get started, while others have difficulty unplugging. What can you do about it?

A distraction-free office with plenty of light makes all the difference

First, advise your team to set up a designated workspace. Matt Mullenweg, CEO of fully remote company Auttomatic, calls this a ‘kung fu work environment’ – one that is conducive to productivity and keeps them separated from home distractions, such as chores of active children.

Second, encourage them to create a work ritual. This includes: starting and ending their workday at a specific time, taking smart breaks and being creative around their ‘home commute’ – meditating for 5 minutes, walking around the block or reading a few pages at the start and end of their workday.

This step is especially important if your team is going through their first work-from-home experience and they’re unsure how to stay productive. If you want to share more detailed strategies with them, check out our blog article on staying productive and sane while working from home.

4. Embrace online meetings

The key to managing your remote team effectively? Great meetings. Their purpose should be two-fold: (1) ensure everyone is aligned and up to speed with current projects and (2) foster a sense of belonging and positivity in these uncertain times.

Achieving the first goal means getting the basics right: setting a clear and relevant agenda, keeping participants engaged, avoiding interruptions. The challenge here is knowing how to do it all digitally. Here are four strategies:

  • Schedule a call or daily huddle at the same time every day. This helps people align their schedule around it and turn it into a ritual. This is key in times of crisis: rituals calm concerns and build a sense of community. You can even implement a daily huddle where people get online for 5 to 15 minutes, at a specific time, following a set agenda.
  • Use video as much as possible. It feels more personal and gives your team the much needed, but now lacking, visual cues and connection. It’s the easiest thing you can do to curb the sense of isolation many of your colleagues are probably experiencing right now.
  • Set a meaningful agenda. Start on a light note, asking team members to share how their day went or their plans for the weekend. Once the ball starts rolling and everyone is engaged, share any major updates about the COVID-19 crisis and steps being taken to mitigate it. This is your chance to offer reassurance, calm budding anxieties and instill some positivity. Next, invite team members to share their updates on current projects and name their top priority tasks for the day. This will help the entire team stay aligned on goals and be productive. End the meeting on a positive and hopeful note. Remind your team that crises also generate opportunity and encourage them to leverage their individual and collective strengths to navigate the challenges ahead. Share how the situation is teaching you resilience or flexibility and invite them to reflect on what they can learn about themselves during this time.
  • Practice inclusion. Pause frequently during the call and ask everyone for their input. Invite questions and ensure every opinion has been heard. Remind colleagues to wait their turn to talk and if needed, use the chat window to share their thoughts.
managing your remote team requires constant connection

Engage in frequent conversations with your team

The second goal – fostering a sense of belonging and positivity –  requires you to engage in frequent and meaningful conversations. According to a study of 1,100 remote employees, 46% of them said that the most successful managers were those who checked in regularly. So reach out to your team frequently, taking into consideration the availability boundaries you have set beforehand. Connect over phone or video call, on one-on-ones or team-wide chats. Ask easy-going questions, such as “How is that new hobby going?” or deeper ones, such as “How can I help you be more productive and feel more connected?”.

5. Use the right digital tools

Managing your remote team effectively also relies on making good use of available technology. Remote companies always emphasize documentation, since it allows team members to catch up quickly and contribute to the conversation. There are many tools out there, so experiment and find the right mix between messaging apps, collaboration software and video conferencing platforms. If you don’t have company-mandated technology, leverage the following (mostly) free digital tools:

  • Project collaboration – Trello, Asana, Microsoft Teams (find out how to get it for free)
  • Video conferencing – Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts Meet
  • Communication – Slack, Facebook Workplace, WhatsApp (which also provides encrypted messaging)
  • File sharing – Google Drive, Dropbox, One Drive

Also, create norms regarding technology use. Make sure everyone knows which channel of communication to use for any given situation. For example, employ video for daily check-ins, email for sharing updates and decisions and messages or calls for urgent matters. These guidelines will help you avoid erratic communication, information loss and misalignments.

6. Bring the team together often

Isolation is the core issue of remote work. You can prevent it from kicking in by creating opportunities for virtual meetups. When managing your remote team for the first time, this is especially important: people have been sent home to work on short notice and might not be used to it. Encourage your team to engage with each other daily, outside of your work-related meetings.

  • Someone’s birthday? Get together on Zoom and celebrate together, party hats included.
  • Friday evening? Meet everyone on Skype for the regular happy hour.
  • Stress running rampant? Create a #watercooler Slack channel or a gratitude email thread.
  • Low morale? Schedule a short evening huddle at the end of the workday to celebrate small wins and address concerns.
  • Issues with remote work in general? Encourage team members to share tips & tricks that worked for them and put together a guide for everyone.
  • Looking for reasons to meet up? Create a virtual book club or movie night.

Want some more inspiration? Archana Sekhar, VP of Business Operations at LinkedIn, suggests creating themed meetings. Her team recently held a Funky Headgear Monday, where everyone wore their craziest hat. This helps them build resilience and bring humor to an otherwise challenging situation. The team at Nova Naturals, a beverage company, starts the daily huddle with an inspiring quote and ends the day with a tour of expressing gratitude. This allows them to acknowledge the difficulty of the current circumstances, while also providing each other support, even from afar. These examples show that you can transcend physical barriers and connect deeply with the people on the other side of the screen.


How will COVID-19 change the way we think about work?

Time magazine has dubbed this crisis “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment” and for good reason. While some companies and leaders are reluctant, studies show that remote employees are often more productive than those in-house. What’s more, Gallup research reveals that 53% of employees consider work-life balance and personal well-being as essential factors when considering a job – and flexibility provides for both.

The COVID-19 pandemic won’t last forever, so don’t be surprised if your team won’t be very excited to fully come back to the office. What you learn about managing your remote team during this time will likely become valuable practice at your company in the near future. As Flex Strategy Group CEO, Cali Williams Yost, notes “This is an opportunity to become more intentional and strategic about making work flexibility a part of the cultural DNA”.

We at Moonstar want to add a note of encouragement for leaders transitioning their team to remote work for the first time: You’ve got this! Test out the six strategies outlined in this guide and adapt them to fit your team’s changing needs. Stay safe and positive!

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