Episode 56: Managing a Remote Team

March 19, 2020

by: Sheela Nimishakavi

With coronavirus forcing most of us to work from home, a question that has come up a lot is, how can I manage a remote team? Many nonprofit leaders are concerned with how to keep their teams engaged and motivated during this unprecedented time.

While many organizations already allow staff the option to work from home, this tends to be a benefit used on occasion and not a regular occurrence. It’s a great benefit to offer staff because it allows for flexibility and shows you trust your employees to get the job done.

But, there are concerns with working from home. Let’s be honest, we’re not in front of our computers for 8 hours a day when we work from home. Another concern is how engaged employees are when they are remote. There could be decreased collaboration and communication amongst staff while everyone is remote. Now, given the current situation, there’s also the added distraction of having kids who are home due to all of the school closures.

Tactical Advice: The Do’s

The first thing I would suggest is to hold a weekly virtual team meeting at the same time each week. Video calls are preferred because you can see each person and that means at the very least they are sitting still at their desk and paying attention.

Now, for this weekly call, you want to make very clear what the purpose of this call will be. Don’t just say we’re going to play catch up because people will join the call and tune you right out. Set really clear objectives. For information about how to run an effective meeting, check out episode 25.

A lot of times these team meetings are simply a round robin where people go around and tell the group what they’re working on. But frankly that can be done in an email and does nothing to foster engagement from the rest of the group. And when everyone is working remotely, we need to do everything we can to keep engagement up.

Instead, if my objective is to come to the group with a problem that I need help solving, now each person has a reason for participating in the discussion because their expertise is needed.

Second, as the manager of a remote team, you want to be sure to do a weekly one-on-one with each of your team members. Specifically, these weekly one-on-one video calls should discuss what their goals are for the week. While it is absolutely a time for you two to catch up and check in with them, at the end of the meeting, the two of you should have a clearly defined set of goals for them to work on that week. Then the next week when you two meet again, you can discuss whether they were able to achieve them.

My third tip for managing a remote team is to create fun ways for the team to bond while everyone is at home. Put together some kind of competition that will get your employees engaged in talking about something other than work. Maybe bring back the step counting, or start an office book club, or maybe everyone can watch the same tv show and talk about it. You just want some common thread.

The next tip for managing a remote team particularly right now is to have an open door policy. Of course, open door is figurative rather than literal. But let your team know that you know things are a little crazy right now, they may be anxious and find it hard to focus on just the work, but let them know you’re here for them.

If they need to talk or find that they are falling behind on their goals because it’s way harder to work from home with their kids home, let them know you are available to troubleshoot with them. I think the best thing you can do for your team right now is to let them know that you care.

My final “do” for managing a remote team, is to set expectations. If your organization has a work from home policy, you can use that as a guideline. If you don’t have a policy or if your policy isn’t relevant for the moment, then create some shared expectations amongst your team.

I think in this case it’s safe to err on the side of creating very clear and very detailed guidance as opposed to leaving it vague. I don’t think you can over-communicate expectations and many of us feel better when we know exactly what is expected from us.

The Dont’s

First, don’t assume the regular rules apply. An example of this would be to assume that everyone is working their usual work hours or keeping business hours such as 9-5.

With kids at home, many of our team members may be splitting their time between being a parent and working. As a boss, the best thing you can do is just check in with your team and ask them to be really honest about what they can and can’t do, and then don’t penalize them for it.

Along the same idea of rules, is don’t get hung up on the rules. Earlier I said to create a set of shared expectations, but we can’t get hung up on enforcing those rules at all times. As leaders, we have to remain flexible and adjust as the circumstances change.

Try new ideas out for a few days and re-evaluate. As your shared expectations change, send out a new message to your whole team to let them know that you are trying something different.

Another thing that you don’t want to do is book back to back meetings all day. If you’re constantly talking to your team members that means they aren’t actually doing the work. Your team may need to strategize and maybe even re-structure given everything going on, but once that is done, it’s time to get to work.

Every time you interrupt your team members with phone calls, it would be the same as you walking up to their desk and demanding their attention. You likely would not do that three or four times a day when you’re all in the office together, so there’s no need to do that now.

In Conclusion

When people look back on this time, they are going to remember how you made them feel. Your team members are going to remember whether you made them feel supported or isolated. Your team members are going to remember whether you made them feel empowered or disempowered. Whether they felt like they could trust you, or you were out for yourself. Whether you made them feel safe or insecure, confident or confused.

As the boss, really think about what feelings your actions bring about in others. Think about one year from now when hopefully this is all over and life has gone back to normal, how do you want your team members to feel about you? What do you want them to say about you as they reflect on this time?

Now is the time to be there for your team, to support them and to help them feel safe.


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