By Lucile Muller
As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, companies and universities around the world have suddenly been forced to adopt home office measures for their employees wherever possible. It is true that over the last decades, the digitalization of our economies has made virtual work environment possible but realistically-speaking, only a few companies have been actively promoting it among their employees. Indeed, for most companies the road toward digitalization was perceived as a long and difficult journey demanding time and preparation. Only the most pessimistic ones would have imagined such a brutal transition.
Today, even the companies that used to be “digitally lazy” have had to follow this forced march toward digitalization in order to keep their teams engaged and operations running. This dive into the unknown raises a lot of questions among managers across all industries who have not been trained to manage their team members remotely.
To help managers tackle the issues caused by this sudden change, we have identified 5 questions a good manager should ask him/herself while managing a team remotely.
1. How has this sudden transition to home office impacted my team?
In regards to the coronavirus crisis, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone is impacted the same way by the outbreak. Under such exceptional circumstances, working from home can be difficult for certain people, so it is very important for managers to show indulgence and flexibility according to each individual’s situation.
Managers need to be prepared to be more flexible about the hours in which employees are working and also take into consideration the different time zones they may be located in. Furthermore, the workload may need to be adapted in order to give enough time for employees to adjust to their new routines.
Working from home can also affect psychological health. Indeed people who work remotely regularly complain about feeling lonely or isolated from the company. While introverted personalities may thrive in quiet distraction-free isolation and may need very little touch points, the isolation may particularly affect extroverted personalities who like spending time around other people and thus will need more frequent contact to check in and feel connected. In knowing this, efficient leaders will proactively develop multi-layered communication channels that suit each team member’s needs and also ensure a certain cohesion.
To conclude, we can state loud and clear that managers who will be successful are be the ones who show empathy, soft skills and emotional support. This can be done for example by asking each employee how they feel and how the remote work situation is working out so far for them. Managers will also need to add authenticity to their actions by listening carefully when an employee is speaking about his/her personal issues and by adopting personalized measures to help him/her succeed in this new work environment.
2. Does my team have the right tools to communicate together?
As mentioned above, some employees may feel lonely and can have difficulties getting the information they need while working remotely. Thus, it is absolutely crucial for managers to install efficient and transparent communication between team members.
To do so, a manager can encourage the use of collaborative platforms such as Asana, Slack, Trello, Jive, Yammer, etc. This will help team members see the evolution of different projects, to centralize important information and to communicate together.
In addition, it is essential for employees to have video conference tools which enable virtual meetings (Webex, Microsoft Teams, Hangout, etc.) between them. Organizing regular virtual team meetings (at least once a week) will also foster transparent communication which prevents employees from feeling isolated and misinformed about the company’s activities. Not forgetting that both vertical and horizontal communications are required. Needless to say that during those conference calls, managers should create an inclusive environment in which everyone feels seen and heard. A good initiative for example would be to start the meeting by handing over to the employee we hear the less from or the one with the lowest hierarchy level.
3. How can I engage a remote team?
Managers often worry about the productivity of their remote employees while they should actually worry more about their team members’ engagement. Indeed a plethora of studies (here attached is one of them) have shown the positive impacts of home office on productivity. For this to happen, managers need firstly to trust their employees, especially during this difficult time, secondly to establish structured communication habits and thirdly to increase vertical and transversal forms of communication.
The routine of your employees has recently been disrupted and your role as manager is to re-install one (while always allowing flexibility – rf. point 1). Successful managers plan regular and predictable team conference calls and one-to-one calls at least once a week and if possible always on the same schedule so that employees can organize their agenda accordingly. By installing a new routine, employees know when they will be able to ask questions to the team and when they can possibly expect the answers they need to move on with their personal tasks.
Also, after each meeting, managers should send follow-up emails to ensure that all team members are aligned and understand the next steps. Team members should be regularly invited to add and update their activities onto collaborative platforms and shared documents, and to regularly add their colleagues in cc to ensure all people stay in the loop. These follow-ups might seem redundant but they ensure smooth and efficient communication.
Last but not least, managers should ensure that employees remain well aware of what is happening on a company-level. Some news is maybe not relevant for all employees’ day-to-day work, but it will allow them to follow the big picture, to feel like a member of the community and to be reminded that their work contributes to the overall missions of their company. To do so, it is absolutely crucial that managers increase more vertical and transversal communication. Managers need to proactively and intentionally communicate things that would have been picked up intangibly under regular circumstances.
4. Are my team members’ deliverables still relevant and/or achievable?
Experts agree that the Coronavirus crisis will severely impact the world’s economy. For example, the World Travel and Tourism Council has already warned that it could take up to 10 months for the industry to recover once the outbreak is over. In this regards, it is essential for managers to follow the experts’ studies carefully and to review their strategy accordingly.
In this situation, some revenue goals and deliverables for employees will obviously have to be reviewed, but for now, the priority for managers is to reassure employees as much as they can. According to HBR, managers need to take a “two-pronged approach by acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams” and in the future of the company. Employees must feel that they have the full support of their hierarchy and that together, they will succeed no matter the obstacles. The idea behind this approach is to encourage employees to address the challenge with a sense of purpose and thus an even greater commitment toward the company.
5. How to recreate a workplace culture?
Starting meetings with a round of “check-ins” is a good initiative in order to recreate a healthy workplace culture and to foster empathy. The concept is simple: at the beginning of the meeting, each employee quickly tells how she/he feels at the moment. This helps to create a rhythm as a group, those few minutes at the start of every meeting can save a lot of stress in the long run.
Team building events are an effective way to motivate people and encourage bonding among employees. So do not postpone team gatherings and events, there is no time like the present and this might actually be the moment when your team needs the most cohesion. With a bit of creativity, some fun activities can be done virtually: coffee breaks, happy hours, birthday celebrations, general knowledge quizzes, treasure hunts, etc. Let’s be creative!
And lastly, to accompany the managers in their actions, company CEOs and C-level members should be visible and vocal on each aspect that affects employees’ daily life. In this difficult time, guidance and hope are what employees need the most to do their job, and even possibly, perform miracles.