Dear Justin,

In the past week, our entire workforce has been sent home. I manage a small team and I’m feeling a bit at a loss on how to most effectively keep the team afloat, positive, and accountable given the new normal. Our team is used to working face-to-face and seems our success has centered on that dynamic. Any advice for me on how to manage them virtually? Especially when everything feels uncertain and stressful?

Adjusting to a New Normal

Dear Adjusting,

Thank you for your relevant and timely question. Based on the events of the past several weeks, every reader can relate to feeling disoriented and uncertain. I admire the fact that you’re thinking not only about your own personal journey, but also the impact to your team. A silver lining to monumental events like COVID-19 is that it allows people to show their true colors, and your leadership is shining through.

I’ll give you some very actionable tips for better managing a remote team, tips that can make a big impact on the health, happiness, and productivity of your team. To your question about keeping people afloat and positive, I’d love to hear from our readers who likely have great ideas for moving through and past the stress and fear we might be experiencing today. Please share your suggestions in the comment section below.

The data from our recent survey on the impacts of the COVID-19 virus in the workplace was interesting. Here are some highlights:

  • Most organizations have taken quick action to keep their employees safe and healthy.
  • More than 1 in 5 employees don’t feel their team members have good enough collaboration habits to work effectively from home.
  • Employees say that 1 in 5 leaders are either very unprepared or unprepared to manage remote teams.

A previous study we did shows that the difficulty of managing remote teams is not unique to a quarantine. Distance has a way of magnifying challenges in relationships. And that’s what our research shows. Specifically, people who work from home have a significantly harder time addressing challenges. When they had concerns, 84 percent of remote employees said their concerns dragged on for a few days or more, and 47 percent admitted to letting them drag on for a few weeks or more. Remote employees also reported seeing larger, negative impacts on results like productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress and retention than their onsite colleagues.

The key, as you might suspect, comes down to communication. The health and success of any team is determined by how quickly people say something when they see something or feel a concern. Teams that can hold candid and effective dialogue—minus the emotions and politics—experience higher morale and team cohesion.

And, you’re right in assuming managers play a particularly important role. We’ve found that when managers model stellar communication, especially when it’s really transparent and timely, the rest of the team follows suit. The less managers leave their people guessing or wondering, the better. You can’t overestimate the influence a manager has on his or her team’s ability to engage in dialogue and create a collaborative and healthy culture—especially when distance and technology are suddenly part of the equation.

So, as a manager of a newly remote team, here are some things you can try right away. I realize that some will ask a lot of you, but with some amazing pay off.

  1. Frequent and Consistent Check-ins. Check in frequently and regularly with remote employees. The cadence of the check-ins can vary from daily to bi-weekly to weekly but should always be consistent and entail a standing meeting or scheduled one-on-one.
  2. Face-to-Face or Voice-to-Voice. Insist on some face time with remote employees. If in-person meetings are not possible, at a minimum use video conferencing technology or pick up the phone to ensure colleagues occasionally see one another’s face or hear one another’s voice.
  3. Exemplify Solid Communication Skills. You cannot overemphasize the importance of general, stellar communication with remote teams. Be a great listener, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating. At times it can be ok to have a conversation over the phone, and then email out the details to confirm people are on the same page with you.
  4. Explicit Expectations. When it comes to managing remote teams, be very clear about expectations. This is especially important now, because the “rules” of work have suddenly changed. Never leave people in the dark about projects, roles, deadlines etc.
  5. Always Available. Be available quickly and at all times of the day. Go above and beyond to maintain an open-door policy for remote employees—make yourself available across multiple time zones and through multiple means of technology (IM, Slack, Skype, Email, Phone, Text etc.). Remote employees should be able to count on you to respond quickly to pressing concerns.
  6. Mix Up the Tech. Try to use multiple means of communication to connect with your remote workers. Don’t just resort to phone or email but get familiar with video conferencing technologies and a variety of services like Skype, Slack, Zoom, GoToMeeting, to name a few. Get skilled at setting up and running meetings using these technologies, as if this was going to be your new reality moving forward.
  7. Prioritize Relationships. Team building and camaraderie are important for any team and remote teams are no exception. I challenge you to go out of your way to form personal bonds with your remote folks. Use check-in time to ask about their personal life, families, and hobbies. Allow team meeting time for “water cooler” conversation so the whole team can create personal connections and strengthen relationships.

Best of luck in managing through the new normal,