2020, without question, was the year of ‘remote’. We had remote working, remote games nights, remote relationships, remote conferences, remote everything you can imagine.
Rules and regulations have yo-yoed up and down: ‘go to work’, ‘visit the pub, ‘stay at home’, but we’ve all got by and pulled together to keep our industries and economy going as best as we’ve been able.
For some however, the ‘remote working’ part at least, looks set to stay. Tech giants have been declaring left right and centre that their employees will be able to work from anywhere. And as a local example, one of our business park neighbours have opted to become a fully remote team.
We’ve seen plenty of articles on working remotely, and written some ourselves, from advice on which technologies to use, to remembering to keep your laptop fans clear from dog hair (drawing on past experience there!). What we haven’t come across much of, is how to manage remote workers.
As the months of being remote are starting to add up to a full year, with no definitive end in sight, every day is becoming a little more normal. While that has extended to how we work, it should also cover how we manage and are managed. Working remotely, at the end of the day, is just working. You should be guiding, nurturing and supporting your team, just as you would if you were face to face each day.
Here are our five top tips on managing remote employees, with a little help from technology:
1. Pick your communication method carefully
It’s very easy for a sentiment to be misunderstood without visual cues to back it up. Strategically picking your method of communication can lead to greater clarity and confidence within your team, putting everyone at ease and on the same page. While you don’t need to formally issue guidelines, lead by example and reinforce the preferred usage of each channel.
- Email: This is the medium most likely to be misinterpreted. Emails are typically singular pieces of communication, without context or expressions – they tend to be overly formal. Reserve your use of email for formal requests, a structured discussion or involving outside third parties.
- Video chat: Encourage every team member to switch on their video every time they have an internal call. Being able to read body language and feed off each other’s expressions can help strengthen intent and relationships. If you’re having a more formal discussion, say about a project, that would benefit from another employee participating, invite them in, get in the habit of treating remote meetings just like in-office ones.
- Community chat: Give your team a place where they can informally chat, this could be in small work groups, by department or company wide. Having something like Microsoft Teams, or Slack, can be a great place to develop your online culture. Give people somewhere to stay in the loop, encourage messages of appreciation by celebrating individual successes, share general announcements like introducing new starters or client testimonials. This can be a really simple and throwaway method of keeping everyone a little bit involved with company goings on – regardless of their individual job role.
- Phone chats: Depending on the system you use for collaboration, the phone may actually become fairly redundant. However if you do want to speak to someone, but don’t feel video is suitable – perhaps you know they’re working from a different location for the day – you can still get across a lot more meaning in your voice than a generic email.
2. Actively encourage strong team dynamics
When managing a set of employees you can physically see, it’s normal to socialise together, even occasionally. You’ll naturally bump into each other at the coffee machine, or sit down to lunch together, or even go out for drinks together. Having a community chat is somewhere to encourage small talk, and characters and expression can be brought out by the use of animated GIFs, but this is fairly superficial, especially for team members who may have never met their colleagues in person. Traditions like cake for birthdays or Friday afternoon happy hour can still take place, they just require a little creative management (and a budget for remote socialisation). Getting to know your team and what they personally like can lead to some great virtual bonding activities, even just once a quarter. Holding a steak night isn’t going to appeal if 3 of your 7 reports are vegetarians. Similarly an 80s pop quiz theme won’t be so interesting if your team is made up of Millennials and Gen Z, who weren’t even born.
The more you come to understand the personalities of your team virtually, the better placed you will be to recognise when they’re happy and performing at their best, and when they’re not. While it’s not the same for everyone, a dip in morale or positivity can highlighted by:
- Reduced output
- Reluctance to answer video calls
- Lack of availability for team socials or meetings
- Minimal engagement either in community chat or via email
Only you as the manager will be able to identify if the employee is either super wrapped up in a project, or if there’s a disconnect to address.
3. Set and agree expectations
Remote work, especially when part of a team, can be less structured than on-site work, if not carefully managed. This approach can work for some types of roles, however you’ll still need to ensure everyone is working together to achieve the same goals, without overlaps or gaps occurring.
Each of your team should be in discussion with you from day one to know what you expect from them, and for them to provide any feedback on what help they may need to achieve this. You team should be clear on:
- Their current priorities
- Their medium to long term goals (3-6 months)
- Which tasks and/or employees they’re responsible for
- Who they’re responsible to and who can address certain issues (IT/HR/Finance)
- How and when their manager can be reached
- How they express their availability (through status messages/set break times)
This information could all be stored digitally, with scheduled check ins to ensure they are happy with each point and updated if anything changes.
4. Communicate “why”
Remote working can be very isolating. Employees can feel like they’re being tasked with things they can see no purpose behind – this can lead to demotivation. As their manager, it’s down to you to share where each task fits into the wider company strategy. You may think your requests sound perfectly reasonable and normal, but to someone with no context of what they’re doing, sometimes things can just plain sound weird.
The why goes further, however. When you manage employees face to face you naturally learn, or gain insight into, their hopes/dreams/aspirations. They may get chance to shine doing tasks far outside their initial remit and their career path may curve as new strengths are unearthed. It is far more difficult to achieve this with remote employees, especially if no prior relationship stands. Taking the time to hold regular one to ones can ensure you get the time to specifically talk about them, and their career development. Relentlessly doing tasks with no feeling that it’s benefitting their career ambitions can be a quick way to lose what could be an invaluable employee.
Start as you mean to go on. If you schedule in one to ones every month, then realise this is unrealistic to maintain you run the risk of looking like you’re losing interest in your team’s wellbeing and development. Whatever timeframe you choose, commit to it, and don’t get in the habit of rescheduling your team as other tasks arise – they’re important too and need to know that. It may be helpful to use a meeting scheduler to find a time and date that works best for both parties, particularly if you’re crossing time zones. FindTime is a Microsoft Outlook Calendar add on. The meeting creator selects some options that works best for both/all parties (assuming they can see all calendars), they highlight their personal preference and send out the poll to a vote. Once the winning time is chosen the meeting is booked in.
5. Be transparent and inclusive
Technology can certainly help with both transparency and inclusivity. By ensuring all team members have access to the same information, you’re keeping them informed and nothing seems like it’s being hidden. Having a central repository, such as a Channel in Microsoft Teams, to store documentation, task progress or company updates can make it very clear that everyone is on equal footing. You also avoid the scenario where one person may have been off when an announcement was made, as information is always referencable in the same location.
If you would choose to have white-boarding or discussion sessions with a team in person, find a way to do this online. Invite everyone to a OneNote Notebook where you can all add to the page, or experiment with document sharing in Google Docs, or Sheets. However you do it, ensure everyone is able to be included and can have their say. This approach works best for smaller teams, but it could be that you break larger teams into sub-sections to encourage this kind of real life collaboration and see if it’s right for your situation.
Make the most of technology where you can
It’s technology that has made remote working possible. Without fast connectivity, cloud hosting, portable devices, SaaS, and so much more, we couldn’t have upped and worked from home at the drop of a hat.
While we’re working remotely, we’re still people, we still require the same support, motivation and involvement we did before, just in a slightly different guise. It’s now down to a combination of technology, and personalising that experience, to make the extended (or permanent) situation we’re all in better for everyone.
Download our quick reference poster about Managing Remote Workers – you’re welcome to share with friends and colleagues as you wish.
If you’re looking for tips on remote working, check out our other blog covering ‘The Right Communication Tools for Remote Workers’ and download our poster on ‘Remote Working Tips’. If you need any assistance with configuring your remote setup we’d be happy to chat, please get in touch today.