“Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.” — Richard Branson
At Bright Affect, we’re a very collaborative team. Being in the office together, bouncing ideas off each other, helping colleagues solve issues when they’re beating their heads against a brick wall, we took it all for granted. Until lockdown. The switch to a remote working culture has been fast and furious – we ran before we could walk because we had to. But with hindsight, one of the most surprising benefits of collaborative working remotely has been for the team leaders.
The leadership challenges remain enormous. Despite all the tools and technology, managers have to drive participation and people-manage like never before. But remote team management can make you more perceptive, more approachable and more communicative. A better manager.
REMOTE TEAMS – TIME TO TOOL UP
Remote working is our new normal. 85% of businesses confirm that productivity has increased in their company because of greater flexibility (IWG). Cloud-based software means that our virtual workplace has a global reach. Remote working is now heavily dependent on the applications and tools we now need in order to communicate.
You need the right tools for the job.
WhatsApp is a great general application that most people use for project-based group messaging, phone and video calls.
Traditional email is still key for communicating big announcements such as process changes or company-wide initiatives.
Teamwork chat functions such as instant messaging – that’s a forum for ‘office banter.’
Video conferencing tools are the top priority for collaborative working. If you’re generating new ideas, or hammering out a hiccup on a project, video conferencing is the next best thing to being in the room together. Seeing people enables you to read the subtext of body language and emotional engagement.
The go-to tools for remote collaboration are Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Zoom usage has soared from 10 million daily meeting participants back in December 2019 to 300 million by mid 2020. Microsoft claims 75 million daily active users of Teams.
Managers need to drive the conversation (and stop it!) even harder when running video conferences. Zoom has some top tips for getting the most out of collaborating online:
- Use Zoom Reactions. it’s easy to talk over people without meaning to. For shyer team members, that’s intimidating in real life and doubly so in a virtual space, so they participate less. Reactions allow you to send an emoji response – a thumbs-up or a handclap. They stay onscreen for 5 seconds only but keep you in the conversation without interrupting the flow of the meeting.
- Use Zoom’s Raise Hand to alert the host that you want to speak but can’t get a word in edgeways. The moderator can bring you in at an appropriate moment ensuring everyone is included.
- Meeting recording. If you’re working with people from around the world, you may end up with schedule clashes. Recording the meeting is a very useful back up feature and you can download the meeting straight onto your computer.
Time spent communicating upfront with the team is time well spent. Communicate your reason for calling the meeting, share the agenda and prompt your team to come armed with questions.
But technology and tools are only as good as the people who use them. The biggest lesson for all managers with remote workforces has been the importance of clear, regular communication.
COMMUNICATION AND CHECKING IN
You can’t communicate enough with your colleagues. Remote managing is a lean-forward not lean-back skill. Perhaps it’s not your natural management style and feels like over-communication. But your team will look to you to set the agenda and the new work culture. All your communications should be clear and consistent, and all your communication channels should be open and monitored throughout the day – unless you have made it clear when you are offline.
Having more regular one-to-ones really helps workers adjust to their new working environment and makes them feel valued. It’s the managers responsibility to proactively schedule those ‘check-in and check-up’ conversations – it’s not so easy to grab 10 minutes in the day as you might have done when you were all in the office.
PUT EVERYTHING IN THE CALENDAR
When leading a project team remotely, you should schedule daily briefs with the whole team so that everybody is aware of one another’s priorities. Successful team managers are super-clear in their daily meetings – some managers divide them up according to their purpose – informative, brainstorming or decision-making.
It makes sense for managers to have access to everyone’s calendars in order to schedule to know when they are available and coordinate accordingly. Getting everyone to use the shared calendars and project management tools saves time and gives the whole team visibility, not just you as the leader.
Don’t forget to communicate your own plans for the day! Letting the team know when you are available and online, or contactable via phone, video or instant messaging. At first it feels like over-sharing, but if you’re going to be in a long planning meeting for most of the day or starting work an hour later, you have to let your team know.
FINDING TIME TO CATCH UP
“The first time I started working from home was an eye-opener. I felt kind of isolated and adrift. A lot of my direction at work came from the “drive-by” meetings that happen in corridors and the break room, and without that, I didn’t always know what I should be doing or thinking.” (The Remote Work Guide)
Feeling isolated is the number one concern of remote workers. Which is where working as part of a team comes into its own. You are part of a community of like-minded people already, colleagues with whom you can shoot the breeze, or reach out for help and advice if you hit a speedbump.
Catch up on everyday things. You can ‘meet’ for coffee in just the same way you did when face-to-face, and instant messaging is a great way to have a bit of chat and catch-up time. You can just turn it off when you need to go ‘heads-down’. As a manager, you should encourage these side conversations. They’re good for morale; without them remote working can feel even more isolating than it already is. Some companies have already set up virtual happy hours, or ‘lunch and learn’ sessions!
A BIT MORE EFFORT, A LOT MORE EFFECTIVE
Working remotely means a complete change for most of us. It’ll never be the same as working alongside another human being. What used to happen naturally, now needs nurturing. All remote employees need to know that their manager understands the challenges as well as the changes and is actively supporting them.
As a manager of a remote team, you will find remote management more intensive, but potentially more rewarding.
With open communication, effective tools, and more effort, remote working can make you a better manager.