The mass exodus of professionals from their offices during the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for managers who haven’t worked with remote teams before.
“If this is the first time that managers are in charge of managing remote employees, it can be scary to navigate and ensure employees are productive, engaged and thriving,” says Paul Pellman, CEO of Kazoo, a computer software company in Austin, Texas. “The transition to remote communication removes the personal context that helps us interact with each other.”
Indeed, more than 70 percent of surveyed employers were finding it difficult to adapt to telework as a way of doing business, according to Society for Human Resource Management research conducted earlier this year.
Here are 10 tips that can help managers keep their remote employees productive, happy and working together as a team.
1. Set clear expectations.
Establish clear and realistic goals and deadlines for your team. “Be accessible and provide clarity on priorities, milestones, performance goals and more,” says Scott Bales, vice president of delivery and solution engineering at Replicon, a time management system provider based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “Outline each team member’s availability and ensure you can reach them when needed.”
Just like at the office, managers should keep workers updated on the organization’s policy and staff changes, Pellman says. Managers also should model expected behavior, such as whether or when to respond to after-hours texts and e-mail.
“This helps employees maintain a healthy work/life balance and prevents them from burning out—which, without the physical separation between home and the office, can be more common when working from home,” Pellman says.
2. Be flexible.
Recognize that employees working at home may have different demands on their time, such as caring for children or elderly parents. Giving workers the flexibility to work early-morning or late-evening hours so they can properly care for their families can reduce their stress and increase their concentration on work projects.
“Although a concrete plan is a must, you should be open to adjusting strategies as needed,” says Angela Civitella, a Montreal-based certified business leadership coach. “Whether your employees choose to put in their hours in the morning or evening shouldn’t matter, as long as the work gets completed and is of high quality.”
3. Shorten virtual meetings.
Be aware that people have shorter attention spans in virtual meetings. They can stare at screens for only so long.
“Instead of lengthy meetings, have short virtual huddles,” says Jane Sparrow, founder and director of The Culture Builders, a United Kingdom-based consultancy. “Apply this thinking to team resourcing, scheduling and action planning.”
4. Track your workers’ progress.
Ask employees to give you their work schedules, along with tasks they’re expected to accomplish within a given time, Civitella suggests.
“This will calm your fears and give your team [members] the structure they need to fulfill their roles,” she says. “Remember, just because you can’t see them working at their cubicle doesn’t mean work isn’t getting done. Trust the process.”
While it’s important that managers track performance, “too much oversight can show employees signs of mistrust,” Pellman says. “If your employees are communicating clearly and meeting goals and deadlines, what’s not to trust?”
5. Emphasize communication.
Make sure to stay in frequent contact with remote staff to keep workers apprised of deadlines, available resources, work-related challenges and managers’ expectations, Pellman says.
Determine which communication tool best fits the team’s culture—e-mail, texts, phone calls, video chats, an intranet channel—and find that delicate balance between radio silence and constantly pinging employees with texts and e-mail. The frequency of communication may vary for each employee.
6. Remember to listen.
Communication is a two-way street.
“The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating,” says Justin Hale, a training designer and researcher at VitalSmarts, a leadership training company in Provo, Utah.
Employee surveys can help. A monthly or quarterly employee net promoter score, for example, can be useful, along with pulse surveys for a deeper dive into employee sentiments, Pellman says. The net promoter score is an indicator of how likely an employee would be to promote his or her organization to other job seekers.
However, if you ask employees for their feedback, be willing to take action on their suggestions or complaints, Pellman says.
7. Build connections.
It’s not enough to provide workers with the proper equipment to work from home; they need human interaction, too.
“If you’re used to seeing your colleagues or customers every day, feelings of isolation can creep in remarkably quickly,” Sparrow says. “If we are to help our teams stay healthy, happy and ultimately productive, we have to recognize and manage the high-stress environment that remote working can create for many people.”
That’s why it’s important to build connections with employees, Bales says. “Share positive feedback, open a fun chat channel, or try and ‘grab coffee’ together—whatever helps maintain a sense of normality [and] solidarity and reminds everyone they’re not on an island working alone,” he suggests.
Hale explains that good managers make themselves available to team members. “They go above and beyond to maintain an open-door policy for remote employees, making themselves available across multiple time zones and through multiple means of technology,” he says. “Remote employees can always count on their manager to respond to pressing concerns.”
8. Provide a way to collaborate.
Creating a shared document that tracks work activities is one way managers can stay apprised of what their teams are doing.
“It’s a good exercise, even when teams are in the office,” Pellman says, “and it will help managers refine their expectations and responsibilities of employees in this uncertain period.”
Also, agree as a team on acceptable virtual collaboration behavior, Sparrow says.
For example, how quickly should team members respond to messages from colleagues? Is it OK, for example, to send a quick message to say “I’ll call you back” if you’re focused deeply on something else when a co-worker reaches out?
9. Resist the urge to micromanage.
Trust that if your team members are communicating clearly and meeting goals and deadlines, they’re being productive and doing their jobs effectively.
“You shouldn’t have to be looking over your team’s shoulders while they’re in the office, so you shouldn’t have to do it when they’re remote, either,” Pellman says. “Regular one-on-one check-ins help managers avoid micromanaging while still enabling them to keep a pulse on employees and provide them with an opportunity to ensure feedback goes both ways.”
10. Celebrate success.
Look for opportunities to celebrate work milestones, just as you would in the office.
“Employees just might have to switch out their high-five for a virtual elbow bump for the time being,” Pellman says.
At Actualize Consulting in Reston, Va., workers’ contributions are celebrated with videos, says Kerry Wekelo, the organization’s chief operating officer. The videos have replaced the recognition that would have taken place at the company’s annual retreat, which was canceled because of the pandemic.
“It feels a lot more personal than an e-mail,” Wekelo says, “and it shows that if you get creative, connection does not have to be lost.”
Kathy Gurchiek is an online writer/editor for SHRM.
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern.