March 27, 2020

Five ways to manage teams while working remotely

As many people practise physical distancing, here are five things that managers can do to support their teams.

5 min read

As workplaces around the world close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are experimenting with remote working for the first time. Though employees have to learn what it means to work remotely, managers too are faced with the task of keeping their teams on track and motivated—from a distance.

This can be challenging for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s often difficult to manage yourself when working from home, let alone manage other people (especially when you haven’t done it before).

Drawing on the experiences and learnings of telecommuting teams, here are five things you can do to successfully manage your teams remotely:

Related article: Latest news and updates on COVID-19

1. Trust your team

Don’t just say it; do it for real. As a manager, you have to be able to trust your team, irrespective of whether you work with them in person, or remotely. This trust becomes even more important when working distantly and should be one of the top things a manager prioritises.

This means:

  • Resetting your expectations about how and when things get done. Allow team members the flexibility to work on their own terms. Accept that working from home is not going to be the same as everyone working together at the same place and time.
  • Don’t micromanage. It’s okay if people take a break in the middle of the day and pick up work later. It doesn’t matter how many hours are being put into the work or when they are being put in. All that matters are the results—and you have to trust that your team will find a way to make the results happen.
2. (Over) communicate

Communication is key for all teams, but one of the biggest differences between managing an in-person and a remote team is how you communicate. Writing—rather than speaking—needs to become the primary form of communication when working remotely. Making this shift can be tough, since your instinct may be to communicate verbally, rather than writing something out.

Successful remote managers understand the need to switch and are diligent about writing clearly and precisely to communicate with their teams on a daily basis. Using instant messaging platforms, such as Slack, can be helpful to stay in touch.

Lead with empathy and assume positive intent in your interactions.

While doing this, make sure to explicitly let your team know what you’re thinking or about questions you may have. To prevent the constant stream of messages from getting overwhelming or all-consuming, it helps to put in a system for how communications are handled. For example, specify which messages—and what kind of messages—go into which channel of communication (instant message, email, or call), along with agreeing on an appropriate time-frame for responses.

Lastly, lead with empathy and assume positive intent in your interactions. Instant messaging opens up room for miscommunication, so it’s important not to assume the worst, overreact, or take the tone of a particular conversation personally.

3. Honour the quiet

No communication is also a form of communication—and an important one when working remotely. With both time and attention being at a premium, you don’t want to constantly have people looking at their messages.

Create blocks of uninterrupted time for everyone, a few times a week.

While this may appear to directly contradict the point on over-communication, it doesn’t have to. Being available on instant messenger all the time is not an indicator of whether a person is working or not, and as a manager, it’s important you don’t see it this way.

Make sure people don’t feel compelled to respond instantaneously, trust your team, and allow them to put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ message to get focussed work done, since it’s likely you will want to do the same.

Try to create blocks of uninterrupted time for everyone, a few times a week. Keep yourself accountable by asking your team when was the last time they had an uninterrupted block of time to work.

Related article: The social sector response to COVID-19

4. Maintain social connection

When working from a co-located office, it’s easy to chat with team members, catch-up with them over lunch, or notice when someone is feeling ‘down’ and talk about it. You rely upon a number of audio-visual cues such as body language and tone of voice, and in the absence of these it can be hard to find spontaneous moments of connection.

As a result, feeling disconnected from the people you work with ends up being one of the biggest challenges of working remotely. It goes without saying that you will not be as connected to your team as you would be in person.

Building and maintaining this sense of social connection both within team members and between you and your teams, is one of the hardest parts of managing remotely, and therefore you need to be more intentional and proactive about it.

There are a number of ways to do this, some of which include:

  • Regular one-to-one check-ins with your direct reports: Going into these meetings well prepared will not only create a deeper personal connection, but also allow you to monitor performance, gauge stress and engagement levels, and gather feedback in a timely manner. If you can, swap out audio for video. It allows you to pick up on non-verbal cues such as body language, making conversations more engaging and interactive.
  • Scheduling video chats: Since you can’t meet in-person, video chat is the next best thing. Plan virtual team meet-ups where you do some of the things you would have normally done at work—chai breaks, weekly lunch, catch-ups, or even post-work drinks. It may feel awkward and unnatural at first, but you and your team will slowly get used to it.
  • Setting up a buddy system for mutual support: Attending to each team member individually can quickly exhaust the capacity of most managers. To ensure this doesn’t happen, divide responsibility and pair up individual team members to check-in and have an informal, non-work related catch-up with each other on a daily basis. Not only will this guard against emotional isolation, it will also build relationships and connection between team members.
5. Prioritise well-being

Make it clear to your team members that your top priority is their well-being, even if it comes at the cost of productivity. These are uncertain and stressful times, and it is important to exercise empathy both towards yourself and your team.

Be mindful that people may have additional caring responsibilities, they may be experiencing heightened anxiety, they may feel worried, or demotivated—all of which may prevent them from performing at their best.

Use regular one-to-one check-ins as an opportunity to talk about any concerns your team may have. We don’t know how long we’re going to have to work remotely and creating a supportive environment for your team, will allow them to continue to perform and contribute in a sustained manner.

Tanaya Jagtiani contributed to this article, which draws on insights from Know Your Team’s ‘A Guide to Managing Remote Teams’, Forbes, and Harvard Business Review.

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India Development Review (IDR) is India’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. Our mission is to advance knowledge on social impact in India. We publish ideas, opinion, analysis, and lessons from real-world practice.