Remote working has seen a steady rise in recent years, with over 60% of businesses around the world reported to have a flexible workspace policy (Merchant Savvy). Interest from workers is equally high, with 99% of respondents surveyed by Buffer expressing a desire to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their career. With this in mind, we’ll look at key techniques for managers who are currently having to adapt to this new working style, and how to keep your team productive and fulfilled both in and outside of work.
Managing a team remotely for the first time can be a daunting prospect. Without the cornerstone of face-to-face meetings and interactions, it’s natural for managers to hold concerns. Back in 2019, OwlLabs reported that 82% of remote employee managers were concerned about reduced productivity and focus, but in their most recent 'State of Remote Work' report, this has been proven to be an unnecessary concern: 75% of people have been the same or more productive during COVID-19 while working from home.
With remote working here to stay, and 1 in 2 people not planning on returning to jobs that don’t offer remote work after COVID-19, managers must pay keen attention to the possible long-term effects of remote working on their employees’ wellbeing and seek to provide support.
Figure 1: https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020
According to the above graph from Buffer’s 2020 ‘State of Remote Work’ report, the two biggest struggles for employees working remotely were collaboration/communication and loneliness, something which has no doubt been compounded by the lockdown. 'Not being able to unplug' was also a major concern (OwlLabs found that 20% of people have reported working more during COVID-19). As also evidenced, a lot of productivity concerns are common to both managers and their teams, such as distractions at home, being in a different timezone than teammates, and staying motivated.
Best practice for managing remote teams falls into five rough categories. Many of them may overlap at points, but the key factors tying them together are the same as any manager must attend to with their teams: empathy and engagement.
1. Ensure everyone has the tools they need
Whether it’s hardware or software, your team are only as effective as the technology available to them – in a study by Randstad, over a third of remote employees reported that they were not being provided with necessary technical equipment, something which can have a major negative impact on productivity. All employees should have adequate equipment to complete their day-to-day tasks, including a laptop or PC, work phone (and possibly a headset), plus any other essential accessories. Ensuring all team members have an appropriate work setup is also important – consider not only items such as a desk and office chair but also the environment in which they’re working.
It goes without saying that workers will also need a remote server connection in order to access company documents, as well as any core software pertaining to their role and a form of collaborative software for easy communication.
Ensuring that team members are fully trained and able to use any hardware and software available to them is also an important measure to take when considering productivity.
We recommend: Ask your team to put together a ‘must, should, could’ list of all the hardware and software they need for their role to assess essential and desirable equipment needs.
2. Communication is king
Clear and consistent lines of communication must be maintained when managing a team remotely. This spans three levels:
Business - Without exposure to a core business environment, it’s difficult to get an idea of the bigger picture and stay motivated for extended periods. To remedy this, managers should liaise directly with their superiors on a regular basis and feed back any news or updates to the team. If the whole business is functioning remotely, the duty also falls to senior leaders to communicate key updates to the entire staff through the use of either email or other web-based communication platforms.
Team - Consistent flow of communication should be maintained at all times in order to keep employees aligned on current projects and updates – as evidenced in the Buffer report, collaboration/communication is the biggest concern for remote workers. Ideally, managers should ensure there are at least two platforms available, each serving a distinct purpose. Emails are useful for communicating with the wider business and external parties, as well as maintaining shared calendars for alignment. But with team collaboration software like Slack and Microsoft Teams becoming more widespread, we highly recommend employing an additional message-based platform for daily conversation. Many of these platforms also feature a video call function – whether utilising an in-built conferencing platform or a standalone piece of software, this is a crucial tool for maintaining effective communication and the ‘human touch’ for remote teams. Book in time at least once a week (but preferably once a day for optimal results) for a team video call where employees can discuss tasks and raise queries together and set a concrete plan of action for the coming days in order to align their goals.
Individual - Especially in larger teams, individuals can often feel like they’re simply a cog in a machine and their work goes unnoticed, resulting in lower motivation levels. As such, it’s important to make time to give your team individual attention and feedback. Ideally, a daily one-to-one call to discuss workload and any concerns should occur between managers and their team members, but where this isn’t possible, it’s at least important to ensure that employees have a clear and manageable workload and a two-way feedback system whereby managers can provide individual appraisal and are open to receiving open feedback from their team.
Most importantly, however, managers must be available to their team through all channels throughout the day, ensuring they do not over-prioritise meetings and personal projects to the detriment of their team’s leadership.
We recommend: Set aside a two-hour window each day where all team members are available to ensure catch-up calls are not interrupted by other meetings.
3. Set and celebrate goals
Much like communication, goals are important to discuss on all levels. As aforementioned, business goals should be well communicated and, as with traditional working, filtered down into shared and individual KPIs. From a team perspective, setting sprints or outcome-based goals are a great way of increasing motivation and encouraging a team-based mindset, giving your employees more space to collaborate and bond at the same time.Try not to focus on the minutiae and instead trust your team to deliver; micromanagement may only result in hostility.
Setting individual goals and KPIs (both for the short and long term) is also key to promoting personal growth and showing your employees that you value them as individuals. Whether these lead to promotions, bonus opportunities, or non-monetary rewards such as ‘shout-outs’ to the wider team or business, maintaining clear lines of communication is also essential for giving everyone a sense of purpose and career projection.
We recommend: Take time each month to set individual plans with your team members – these should comprise of not only short and long-term KPIs, but should also include goals based on areas your employees want to develop their skills in, with a view of progressing their career.
4. Culture starts with people
Without the luxury of socialising after work or taking part in any office activities, it’s natural for remote workers to feel isolated and unintegrated with the wider business. This doesn’t need to be the case, however. We recommend that each team (or the whole business, if you’re small enough) has a ‘watercooler’ chat where employees can chat freely and build relationships that don’t revolve around deadlines and accountability! Where it’s not possible to meet up in person, use video calls and group messaging for post-work socialising. If there is an appetite for it, activities such as team fitness or cooking classes are also a great way to bond outside of work. These are both great ways to encourage your team to switch off at the end of the day and separate their work life from their home one.
By way of company culture, always ensure that remote teams are included in company meetings via videocall so they can feel part of the wider picture and share in the celebrations and updates. If you have teams working in different time zones, it’s also important to consider hosting calls and meetings at a time where everyone is online.
We recommend: Establish a system for employees to shout out their colleagues! Celebrate the nominees and choose a winner each week – this is even more effective ifimplemented companywide.
5. Physical and mental wellbeing
The final piece of the management puzzle is one which is essential for maintaining a healthy, happy team: pastoral care. In our case, and in that of many other companies, care is built into the company culture. In remote teams (often working alone and/or at home), this is even more important for providing the aforementioned ‘human touch’ and making your team feel looked after.
Although the primary benefits of remote working, according to the Buffer survey, are the ability to have a flexible schedule and work from anywhere, the above 'struggles' graph shows that working remotely is not without its downsides. Managers should make it their business to keep an eye on both employees’ physical and mental health, encouraging maintaining reasonable working hours with regular breaks, exercise, and ‘scenery changes’ (to a local coffee shop, perhaps) but also their mental health, ensuring thatif ever a team member needs someone to turn to, you are there to listen.
On a wider level, happiness is bred through trust and flexibility – respect your employees’ personal obligations and allow your team to use their discretion when attending appointments and making up time.
We recommend: Explore options for remote therapy services who can provide further wellbeing support for employees. We highly recommend Sanctus and Spill, two fantastic companies who offer video and message-based therapy (respectively). Read more about one of our employee’s Sanctus experience here.
According to Buffer, remote workers are happiest when they spend more than 76% of their time working remotely, and a massive 98% of people would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their career. Exercising trust, flexibility, and acting as a backbone for your team are sure-fire ways to establish a trusting and productive relationship under these conditions, leading to increased productivity and higher overall happiness, as well as business success and better retention rates.
Want more advice on managing remote teams?
Further reading and sources
State of Remote Work 2020 - OwlLabs
State of Remote Work 2020 - Buffer
Remote Working Statistics - MerchantSavvy
‘employees love working from home. except when they don’t.’ - Randstad
Welcome to Workplace 2.0 - Softchoice
Learn more about remote working opportunities
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