Since COVID turned our lives upside down, we have seen hundreds of articles produced regarding the challenges of remote work. Having worked remotely from multiple countries, it interests me to learn new remote hacks. Always hopeful when I click a link to a new article, I am usually disappointed by midway through. I feel that I am reading the same suggestions over and over, just different verbiage.
We need to take a step back from thinking that the simple implementation of collaborative software is the fix all of remote woes. If I see one more person suggest that Slack or Zoom is the solution to all their WFH woes, I will join the Amish and live out my remaining days on a remote farm somewhere in Pennsylvania. These tools are not magic teambuilding fairy dust. There is still a need to understand how to support and communicate with our teams. Most middle managers came into their roles by being an excellent individual contributor, and are handed a team with little to no training. Even when managing in person, more guidance is needed on how to manage, not just technology infrastructure. My hope is that company owners, executives, and upper management take the lead and start the conversation around their remote workforces.
An all-encompassing list of what it takes to manage a team successfully would be about 8,000 pages. Let’s summarize a few key points that may help us navigate the remote environment that many companies are now committed to for an extended basis. These are not in order of importance.
What were the output goals of the team before moving to a remote environment? Are those goals still realistic outside the office? Did you not have any prior goals? Thanks to COVID, we now have an opportunity to refine or develop company goals. Think about things that may impact performance, such as the internet speed at home vs. in a controlled environment, like the office. Avoid assuming the goals translate straight across the board. Once the goals are determined, make sure all managers know how the team will be evaluated. Already have this covered? Level-up by formalizing company-wide OKRs.
Determine the cadence for team meetings and individual check-ins company-wide. Often, managers use their best judgment, but an inexperienced manager can mistakenly assume that more check-ins equal better performance. This is not always true. If you have a team meeting every morning covering the same things over and over, this is non-essential and wasting your team’s time. Too many meetings also harm morale and motivation. Have a team meeting once per week and set up a way for individuals to check in, quickly, daily. On the flip side, if you have a team of software developers used to a daily stand up, you should maintain your daily meeting. The point is to evaluate the workforce you are dealing with, and their autonomy, in a typical day to day environment.
So what about teams that have multiple touchpoints throughout the day, like call centers? Make your technology work with you, not as a substitute for real management. Create a group Zoom call, project management board, or Slack channel – someplace where the entire team has transparency to the questions being raised, or issues being handled by other team members. Use this in addition to, not in place of, other forms of communication.
Avoid assuming communication tools conversations take the place of other forms of communication or for updating SOP’s. You would not expect a water cooler conversation to take the place of updating policy or procedure documents, so do not expect your team to know what happened just because you mentioned it in a thread with 347 comments.
If there is not already one source of truth for your team to go to look up procedures, best practices, contact information, or other pertinent details, create one. Like, right now. It does not have to be fancy or perfect. Share a Google doc. Just make sure that your entire team (or employee base) has access. I would personally estimate that at least 85% of the people I talk to that are not following procedures correctly, are either confused about the policy or are unaware of how to find the information. Yes, the other 15% might be underperformers. But if you do not try to clarify procedures for the 85%, you will never know which is which.
Yes, I just called 15% of people underperformers, and now I am directing you to use empathy in your approach. Life is a beautiful contradiction. Many people have never worked from home before. Some have spouses and children also working from home. Imagine 4+ people crammed in a tiny NYC apartment, all trying to get work done effectively. 2020 is redefining what WFH means and remembering that the image on the screen is still a human, working through these challenges. This may be difficult for micromanagers who assume an employee is binging on Netflix if their green dot disappears for more than 6.2 seconds. If team members are less active or present than usual, you will still want to address it. But do so with an expectation that they are dealing with their own shit that you do not know about. Homeschooling, roommates or spouse’s schedules, taking care of a family member with the virus, or just straight-up depression from not seeing the sunlight for a significant period of time are all valid reasons for employees to be less present than you would like them to be.
There are usually creative solutions to help team members meet their productivity levels. Perhaps they can work fewer hours if their deliverables are still met. Maybe they work from 9 pm to midnight after their kids go to bed, so long as they are available during the day for urgent meetings. Most likely, they know the solution to their problem. Please encourage them to think outside the parameters that you (their employer) have set for them. If they feel you are genuine and listening, you might be shocked at the results and loyalty you receive in return.
Did you cringe immediately upon reading the term “self-care”? Do not worry, most people look at me and say, “I can’t afford to send my team to a spa”! Please hear me out. The data on this topic is everywhere. Look it up. Harvard Health reports that exercise helps memory and thinking. Forbes encourages self-care as a way to ward off the stress epidemic in another article. Self-care is so much more than tradition tells us and allows employers to get creative.
What counts as self-care? Encouraging team members to:
- Get more sleep
- Reduce screen time
- Plan their day around their favorite exercise activity
- Practice mindfulness or meditation
- Change their daily routine
As you can see, this does not have to be expensive or intrusive into your employee’s confidential health records. Some creative clients have done this by offering company-wide accounts or memberships to meditation apps (like Calm), offering an annual stipend for wellness spending, providing an audiobook subscription (like Audible), or merely being flexible with schedules for teammates that feel too guilty to hit the gym mid-work day. I have also seen some big spenders offer the spa day gift certificates (pre-COVID) or hire consultants to provide one-on-one advice on financial planning & debt mitigation, meditation training, and fitness training. The list goes on and on.
For any of these ideas to take shape, you are going to have to start the conversation. Please do not wait for your employees to come to you and tell you what they need. Open the discussion. Even if you have no clue what your workforce wants or needs. Maybe use one of those technology tools that everyone is touting as the solution to all remote woes, and send a message saying “We, at XYZ company, would love to hear ideas from you, our valuable team, on how we can better support you in this new remote work environment. Don’t be shy. Get creative. There are no stupid ideas.” Still think your team will not speak up? Create an anonymous Google survey and encourage team members to submit any ideas, big or small, no identities attached.
Being in HR for 20 years, I know that there will be someone out there who feels they cannot do any of these things for fear they will offend someone, inadvertently find out some piece of confidential information, or any list of equally scary things. But to that I say, we need to put the human back in human resources. Shit happens. The more we try to mitigate exposure by treating everyone like a number, the more our workplaces feel like prisons and less like our work families. So yes, be sensitive, and understand that this article is human advice, not legal advice.