March 18th, 2020

Leading a remote team: 5 ways to keep employees engaged during the coronavirus outbreak

Video calling

As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, businesses are rapidly implementing plans to follow government advice to enable millions of UK employees to work from home.

This enforced and accelerated change in the way we work brings fresh challenges for those managing a remote workforce. It may well change our working habits forever.

All UK firms sit somewhere on the homeworking spectrum. Some already have robust and well-tested office-less systems and many more have been incrementally planning towards remote working. But plenty of businesses are being forced to quickly adapt to this new and testing period of economic and social uncertainty. And that brings challenges for managers.

Here are Goodwille’s five top tips for anyone leading a team whose staff are now working from home.

1. Catch up frequently

They may be self-isolating but that doesn’t mean staff need to feel isolated. Email, telephone and apps such as Slack or Teams are great but regular digital “face-to-face” catch-ups are even better.

Your team needs to see you and you to see them. This could take the form of a regular series of one-to-one video calls, a team call or a combination of both.

It’s important that such contact is regular, predictable and structured to enable your staff to know that you’re in touch with them, listening and providing guidance. Also, offer an “open door” policy as you would in the office. You don’t have to be available all of the time but ensure staff have a way of reaching you to request a call back whenever required.

2. Offer a range of communication options

While email and text messages may be a quick fix which most employees are already familiar with, remote workers benefit from having a richer communication experience.

Video calls reduce the sense of isolation and are particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations. Handling a performance issue through a ‘cold’ medium such as email can destroy morale for anyone working away from the office.

Video conferencing has many advantages for discussions between small teams of people allowing for visual cues in a more engaging manner than a telephone conference call.

For instances when quick collaboration and communication is more important than visual detail and in-depth discussion, team working apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom are ideal.

Quickly establish norms and routines for when each tool will be used. For example, use video conferencing for daily check-ins. Email is great for communicating large amounts of information but instant messaging is better for anything urgent.

3. Focus on outcomes, not activity

It is not possible to manage every aspect of the work of an individual or team when everyone is in different locations. Concentrate on outcomes rather than how much activity is going on or the hours being worked.

Rather than micromanaging, and quantifying what is being done, realign your focus to measure accomplishments and progress towards goals. Adjust how you manage accordingly. Show that you’re supportive of what has been achieved rather than checking on progress and numbers.

4. Provide encouragement and emotional support

Particularly in the current context of the wider world, with 24-hour news updates on the progress of COVID-19, worries about personal health and that of others, it’s never been more important to acknowledge stress, listen to anxieties and empathise with your team.

An abrupt shift in the working environment, such as suddenly setting up to work from home, can exacerbate such emotions. Especially at this time.

Even a simple “how is home working going for you?” and a wider “how are you generally?” goes a long way – but listen carefully to the answer. Employees will soon suss that you weren’t really interested so briefly acknowledge and restate the response to indicate that you have understood. Let the staff member’s comments and concerns be the focus of the conversation rather than your own.

5. Make time for social interaction and some fun

Make the effort to structure some time for social interaction, and darn it, a little fun! After all, rarely is the physical office all “work, work, work” so why should the virtual one be?

It is important for staff who work remotely to interact on an informal basis, never more so for those who are so used to the chatter and interpersonal interaction of the workplace and who have been suddenly transitioned into remote working because of the coronavirus.

Leave some time at the beginning of team calls to catch-up on some non-work items. Encourage each member to speak and don’t just give them an update on your own family, what you had for lunch and what you’re watching on TV tonight.

Social interaction in a remote environment can feel forced, particularly at first, but persevere and your staff will begin to get used to it. Lighten the mood a little with a quiz and try tools like Kahoot! to encourage a little brain workout to alleviate stress.

Times are hard. Managing a team is hard. Managing a remote team during such unprecedented times is particularly hard. But adopting the right approach from the outset will reap rewards and establish the basis for successful remote working both now and in the future.