As more and more cities and states are asking businesses to switch to remote work to help slow the spread of COVID-19, countless managers are faced with not only recalibrating their own work reality, but guiding their employees through this great change as well.
“Trust and accountability is key,” says Dana Montgomery, National Deputy Director for the Know the Signs program at Sandy Hook Promise. “You have to be someone people believe in and feel they can come to, and you have to model the behavior you want to see.” Montgomery manages three regional directors across the country who also manage teams of three to six people.
We talked to her about managing remote teams in general, and more specifically what she recommends to managers suddenly faced with this reality during the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of her tips:
Acknowledge that this is challenging
During this pandemic, many employees working from home are—at the same time—taking care of children whose schools have closed, supporting suddenly unemployed partners, worrying about their aging relatives, and so much more. The shift to remote work is one of many huge changes for most people, and we need to acknowledge that.
Montgomery told us about conference calls they had last week and how her staff—99% of whom already work remotely—are facing many of the issues above. She really feels for folks trying to adjust to a new way of working on top of that. Montgomery says, “Employees knowing the organization empathizes and understands the complexity of their new reality is hugely important to instilling confidence and easing fears in the longer term.”
Assume good intentions
“This is so important,” says Montgomery, “that it’s one of our team expectations.” She says so much gets lost when you aren’t talking face-to-face. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t be held accountable for less than stellar behavior,” she says, “but it’s so easy to read into an email, or assign a tone that isn’t really there. Dig deeper, ask people to explain what they meant by x, y, or z. This is especially important now when so many are feeling overwhelmed and out of sorts.”
Limit the number of platforms you’re using
Montgomery says, “I would suggest picking one or two virtual communication tools to conduct day-to-day business, set expectations around how they should be utilized, and train people on how to use them effectively. Don’t just share a new platform and expect everyone to start utilizing it.”
When considering which tools to use, think about your team and what will work for them. For many, home Wi-Fi bandwidth is a challenge. If stipends are not available for employees to build up their in-house capacity and you want to do videoconferencing, make sure you choose a platform that people can also join by phone.
Check in more often
Things are changing rapidly in our world right now, and that’s likely true for your workplace as well. At least once a week, have a staff check-in. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for this meeting, so you can make sure you have collected all the information your employees need to know and have figured out the best way to communicate it clearly and concisely. Be sure to leave a lot of time for staff to ask questions.
Create clear expectations
If you lay down the team ground rules, Montgomery says, “people will become more confident and able to deliver in this new environment. It will also better allow the manager to understand who is on task and who is struggling.”
Start by communicating your expectations around responding to email and keeping calendars updated. In a remote setting, these things are critical to a well-functioning team.
Montgomery recommends being specific about email response times. For example, “respond within 12 hours if it’s urgent, or 24–48 hours if not.” (Your response time expectations may be different, especially if you supervise part-time employees.) “I can’t pop by my colleague’s office to see if she received my email,” Montgomery says, “and I can’t ask her while we’re both heating up lunch.” If you don’t hear back for several days about an email you sent, you don’t know whether a response is coming, or if it slipped through the cracks.
Everyone should keep their calendars updated, including when they will be out of reach or on calls. Ask your team to decline or accept every meeting invitation they receive. Having to go through lots of back and forth to find a meeting time because people haven’t clearly marked their availability on their calendars is a waste of everyone’s time.
Encourage people to block off time for a lunch break. Also, some employees perform well when responding to emails as they come in, but others may prefer blocking off a time each day, say early mornings or late afternoons, where they are just focused on email and thus unavailable for meetings or other interruptions. “Allowing people space to claim their time is important,” says Montgomery.
Model the behavior you want to see
If you set email and calendar rules for your staff, be sure to follow those rules yourself. When you are communicating expectations to your team, “it’s critical to make clear that this is not about being ‘big brother,’” says Montgomery. It’s about encouraging work-life balance and supporting your colleagues by not contacting them when they are off the clock. “I don’t want to call one of my direct reports when they are with their kid at a doctor’s appointment. I also don’t want one of my team members to try to set up time with me because my calendar looks free, but I’m actually out of the office.”
Speaking of work-life balance, managers should give some thought to the image they are projecting to their employees. If you tell your team they should be clocking out by 6 p.m. but they get emails from you sent at all hours of the night, they may wonder if you actually want them working around the clock as well. It’s a reality of our work world that people often work more than 40 hours a week, and your job may require that of you and/or your team. Just be thoughtful about modeling sustainable work behavior. Even if you are writing emails until 11 p.m., could you save them as drafts and send them to your team first thing in the morning?
Do not deal with team conflict via email
“Beware the pitfalls of relying too much on email in the absence of face-to-face,” says Montgomery. She advises never to deal with conflict over email. This is also true of more complex discussions. “If you are on email exchange number two or three with someone and details are getting lost, or if something is just too complicated to explain in writing, pick up the phone or schedule a meeting,” she says.
Think creatively about how to replace “watercooler” talk
In most offices, there’s quite a bit of casual conversation going on throughout the day as people pass through the space or congregate around the watercooler or coffee machine. In the absence of these informal interactions that help you know how your teammates are doing, you may have to build in some dedicated chat time. “Take the first five to ten minutes of a check-in to see how things are going,” suggests Montgomery. You may not have needed to do that when you were all in an office together, but it may be beneficial now.
Montgomery also suggests setting up casual chats, like virtual coffee breaks or happy hours, and encouraging your team to do that with one another. The “watercooler” type chats among Montgomery’s team often happen over text. “Some of this is about organizational culture,” she says, “but I text with my team a ton. I rarely did this in my prior office job.”
Don’t expect business as usual
For managers whose teams have moved to remote work with little time to prepare for the change, it’s important to extend kindness and grace to both yourself and your team. This is a new situation for all of us, and you will likely be setting yourself up for failure if you are aiming for “business as usual.”
This is an opportunity to build a culture of trust and compassion among your team. Remember: when managing remote teams, assume good intentions and acknowledge the challenges.
“Think creatively about how to keep team camaraderie,” Montgomery advises. “Remember that a lot of people are working in ways they never would have chosen on their own. When all of this is over, you will want a team who felt supported by their employer.”