Common Struggles to Managing Remote Teams and How to Combat Them

 

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In response to the Covid-19’s unique uncertainties, many companies have been required by most laws to move their operations and all their employees home. These new regulations leave many employees — and their employers — working from their dining rooms and apart from one another. Although it is always ideal to establish clear work from home expectations and training in advance, during unprecedented tragedies or other rapidly changing circumstances, this level of preparation is unlikely and very difficult to pull off properly. Fortunately, there are steps that managers can take to improve the motivation, engagement, and overall performance of their remote staff, even when you have little time during a time where everything is so unpredictable.

 

Common Struggles of a Remote Team

To start, managers need to understand factors that can make remote work more difficult than before. Otherwise high-performing and efficient workers may experience declines in job performance and engagement when they transition from the office to their bedroom, especially when combined with the lack of thorough preparation and training. Common challenges such as:

Absence of direct supervision:
Both employers and their employees are aware of and communicate their concern about the lack of in person interaction. Supervisors worry that some staff will not work as hard or as productively. Meanwhile, the staff struggle with minimized access to their supervisor’s feedback, support, and communication. Not to mention proper access to their work data, especially when working from their own devices. In some cases, employees feel that remote managers are not aware of their needs and emotions during this time, which in turn, they are neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.

Harder to access information:
Remote teams, and especially newly remote are often taken aback by the additional time and effort needed to locate information from coworkers and their bosses. Even asking questions to what seem like simple answers can feel like a troublesome obstacle to an inexperienced remote worker without proper resources. This struggle extends beyond their regular work to personal challenges that can arise between new remote coworkers.

Research has found that “mutual knowledge” between work groups results in higher engagement, and higher willingness to give each other the benefit of the doubt during possible misunderstandings and professional issues. For example, if you witness that your coworker is having a rough day at the office, you will see their somewhat hostile or clipped email attitude as a natural product of their stress and negative emotion. However, if you receive this email from home, since you have no context, you will lack perspective. Therefore you are more likely to take offence, or think that your officemate is unprofessional.

Isolation:
Loneliness might be the biggest complaint regarding the lockdown restrictions that are in place in many areas around the world. This includes remote work as well, with employees yearning for the informal social interactions that occur in the office. Over a longer period of time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” to their organization, being cut off from their work social circle, and can even result in increased feelings to leave the company.

Distractions at home:
We often see representation of remote work as relaxing. You don’t have to worry about getting ready, you get to spend more time with the kids, you can work from your bed! But unfortunately this new working environment is filled to the brim with distractions, especially your bed. Typically, we recommend that employers assist their employees in creating a dedicated workspace. And if they have children, adequate childcare before allowing them to start working at home. But for most businesses the transition to virtual work was sudden and unexpected. Chances are, because of this, employees will be settling for suboptimal and rushed workspaces that are either cramped, loud, messy, or uncomfortable. Worse are the unexpected parenting responsibilities.

Managers should expect these distractions and struggles during this unplanned transition. They should also be mindful of everyone’s mental health, home life, and unique personal circumstances. You might think that remote work would come with a whole new set of management challenges. And it does, but in fact, many of the same key principles of management still hold true. In addition to being considerate of your employee’s personal differences during this time…

 

Here are some tips for successfully managing remote employees: 

Establish structured daily check-ins:
Many successful remote managers establish a daily call with their remote employees.  This could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls, if your employees work more independently from each other, or a team call, if their work is highly collaborative. The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.

Provide several different communication technology options:
Email alone is insufficient. Remote workers benefit from having a “richer” technology, such as video conferencing, that gives participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were face-to-face. Video conferencing has many advantages, especially for smaller groups: Visual cues allow for increased “mutual knowledge” about coworkers and also help reduce the sense of isolation among teams. Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio-only communication. Also, generally speaking people need to hear a message seven times before they internalize it and the Rule of Seven will make your remember that you are not over communicating information and most likely it is being repeated just the right number of times. Doing this through technology makes it even easier.

There are other circumstances when quick collaboration is more important than visual detail. For these situations, provide mobile-enabled individual messaging functionality which can be used for simpler, less formal conversations, as well as time-sensitive communication. If your company doesn’t have technology for remote working already in place, there are effective ways to obtain these tools for your team. Our cloud services are perfect for virtual teams and provide extensive features that cover those common miscommunication and inaccessibility issues. Consult with us about integrating video call, business phone systems, company data access, and proper network security before moving your office to the internet.

Establish boundaries:
Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers set expectations for the frequency and ideal timing of correspondence for their teams. For example, “We use Microsoft Teams video call for daily check-in meetings, but we use instant messaging when something is urgent.” Also, if you can, let your employees know the best way and time to reach you during the workday. Finally, keep an eye on communication among team members (to the extent appropriate), to ensure that they are sharing information as needed. We recommend that managers establish these “rules of engagement” with employees as soon as possible, ideally during the first online check-in meeting. While some choices about specific expectations may be better than others, the most important factor is that all employees share the same set of expectations for communication.

Assume Everyone is Remote:
Whether the whole team is remote or just one person is working at home, act as if everyone is remote and digitally share the same information you would in person. This goes hand in hand with proper, consistent communication and scheduling.

Maintain Regular Schedules:
A portion of all team members must overlap. For example, team members can exercise some flexibility in the hours they work but they must all be available during the hours of 10 am and 3 pm CST. Time zones are not an issue with this overlapping schedule and allows team members a shared time that everyone is available to collaborate and/or meet. Set a schedule, and stick to it…most of the time. Having clear guidelines for when to work and when to call it a day helps many remote workers maintain work-life balance. That said, one of the benefits of remote work is flexibility. When you do exercise this flexibility, be sure to wrap up earlier than usual or sleep in a bit the next morning to make up for it.

Create a virtual “water cooler”:
Doing regular team meetings is a good call for managing remote employees, but it’s not enough. Your team members need to interact with each other spontaneously and independently, and to get to know and interact with each other how they used to. In casual ways as people and friends, not just co-workers. You can also build personal time into meetings, allowing for 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of meetings for everyone to give a personal update. The big upside of using video conferencing for these ideas is that it naturally leads to more impromptu, unplanned conversations that can often lead to the best ideas from your team members.

Still maintain one-on-one meetings:
Team camaraderie is important, but so is making time to talk to your employees one-on-one. This gives your team members the chance to address any issues they might be afraid to bring up in group meetings, or don’t want to discuss via email for fear of being misunderstood. In addition to being a good time to air issues they might not want to discuss elsewhere, it’s also a great way to check in with team members about their role and if it’s aligning with their overall career goals. Mentoring does help with employee retention, after all.

To all the supervisors and managers out there struggling with this transition as well: good luck and you got this! Your team is only as good as you are!