graphic of video conferencing meeting

Managing Remote Teams and Improving Communication

With the arrival of COVID-19 in the UK, many employees who previously worked in offices are now working remotely in their own homes. As the manager of a now remote team, what are the differences in working practices that you now need to consider? 

Managing employees who work from home takes more strategic thinking and planning – it’s very different from simply transferring everyday office routines into a digital setting. For many managers it will be the first time that they have been in this situation and whether it will remain a temporary one, remains to be seen. However, there are some fundamental things which need to be put in place in order to build solid communication structures, ensure that employees are supported, and that communication continues. 

Creating the right culture starts inevitably with you as the business owner or manager – it is up to you to ensure that put aside your own feelings, (as it may be a completely new situation for you too) and work on building an environment which is flexible, rewarding and open to new ideas. 

From a business perspective, remote working can form part of a Business Continuity Plan which for all businesses is a key part of your strategic planning and business resilience. Having plans in place can help to make the process easier but for some business owners, especially if you are relatively new to running your own business, it can difficult.

Here are our steps to building a strong remote team:

Step 1: Build Your Team’s Remote Home Base

  • Ensure that employees have access to adequate IT support to keep them working – this may mean using cloud technology or improving WIFI connection – get advice if you need it from professionals. Some of those collaboration tools are even available for free right now
  • Set up a chat tool such as Slack to allow you to have a constant, real-time connection with your team 
  • Establish a digital workplace where teams can share work plans, documents and they can have access to project documents such as Google DocsTrello can also help  everyone keep track of what jobs have been done and what still remains to be done avoiding that “I thought someone else was doing that” moment
  • Use Skype or Zoom to provide you with easy to use video communication for meetings, providing training sessions and engage with clients. Face to face contact is important. 
  • Utilise cloud-based storage for secure, shared document space such as Dropbox
  • Ensure that everyone has access to a shared calendar showing holiday dates, meetings, project deadlines and key milestones so that it is easy to visually see availability of each team member 
  • Keep emails to a minimum and don’t communicate by email when you can either telephone or video call the team member 
  • Ensure that there is space for teams to continue that banter they would normally have over a cup of tea – not all conversations are for work and by sharing the highs and lows of remote working, you can build a stronger support network within the team
  • Establish the ground rules about how the above tools are to be used and be prepared to review them on a regular basis to make sure that they still work for the needs of the team and the business 
  • Make sure that each team member is happy using the tools – not everyone is digitally confident and additional training may be required

Step 2: Set Up Regular 1:1 virtual meetings 

As the manager it is your responsibility to make sure that employees are feeling supported, focused and recognised. 1:1 calls or video meetings are key to helping you build your relationship with your team and check in on their professional and personal health. 

Set up regular 1:1 calls or video meetings in your calendar and allow time to cover all the points including the following:

  • Circulate a simple agenda and encourage team members to add items they wish to discuss in advance so that you both come to the meeting prepared
  • Progress reports allow team members to demonstrate their productivity and to ensure that any challenges are discussed 
  • Use the meetings to recognise and praise performance 
  • Keep a record of work to track progress and help you to celebrate success

If employees are engaged in this process, they will feel enthused and confident in their work and more willing to take initiative on projects. Both you and the employee will feel more in touch and able to judge how they are feeling from a work and personal perspective. 

Step 3: Schedule a regular team meeting but only if it’s necessary! 

Make sure that as well as speaking to your employees on an individual basis, that you create a regular time where teams can share ideas, progress and discuss any challenges. The need for these will depend on what is happening – when facing deadlines, it may be better to postpone them or if people require more interaction, make sure that there is time in the schedule to accommodate them. They can also help to create structure within people’s schedules at a time when they may be lacking direction. The key thing is to make them useful so that they are not simply seen as a waste of time. 

As with 1:1’s, ensure that there is an agenda prepared in advance that everyone can contribute to and use them as a chance to publicly recognise progress on projects and dish out some kudos for work well done. Keep notes and maybe move the role of lead around the group to keep engagement high. 

These are also an opportunity to relax and see people as real, live human beings – after all you may be seeing them in their domestic setting for the first time. Take the time to chat and get to know people better. 

Step 4: Prioritise work effectively 

It is a recognised fact that remote workers tend to be more productive, but this is dependent on the ability of the manager to create a work flow which is achievable and having clear priorities which everyone understands. 

How you do this as a manager will depend somewhat on the relationship you have with your team members. Be flexible and understanding of the fact that some employees will have had to change their working times to suit family commitments especially if they have children at home. Focus on outputs and ensure that the workflow is clearly communicated and update on a regular basis. 

Empower your team to plan their own workflow to fit within the required deadlines and to be open about their individual environment and any challenges they may be facing. Make sure that when they need space to work uninterrupted, that this time is blocked out in the calendar and stick to it 

Step 5: Don’t forget that you are all human! 

In the normal office setting, there would be time for chatting over lunch, social events and team activities. Take these online to ensure that everyone feels connected and create a safe space to talk about personal stuff. 

Consult the team for ideas of how they want to do this – whether it is just a chat, an organised activity or a game online. Just as in an office, don’t expect everyone to participate at the same level – some are happier watching from the side lines, but it is important that they feel involved. 

Ensure that the remote working culture is supportive – encourage people to take regular breaks, establish routines for working and take time to switch off. Working at home does not mean that they are available to work 24 hours a day and this must be recognised by all members of the team, led by the manager themselves. Don’t put extra pressure on employees by sending loads of emails at midnight and expecting a response. 

Be conscious of the different personalities of your team members as whilst you might think that introverts may be more accustomed to working alone, they may also be the people who struggle to initiate conversations, so they may need extra encouragement to join in with discussions online. 

Step 6: Seek out tips from other Remote Team Managers

There is a wealth of knowledge online to help you work better as the manager of a remote team so take time to build your skills – after all the better you are at it, the happier your team will be. 

Watch this video for one example from Trello remote team manager and author of Remotely Managing, Stella Garber for her top tips. 

We don’t know how long the social isolation restrictions are going to be in place, but it is important to remember that they are only temporary. However, it may be worth considering whether home working could form part of your future business strategy – talk to your team to get their feedback.