How to Effectively Manage a Remote Team
The past 18 months have disrupted all conventional ideas about work, socialisation, and education. With remote work getting normalised, how to manage a remote team has been a challenge for managers across sectors. Supervisors and managers have had to ensure that there is a constant engagement with employees, for both productivity and employee satisfaction.
This new reality isn’t a temporary blip. Remote teams are here to stay in some form or the other, primarily because employees like all the advantages it provides and it improves productivity for the organisation. According to a survey, a whopping 99% of remote workers would prefer to work remotely. A significant proportion of organisations also seem to agree with that.
It’s estimated that 70% of employees will be able to work remotely for at least five days every month by 2025. A Gartner survey found out that close to 75% of organisations have plans to let their employees work remotely even after normalcy returns. It could be in the form of complete remote work, a hybrid form of remote and on-site work, or remote work with satellite hubs.
Managing remote teams is a challenge primarily because there are no established protocols that managers and employees can easily roll out. Barring those few organisations that had remote workers before the pandemic, the situation is new for most companies and their employees. But before we get to the key challenges, let’s understand the concept.
What is a remote team?
A remote team consists of people working together from different locations and time zones. They’re also referred to as virtual teams. Some organisations have remote teams that also work in person occasionally whereas others have completely remote structures.
Working remote means employees still have specific objectives, clearly laid out processes, and reporting structures. Remote workers may have different domains of expertise and experience but have a well-defined purpose with measurable goals like they would have in an office.
Remote workers are also not tethered to any particular location. As long as they’re digitally connected and can deliver their tasks, they can work from anywhere. So, remote workers can work from their homes, hotel, or even a resort.
While remote teams have been around for a while, particularly in the technology sector and other domains that are location-agnostic, the pandemic accelerated its adoption. In other words, not many companies had a viable roadmap for managing remote teams when the pandemic hit.
Challenges of managing remote workers
Without agreed-upon processes or training, human resource managers have had to deal with a set of challenges thrown up by remote work. They have had to ensure that there’s adequate room and a conducive atmosphere for employee growth, engagement, and satisfaction while working from different locations. An in-depth look at remote managing shows these challenges that managers have to deal with.
Information sharing in a physical office is usually effortless. Either through a phone call, direct meeting, or email, an employee can get the relevant information. Importantly, if they can’t get it, there’s always the option of walking up to the concerned team member and getting it. That physical interaction brings accountability to communication.
But communication among remotely located team members is complicated. To start with, it’s mostly functional and devoid of any emotional filter. When an employee gets an email from another team member, they don’t know the state of mind of the sender, which would have been predictable in an office. This lack of context is a challenge to the clear dissemination of information.
Secondly, even the simplest forms of communication can take longer between remote workers. There’s a visible extra effort needed to learn about anything. Nobody can walk up to a colleague’s cubicle, talk to them, or look at their screen to find what they were looking for. This can discourage remote workers from requesting for and accessing information which can affect the quality of their work and overall satisfaction.
When seated in the same office, supervision between managers and employers can happen seamlessly. There are established procedures that everyone knows about which include casual conversations, in-person meetings, and formal reviews. But when working from remote locations, it’s difficult for managers to effectively supervise.
Without face-to-face interaction, managers may worry that the quality of the work might suffer. They would have legitimate concerns that they wouldn’t be able to give timely inputs which might result in a longer turnaround time.
On the other hand, their team members may feel that there’s not enough room for guidance and support. This might affect the quality of their output. Employees may also worry that they will be held accountable for a systemic problem such as this.
A conventional office has an environment designed to help employees focus and be productive. Everything from the office layout to the schedule is structured to let employees concentrate on work, and collaborate easily. Things are quite different when working from home.
To put it mildly, the situation is mostly suboptimal. With schools and daycare centres shut, a remote worker has parenting responsibilities, and household chores to take care of. Even finding the right space and time to dedicate to work may seem like a daunting task.
Of course, then there’s Netflix.
While employers may be thinking about how to manage a remote team, their workers will be trying to manage work while taking care of their children and family members. They might feel that it’s unfair to expect them to be productive in an environment not designed for work. Because remote work for most employees takes multi-tasking to a whole new level.
Imagine a sports drama where the coach motivates their players through video conferencing. Exactly.
People need to be motivated when they fail at something or can’t find a way out of a situation. This means that encouragement is tied to an event or circumstance. It needs to happen at the right time, with the right tone and manner to be effective. And it needs to be direct.
All of which is difficult in a remote work scenario. If an employee has a problem and needs managerial support and motivation, they’d have to first explain the situation to the boss through email or a phone call and then wait for the response. Secondly, the manager may not use the right medium which may defeat the purpose.
Isolation and loneliness
Social distancing isn’t the right phrase for what all of us have had to go through. That would be isolation. It’s difficult to carry out your routine tasks when you’re cut off from the world and forced indoors into a new reality devoid of a structure. When you have to work in that situation, the problem becomes acute.
An office isn’t just a physical construct but a set of both formal and informal activities that compensate for the challenges employees face at work. With no engagement with employees, work becomes purely transactional and functional, which may add to the overall loneliness a worker might feel.
This may also affect employees’ sense of belonging to the organisation, which might eventually encourage them to quit. As Anthony Klotz of the Texas A&M University says, The Great Resignation is coming.”
A crucial part of the onboarding process is when the new hires meet their managers and colleagues in person. That can be both reassuring and encouraging. That leads to both formal and casual introductions which will put the new employee at ease while giving them a glimpse of how the organisation works.
In a remote environment, those welcoming conversations are replaced by bureaucratic processes which might make the new hires feel alienated. Reading company policies is different from getting a firsthand introduction via a helpful manager.
How to manage remote teams
Use collaborations tools
If you’re a manager or supervisor, technology is your best friend during remote work. While it can foster and enhance communication, it should suit the content and purpose. For example, emails could be the right medium for anything that needs detailed information or action plans that employees may need to refer to.
A video call may be the right solution when there’s a need for discussion. It lets participants get the visual cues of others in the debate which will help them better understand their points of view. You should also use messaging tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack to enhance collaboration.
Set meetings with purpose
Meetings should be project, functionality, or individual-based. In other words, every interaction, whether through a call, Slack, or video conferencing, must have a purpose, frequency, and a pre-determined number of participants.
Video conferencing is ideal for daily reviews while support-based interactions can be one-on-one. Importantly, these should be created taking employees into confidence. The time and duration should make it easy for the team members. Managers and employees should know when is the best time to talk to each other.
Management should also encourage lateral communication among employees. A top-down approach may not give everyone an opportunity to raise questions or state their views. Peer-to-peer conversations will encourage employees to express themselves more freely.
As much as organisations have had to adapt, employees and their families also have had to adjust to the new reality. Supervisors should realise this and also understand that each individual may have a different set of circumstances that they’re trying to manage.
You don’t have to decide on everything. Let teams organically come to collective decisions that better serve their purpose. Remember, it’s tough for everyone.
If you want higher engagement with your employees, one of the most effective things you can do is not to control each and every aspect of their professional lives. As a consequence of digitalised communication, it’s easy to give feedback, suggestions, and guidance on everything that happens in the system.
Resist the urge.
Micromanaging, especially from afar, tells your remote workers that you don’t trust them enough. That will kill their initiative and ruin productivity. Instead, ask them for suggestions on how to approach a problem and the timeline. Once you agree to it, don’t check the status every day.
Make it easy for your team
While it’s good to focus on how to manage a remote team, it’s better to concentrate on how to make it easy for them. Actively seek feedback, not just on the output but on the process. Is the workload too much for an individual or a team? Do they need additional help? Can you temporarily outsource some work?
This isn’t the time to just focus on the organisation’s growth. You should also focus on your employee’s growth. They should feel that the company has their interests in mind. They should feel that they have a say in the matter.
Encourage social interactions
Office life is easier because people get to hang out with their colleagues. They can meet at the local pub or play in the same team. When they’re part of a virtual team, all those opportunities for casual but deeply meaningful interactions disappear.
So, managers should encourage and schedule social interactions. These could be game nights or movie nights. Just because you have to initiate it doesn’t mean you have to control it. Let the employees enjoy their time without managerial supervision.
Think of these as their night outs in a local restaurant. Although you can pop in once in a while, they will enjoy it more when their bosses aren’t around.
In short, Managing remote teams is a challenge for all organisations. The key is to see the experience from the employee’s point of view and make it easy for them. Before productivity comes empowerment. And before empowerment comes empathy. Which is what remote workers need more than anything else during these challenging times.