Leading and managing the remote team
If you feel a bit unsettled about managing a remote-working team situation, you are right to, because leading a remote team differs greatly from leading a team in the office. It requires a different mindset - a distinct way of thinking about how you organise the work and how you manage all relationship issues that may arise.
Here are some practical things you can do to minimise stress and the consequent risk of burnout in remote workers.
One of the major sources of stress is the technology associated with home working. This may be obvious advice, but I think the place to start is making sure that everybody working from home has got the technology they need and that they know how to use it. You should check this out carefully. Many people don’t enjoy asking for help. They think, “If I ask for help, they’ll think I’m stupid.” So, take the time to make sure all the tech is working and that people understand how to use it.
Once you’ve done this, consider how you organise your meetings to avoid ‘Zoom fatigue’. Recent research by Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley found that remote teams who communicate in short bursts of activity mixed in with periods of intense individual focus perform far better than teams whose communication is less structured. They called this ‘bursty work’ (Riedl & Wolley, 2017).
Motivating the remote team
The hardest part of managing a remote team is keeping team members motivated.
Any leader or manager worth their salt knows that change makes employees anxious. Any psychologist worth their salt knows that when people get anxious, they look for support and guidance from authority figures in their life. If you are a manager, that’s you!
Now, this can be tough, because you may also feel anxious because of the changes in your working life. The first thing you need to do is protect your employees from your own anxiety. You should find the balance between acknowledging people’s worries and providing a positive and hopeful message for the future. It’s that balance between acknowledging anxiety and giving hope that is the key to motivation.
The most important thing you can do to motivate your staff is to be more psychologically and emotionally present for them. This doesn’t mean engaging them in interminably long Zoom meetings. Rather, it means just three short updates and check-ins a day. In a very helpful article in the Harvard Business Review (Larson et al., 2020), Barbara Larson and colleagues emphasised the importance of establishing scheduled, structured daily check-in meetings for managing remote teams. In addition, they highlighted that clarity of communication about expectations, ways of working and responsibility is essential in managing the remote team.
Set a structure
Another factor that helps people who are feeling anxious is having clear boundaries around their life. They might not be able to predict their longterm future, but if they can at least predict how their day will be, that really helps.
Establish a clear start and finish for the working day at home. For example, you might want to announce when you ‘arrive at the office’. At the start of your day, send out a message to say “I’m at work”. This lets people know that they can contact you. Similarly, at the end of the working day, let people know you are going home - which is daft really, because you’re already at home, but you get my point. This will also give them permission to ‘go home’.
Also have prearranged break times. Try to fit these in with flexible working as best you can. The enormous advantage of working from home is being able to work flexibly, maybe starting early in the morning and having a nap in the afternoon (try that at the office!), so arrange breaks to best suit people’s needs.
Give positive feedback
Do your best to create a culture of appreciation (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005). When people are working at home, they get a lot less feedback from their manager. You need to counter this by upping your level of positive feedback for people’s work. In fact, I’d advise you to be over-the-top. To use a metaphor, it’s like you telling them from a distance they’ve done well, but because you’re at a distance, you need to shout a bit.
Here’s a technique you can use from Professor Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement. Once a week, set aside ten minutes at the start of your team meeting and ask all the members to tell you three things that went well that week. This will help them focus on the positives of the situation rather than the negatives (Seligman, 2011). Most of us have a negativity bias (Kahneman, 2011) and focus on the threats rather than the enjoyable things that have happened. This exercise helps to recalibrate things.
Finally, build in some social interaction. Isolation and social disconnection are big problems in remote working. So, as a leader it’s important that you encourage opportunities for informal chitchat. This will support team cohesion and a sense of belonging, which otherwise can quickly dissolve in a crisis. Pair people up to have 15-minute online coffee breaks where the only rule is ‘no talking about work’. Try to organise some quizzes online, that kind of thing.
What to do if things go wrong
Things can sometimes go wrong with remote working. While most people enjoy working from home and perform better, others seem to flounder.
Those who do not cope with remote working seem to fall into one of two distinct groups:
- • They lack motivation and disengage with their job. They struggle to get going and their performance is poor.
- • They become overly dependent and seem to lose confidence in their abilities. These folk find it almost impossible to decide what to do and need constant validation of their work.
There is no great secret about managing this. It’s the same as managing difficulties in the office. It’s hard, and you can’t get away from that.
The key to managing difficulties well is good communication. If someone’s performance is poor when working at home, talk to them about it. Ask them how things are. Ask them what you can do to help them. They might be experiencing difficulties in their domestic situation. Or they might be the sort of person who just needs a lot of structure in their work life.
Another reason for poor performance is that the person is experiencing problems with their mental health. In Chapter 2, I described what to look out for in people who are struggling with mental health problems, the obstacles to helping and what you can do to help. It’s just the same if you suspect one of your remote workers might be struggling with their mental health. The primary difference is that you will communicate with them over Zoom or telephone rather than face to face. This will result in much of the subtlety and nuance of the conversation being lost. You won’t be able to observe body language. So, bear this in mind when talking to the person you have concerns about. It might be easier to have this conversation using the telephone rather than video calling.
If you have done everything you can to help the person who is performing poorly, remember that just because the person is working from home, that doesn’t excuse them from your company’s performance-management policies and procedures. So, if the person doesn’t have any reasons for their poor performance, then it becomes a straightforward performancemanagement issue.