Most of us start the morning with the daily ritual of commuting to the office. Some of us walk, some of us take public transport and some of us drive. Either way, it is a rhythmic activity that has a stubborn time slot on our calendar. So what happens when we no longer have to go to the office to go to work?
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 forced everyone into their homes, and every office into their laptops. With physical distancing laws and self-quarantining becoming the norm, teams all around the world were finding out the truth about working remotely; It’s not all that bad.
Working remotely allows employees to find their most comfortable spot at home and hunker down for the day. In some organizations, remote working means you get to choose your own hours as long as the work gets done. This is where the difficulties of managing a remote team start to trickle in.
Communication has always, and will always be the most important part of building an effective team. The greatest communicators the world has known, have changed everything. The Steve Jobs of the world, with their clear and precise way of communicating a message to an audience.
Understanding that communication is the key to inspiring your team to reach the goals you have set quickly becomes the centerpiece of remote work. In fact, it has always been the centerpiece of any successful team, but remote work certainly makes it more visible. Here are a few key components of effective communication when managing a remote team:
1. Repeat after me “Goals & Accountability”
When we work in a team, we will generally have a common goal that we are currently working towards. If you’re the accounting team, this may be the time of the month where you process paychecks. If you’re the sales team, this may be crunchtime and you all have to hit your team quota for the month over the next few days. Either way, a team always has a common goal they are currently working towards and that becomes the focus and the context of the team.
The biggest priority a manager should have when managing a remote team is to ensure that everyone on the team understands the goal they are working towards, and what parts of the objective they are personally accountable for. This forms the basis for communication.
An employee who is working remotely and has a correct understanding of what they’re accountable for also understands the consequences of not adhering to the schedule they agreed to.
If every employee knows what the team’s common goal is, and what they themselves are accountable for in reaching that goal, the job of the manager becomes much smoother.
2. Video Calls to stay connected
When working remotely, it can be easy to start losing a sense of culture from the lack of contact or plain old small talk with the coworkers you’re so used to seeing every day.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, teams that were once tightly knit now have to adapt to keep the same spirit, and culture towards their work.
If you’re anything like me, you probably enjoy your work. However part of that enjoyment comes from being around your team members and being able to relate to them on a personal level. When the city is in a lockdown and people are afraid to go outside, it’s nearly impossible to have the same exposure to your team members as you did before.
That’s why video calls are important.
Some managers will say video calls are important because they allow them to read an employee's body language to communicate more effectively. While that’s absolutely true, it is sometimes missed that the positive impact of frequent video calls within a team is far greater than the alternatives.
I’d wager that the positive impact that video calls have, actually comes primarily from each team member feeling like they can relate to others in the call and the increased accountability that comes with that.
3. Document Briefs to keep accountable
The theme of managing a remote team is becoming clear at this point. It’s all about effective communication on a personal level to keep spirits high and to maintain culture, and on a professional level to shift focus to specific goals and foster a sense of accountability.
While video calls are a great help to retaining the personal dynamic of your team, document briefs are a great way to maintain the professional dynamic of your team.
A document brief can be a Word document, a Google Sheet, an instructional email, whatever your team is most comfortable with. The idea is to put into writing who is responsible for what, how the team plans to achieve their current goal and by when.
Ultimately, a document brief is simply a further affirmation to your team about what goals you are trying to achieve and how you will achieve it. It’s fantastic for keeping accountability as your team works remotely.
While document briefs are helpful for all teams, it is generally better served for larger teams where clear communication may be harder to achieve due to the number of team members. Smaller teams of 2-3 people can safely rely on video calls and their individual accountability, although it never hurts to put it on paper.
4. Trust each other
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is to trust that your team members will hold themselves accountable to what they committed to.
Working remotely means that as a manager, it becomes tougher to regularly check up on the progress of each team member’s task. You are no longer able to efficiently pop over to their desk and ask how they’re doing with the task at hand.
If you know that your management style skirts into the “micro-management” world, you may find this is the hard part of managing a team remotely. As a manager, you have less direct control when your team is working remotely. I believe that’s actually helpful to the team members in developing their professional outlook in their career. If your team had effective communication in setting goals, each team member knows that they are the ones individually responsible for their work and the team is trusting them to get it done.
You likely helped to hire the team members in your team, and hopefully you hold them in high regard for their capabilities and the talent set they bring to your team. If you find that you are having trouble trusting one member of your team to keep themselves accountable, that may be a different conversation with a less favourable outcome for the team member.
Remote work bases itself entirely on trusting your team to hold themselves and each other accountable. If there is no trust, the team will quickly become dysfunctional and things will get much harder than they should be.
The Foundation of a Remote Team
Working remotely can be a daunting shift from your regular work life of countless meetings at the office and lunch time chats with your team. However, it can certainly be a positive experience and an opportunity for personal and professional growth not just for yourself but for your team as well.
With the risk of sounding like a scratched record, I will take this time to reiterate that the most important thing you need to build a proper foundation for managing a remote team is proper communication. Hopefully your team already had great communication before we were all forced to work from home and the transition can simply consist of crossing some t’s and dotting some i’s.
However, for many teams who may still be maturing in their dynamics, this shift to remote work comes during a time where important progress was being made on their ability to communicate effectively with each other and get work done. To those teams the game is the same but the playing field is different. Have video calls, use the document briefs, set goals and most importantly trust each other. The odds are in your favour in that you probably hired your team member because you thought they could do well in their position. Give them the direction they need and let them get to work.