Across the nation, leaders and managers are being tested in a new way. Organizations ranging from a handful of employees to thousands have abruptly shifted to working from home, pushing millions of Americans into the remote workforce.

If you’re like most managers, you probably have little to no work-from-home experience. But even if you’re a pro at working remotely, managing an entire team of people who are new to remote work and collaboration technology creates a whole new set of challenges that you must shoulder.

The reality is that remote work is here to stay. Even as we see a gradual shift back to on-premises work, businesses are having to find a new way to operate. That means managers must expand their skills and demonstrate they are capable of the leadership needed to run a productive, efficient, well-oiled remote team.

We’re here to help. Fusion Alliance has decades of experience managing our own remote workers. Additionally, we help other organizations set up and support their remote workforces from a technology and collaboration standpoint. And this work has only ramped up since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Read on to discover small adjustments that will make a big difference starting today. [Note that our similar article about best practices for employees has slight overlap, but numerous suggestions that you can pass on to your team members.]

1. Take the temperature of your remote workers—figuratively

Pandemic or not, the most effective managers have their finger on the pulse of what each team member is feeling and doing. In a remote world, regular communications with each team member are crucial. If you haven’t had time to check on your employees one by one, now is the time. Although it is often difficult to step out of our own chaos, reaching out to employees individually can make a huge impact.

We bring this up because it’s amazing how many people report that their managers have done little more than ask a quick “how’s it going?” since COVID-19. Some managers are so overwhelmed by their own new workload that they fail to reach out, while others don’t see it as a necessity and consider things business as usual. But now is the time to communicate more.

On the flip side, we’ve heard instances of senior executives of organizations taking time to email individual employees to check on them. Imagine the difference that makes in creating loyalty and making employees feel valued.

Do the same with your team. Find out how they are coping. How is the family? Is everyone well? Was anyone laid off? Is it challenging with others in the house? Ask if they have questions or concerns. A little empathy goes a long way.

If your company provides guidance on how to best create work from home spaces, share that in your discussion.

Keep checking in on a regular basis. This isn’t one and done. You might be the only person at work who is providing your team members with the outside connection that most people are craving.

2. Provide ample communication

When you work on-site, you learn a lot about what’s going on from personal interactions and hallway discussions. But that channel is temporarily gone. Here are ways to help your employees feel less siloed:

  • Be more “visible.” Change your status on your collaboration tool to “available” as much as possible. Let your team members know you’re there if small questions come up as they work on a project. Give a daily time where you have “office hours” and can be interrupted. Even a half hour will help.

  • You’re privy to more information than the average worker, so keep your employees updated on what’s happening at a macro level in the organization. How is the company doing? How are different departments performing? What are the company’s greatest challenges right now? What is the go-forward strategy? Also tell colleagues when someone gets hired, takes a new role, or leaves.

  • Make sure every member of the team knows their priorities, goals, and understands their individual roles. If possible, see if some need more frequent one-on-ones for now.

  • Be intentional with your communication. Figure out as a group what channels are best for communicating and how to reach each team member when something is urgent. Also set expectations if you want everyone to have a certain channel of communication open all day. Have the team brainstorm how this can happen without interrupting everyone.

  • Use the chat feature for quick questions instead of scheduling 30-minute meetings

  • Don’t forget to praise your team’s accomplishments in public.

3. Set a routine, and the change will be remarkable

In our article, 7 remote work best practices for employees, the first best practice is about creating a routine. We strongly urge you to look at these suggestions to take charge of creating a workday structure. They’ll help you go from reactive to proactive.

Just try to be consistent in your routine before and during work, and stick to a time when you’ll stop working so that you don’t burn out. Add exercise into the mix, including during work. Do some cardio every 90 minutes and whenever you switch projects or stop to get a drink.

If you’re a leader who has figured out a work-from-home routine and you’re coping reasonably well, be patient and give grace to others who aren’t in the same place as you. Some are alone and struggling. Others are dealing with: young children; students and spouses competing for bandwidth; no real office space that is free of distraction; friends and family who may have taken ill; financial difficulties that are overwhelming; and on and on. And as time goes on, many people’s personal challenges compound.

Do what you can to listen, prioritize work, or offer flexibility like shifting hours. Your genuine concern will help alleviate stress.

4. Reduce distractions

A UC Irvine study found that it takes 23 minutes to refocus after being interrupted just once. Just as you tell a child to focus when they get off task, train yourself to manage and reduce work interruptions. You’ll instantly see a change in your own productivity.

  • Turn off social media and other notifications on your phone during work hours. Minimize notifications on your computer. Take a couple hours where you work non-stop, ignoring incoming emails, instant messages, and such.

  • Change your status message on your collaboration tools or email to say you’re “busy now, but free at x time.”

  • Ask your team to keep their calendars up to date and to schedule chunks of time on their calendars to focus on specific tasks. Either they manage their calendars or someone else will fill them up with meetings.

  • Talk to your team about your availability and theirs, and brainstorm how to collaborate with one another.

  • Try responding to emails and communications only a few times a day at specific times. Come up with your own personal system, communicate it to your team, and encourage them to create their own.

  • Finally, have discussions about how to reach each person if something is urgent.

The distractions caused by those in your household are a different story. Each family member or pet adds another variable. Have a discussion about your schedule and meetings to set expectations. Try putting a card near your workspace that says “busy” or “free,” a visual indication of when not to interrupt. Come up with something that works for your family. We acknowledge that visual clues tend to mean nothing to young children, but using the bullets above will at least help with work distractions.

5. Meeting collaboration and expectations

If your meetings have always been in person in the past, you may need a different formula for virtual meetings. If you haven’t already done so, set up processes and expectations.

Ask your team not to multitask so that you can keep meetings shorter, and make sure you’re doing the same. If you’re heard typing in the background during a meeting or if you’re not responding when someone asks you a question because your focus is elsewhere, don’t be surprised if everyone else begins doing the same.

  • Start meetings promptly. Open with something personal. Ask everyone how they are. Chat a little while.

  • Decide as a team whether you need to meet on a more frequent basis, but make sure your check-ins are brief and provide value. Set up agenda of one or two things you want to discuss, and that’s it.

  • If you’re doing daily standups, set the structure up front. We’ve seen highly effective 15-minute standups with a team of 20. It works. Start promptly, telling each team member to give a quick update only if needed or if they’re stuck. Otherwise, they don’t need to speak if they’re working on something they worked on yesterday.

  • For daily briefings that include slides, use graphics and images as much as possible. Don’t read slides to your audience. Let them read it on their own, while you discuss only things that have changed since the previous daily meeting. This is a strategy called “brief by exception” that lets you provide pertinent updates without wasting time.

  • In a standup, start with yourself so you can demonstrate what you want them to do. If someone is going on a tangent, jump in and offer to continue that discussion offline. You’ll get into a cadence if you keep people on track, and they’ll get the hang of it.

  • Try not to schedule meetings more than an hour long. If your meeting must go beyond that, take a 10-minute break so everyone can stretch and change the scenery.

  • If group meetings are important, record them. They may be searchable or have transcripts available to those who cannot attend or needed to step away.

  • After any virtual team meeting, send a recap of important takeaways. Not everyone is able to be attentive with a child shouting in the background or if someone’s Wi-Fi is giving trouble.

6. Virtual meetings and videos – do or don’t?

It’s a no-brainer that communication improves when you see a person’s gestures, expressions, and body language. As a result, many companies suggest video calls, even under normal conditions. Video calls can reduce the need for travel, as well.

Regardless, not everyone’s remote-work setup is conducive to video. If you want to have a meeting with video, let the attendees know in advance. Some people don’t want others to see their makeshift office or the kids running around in the background.

Many collaboration tools allow you to blur the background or change it to something else, so that is an option you can offer. But if someone is stressed about using video, take notice and don’t force it as the norm.

7. Create energy and preserve the organization’s culture

Do your part to create a fun, energetic, engaged remote culture. Here are some ideas:

  • Send the team a meme or a trivia question every couple days.

  • On a group-communication channel, share something personal. Have fun. Laugh a little.

  • At the end of meetings have someone provide a fun fact, make a statement, and ask people to guess if it’s true or false, ask people a silly question like “chocolate or vanilla?” Change it up.

  • Try virtual lunches, happy hours, or group calls with friends, but be aware of device and work fatigue. Some people are tired of looking at their computers all the time or they just want to do something else.

If you act as an example of making time for lighthearted interactions and human connection, your employees will feel much more relaxed.

8. Accept that remote work is here to stay, and be a positive force

As of Oct. 2019, just months before the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 16% of the U.S. workforce (that’s more than 26 million people) was working remotely part of the time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For years, the data has shown that engagement, happiness, and health all improve for those who work from home:

Regardless, many traditional managers haven’t seen it that way. There’s a camp that firmly believes that employees will slack off without direct supervision. Or that “work should be done at work.”

However, weeks into this national remote-work experiment, so many of the myths about working from home have been dispelled, and many non-believers have been converted overnight.

That’s good news because it looks like having a partially full-time remote staff will emerge as a new norm as a way to reduce costs in a post-pandemic world. A March 30, 2020 Gartner, Inc. survey showed that 74% of CFOs and finance leaders said they plan to move at least 5% of their workforce to working from home full time. And nearly 25% said they’d move 20% of their staff to permanently remote positions. That’s one in five workers.

The takeaway is that remote work is going to continue to be a larger part of the fabric of work life. Embrace it, understand it, and make it work for your organization. It’s time to let go of preconceived notions and be the champion of your remote work team. Model the behavior and attitudes that you want to see from your employees, and they will be more apt to embrace the situation, as well.

Last thoughts

These tips only work if you apply them. Share them with your colleagues, and share our tips for employees with your team.

In the meantime, if your company needs help with the technology side or needs VPN set up in a day, our experts at infrastructure, cloud, and collaboration are activated and ready to help. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.