Coronavirus: the role of the unexpected remote manager
Being thrust into remote working brings additional challenges to those who have to manage a team. Below are some approaches you may want to consider for managing people in this unique context.
The unfortunate truth is that the remote work that most people will experience right now – the homeworking forced by COVID-19 – is not the kind of remote work I advocate for. Transitioning to online collaboration is a thought-through process, a planned change in behaviour, which requires a change in mindset.
Remote workers often choose to work from where they work best: from a co-working space, a different regional office, a café, a library, even their home… But currently, many knowledge workers are being forced to work from home – sometimes without suitable access to technology.
And how you carry out remote work is heavily influenced by context, and the context within which we are working right now is an unusual one. So remote work in this context requires a different approach.
I’m not one for tips and tricks, but for helping others funnel their thinking to realise what might work best for them, their circumstances, job and team make up.
So I invite you to pause, take a breath and spend ten minutes thinking about what you and your team might need in the current circumstances. I hope these headlines will help you to do that.
Be flexible – even with your regular homeworkers
Even the context of those who are regular homeworkers has changed. People’s home contexts are probably different, with people who are not usually in the house during worker hours now heavily present.
And even if nothing has changed visibly, mentally it will. Their mindset will be affected by the current uncertainty. This is not business as usual for anyone. Take that into account.
For those who have been forced to suddenly work from home, it will take a while to understand how they work best in the new context. They will need some flexibility in their schedule, as they try different things to find a new way of working for them.
Be the connector that reminds them how their work feeds into something bigger than themselves.
Understand the context in which team members are working
People’s living situations are going to be incredibly different. Some people might live alone; others might be sharing a small space with flatmates; some will have families; others will become the primary carers of a relative; some will live in urban areas; others in more isolated properties.
All of this will influence how they approach their work and their communication over the coming weeks. Negotiating workspace will be something new they have to do with partners; others might have to work when there is other activity going on in the house. Some will struggle not having their closest friends nearby.
Spend time understanding team members’ context and facilitate communication of the different circumstances in your team. Share your own context and set up, so that others understand the circumstances that you are working under too.
If it helps, share a photo of your current setup in your team (on an email thread, in your collaboration platform, at the end of a meeting), but be mindful that some might want to continue keeping their home and work life separate.
Be the connector to the rest of the organisation
As manager or team leader, you will probably have access to more information about what’s happening in the organisation, and access to a range of people beyond the team. Bring back to your team what’s going on inside the organisation – be the connector that reminds them how their work feeds into something bigger than themselves. Help them make connections with individuals outside the team.
Be patient with internet connections
Even those team members enjoying the benefits of the best broadband in their homes might feel it these days. With children taking classes online, partners uploading and downloading heavy files, or streaming their video during online meetings, this is bound to affect everyone.
Turn off video if someone is having internet problems, and reschedule for later if necessary. Don’t get frustrated at them for having a poor internet connection.
Not every decision needs a meeting
One of the easiest things to do when you work remotely is set up a meeting. Yes, they feel different to those you would have in the office, but a meeting is a meeting. It’s familiar. Having regular online meetings will start to impact people’s health – eyes will be dry, necks will be stiff and it will mean that people rarely get a break from their desks.
Use your meetings to check-in as people, to have those conversations that are difficult to have by text. Delegate decision-making when you can, and if decisions need to be made in a meeting, consider who needs to be there and who just needs to be informed.
If your work doesn’t require you to meet regularly, then set up some informal meetings during which you and your team members can socialise.
Consider using asynchronous video and audio and jpegs as well as text
Remember that communication can be both synchronous and asynchronous. In real-time, and non real-time. We’ve got used to having asynchronous communication mainly via text (email and chat-based applications), but short audio files are also easy to share. Video might be a bit more complicated, but also easy with applications such as Loom.
Remember that some of you will communicate faster through a sketch than a long text or a powerpoint slide. Draw a sketch on a piece of paper, take a photo with your phone (or hold it up to a camera if you’re in a meeting), and share that. Faster and more personal.
(When eventually you have more time to reflect on how you run your meetings, we have a book that might help you.)
Don’t lose the real-time social connections
If your work doesn’t require you to meet regularly, then set up some informal meetings during which you and your team members can socialise. “Virtual coffees” are very common in distributed organisations. Meetup online via Google Hangouts, Skype, MSTeams, Zoom…
Turning up to a meeting without a plan might feel strange at first, so give the sessions a theme: things learned recently, tips for crafting your home workspace, book clubs, tv series catchup, etc.
Remind them of their wellbeing
When we work in the office with other people, we move around, we take breaks with them, we notice that others are leaving their desk to go for lunch, and we’re reminded we need to take a break too.
These cues might be missing from the home. It’s more important than ever to remind people, and lead by example, that at some point, work needs to stop. That we need to rest not just our eyes, neck and shoulders, but also our minds. That the home office needs to close down for the day.
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I'm the Director of Virtual not Distant, a company specialised in helping teams and organisations transition to a remote set-up through workshops, coaching, consulting and facilitation. We also run raining on managing and leading remote teams, both in person and online.
I host the 21st Century Work Life podcast and Management Café.