How to Manage a Team Working from Home
43% of U.S. employees work off-site at least part of the time, according to a Gallup report. In Europe, this number is lower, especially outside of the digital sector. Today, companies have no choice but sending employees home to avoid contamination. Many managers are entering unknown territory with dread.
I have worked from home and managed teams remotely on several occasions in my career. For instance, in India in 2006, when I was launching Google in the region, a local political movement attacked our Mumbai office. The threat of a recurrent attack forced us to work from home for 3 months, while Google was sorting out another, more secure office.
This list of tips comes from my personal experience, as well as from conversations I am having daily with leaders who I coach and who are adapting to a professional phenomenon in the midst of a global health threat.
It’s likely that your company’s IT department is working hard in order to empower everyone to work from home. However, as a manager, you have to chip in. Most companies will have laptops, mobile phones and firewalls sorted, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Your department may need tools that are specific to your function in order to carry on functioning remotely. I would share at this early stage a word of caution. This is not the time to over burden your IT department. So make sure that what was not needed then is not listed as a 'must' now. If you did not have your CEO on speed dial before Corona, you may not need him to be on Slack 24/7 now.
Ask your team to list the tasks that they must absolutely perform (share large files, fast and securely being just one example). Then, help them define the business outcomes at stake:
- can’t share new advertisement creative with the CMO
- can’t get it approved
- ad campaign can’t go live
- $$$ of media spend wasted and potentially X new customers not acquired this month worth $$$ in lifetime value.
This type of approach will be:
- Open enough so your IT team can support you: You’re not asking to use Dropbox specifically, you’re asking their opinion about the best way to share large files quickly and safely, they’ll advise
- Specific enough so they understand the urgency and can appropriately prioritise your request amongst the myriad of tickets they’re dealing with.
But remember to be stringent and to separate "must have", from "nice to have".
Working from home can feel confusing for some employees, as they lose a sense of boundaries, normality and rhythm. Feeling supported by their manager, who guides them and supports their unique way of tackling remote work, is essential. Now more than ever “one size fits all” won’t cut it.
Some employees will feel a sense of normality by keeping a 9-5 rhythm even when working from home, while others will rejoice in the freedom to do work when they feel most engaged, energized and inspired, and this may be at 6am or 11pm! It is therefore essential for managers to discuss the 'how' of remote work with each of their direct reports in an individual setting, and then to share these preferences with the entire team, so that everyone knows what to expect in terms of availability.
Step 1: Talk to each of your direct reports individually about their best setting for remote work. When are they most active? What support do they need? Some may tell you for instance that instead of the weekly one-on-one meeting they usually have with you, they would prefer a 5 minutes check-in conversation at the start and the end of each day.
Step 2: In a group setting, share people’s preferences, so everyone’s on the same page about the rules they have to follow and the new freedom they can enjoy. It’s also about showing fairness and flexibility in a time when the outside world does not feel so safe.
Working remotely impacts the way people interact. I don’t need to mention how problems can escalate on email, versus face to face! Without body language, and often without voice, a message is much more likely to be misunderstood according on the mood of the receiver. And it’s easier for the (angry? rude?) sender to hide their mistake behind a “misunderstanding”.
Ask your team to send you their do’s and don’ts, their expectations, a list of what they really like, and a list of what disturbs them so you can collectively write down with your team your own team’s etiquette of working remotely. Details can have a huge impact when you take out all the context of a message, so if you think that writing in capitals is aggressive as it reads like the person is screaming, say it! If it’s important for people to have a few socializing or bonding lines on messenger, when they interact with someone for the first time that day (“How are you?” or “How’s it going today?”) before getting into the topic of the chat, ask everyone to make the effort.
Emotions can run havoc when people are alone, with no one to run things by, so make sure you iron out the basic etiquette that will help your team function well and collaborate while working remotely.
A Stanford University study found that the productivity increase among remote workers is equivalent to an extra day per person / week. This may reassure a lot of organizations, who are dealing with remote working for the first time. However, managers have to remember that everyone’s different. Some employees will suffer from multiple distractions while working from home (cleaner, kids, deliveries, pet…) while others will rejoice in the silence and lack of interruptions.
It’s therefore crucial for managers to review with each of their direct reports their unique deliverables, and the dead line for each, in order to understand what’s feasible and what will be a stretch. Be ready to de-prioritize minor projects for the benefit of what has a real impact ont he bottom line or what other teams depend on. After these individual conversations have taken place, ensure all dependent people and teams are informed of what to expect. Clarity is key!
A lot has been written about the inefficiency of meetings. Remote work brings an opportunity to revisit your recurrent meetings and to adapt them to a new medium: Video conferencing.
With the input of your team, set fresh rules for your video conference meetings. For instance, I hear that a best practice is to stop people from going on mute when they’re not speaking, because knowing that you can’t be heard or that you have to press a button to express a thought is limiting and makes you feel less engaged. Another example: Everyone’s camera has to be “on” at all times during the meeting. Not seeing a face on video conferencing sends the same message to our brain as if the person had left the room entirely.
Shorten meetings! I have been advocating the 25 or 45 minutes meeting format to replace the old 30 or 60 minutes meetings for a long time. It’s harder to socialize on video conferencing, so “bonding time” can shrink (it will have to be replaced though!). Everyone will appreciate a more structured meeting agenda and to receive detailed notes about up dates, decisions and action items. It may be time to "templatize" all this.
What’s happening today means that many households will have both partners working from home and with school closing down in many countries, kids are thrown into the mix! I urge manager to discuss the home situation of their employees individually so they understand their new situation and real working environment. Now's not the time to be unrealistic or to paint the picture pink! Ask for the raw truth and work your way from there. Some employees for instance may say they will be more present and available during mornings, while their partner looks after the kids, and warn you that they won’t be as available or responsive in the afternoons, while it’s their turn. Sharing a calendar with everyone’s “peak time” may be a good idea.
Every company has a set of values. If your company’s values are more than pretty words framed on a wall in the reception area, now’s a good time to take a fresh look at them and to use them to improve remote work. “Collaboration”, “support” and “team work” take a different meaning when people are miles apart! Re define with your team what these values actually mean today in their new setting, and how do they materialize? There may be a need to add a new value that supports remote working, that would not have been needed last year.
Less burn out, but more isolation
A Stanford University study found that remote workers are, on average, less likely to burn out. It’s undeniable that not spending 1.5 hours in public transports daily (the average commuting time of a Londoner) will bring many benefits to your team members. Commuting is exhausting. However, another challenge arises: Isolation. I would recommend encouraging team members to peer-up with someone, who they could be on video conferencing with for a period of time each day, even when they don’t have much to say to each other. This will re create the impression of sitting next to someone, and will bring them a sense of company and belonging (belonging ranks number 3 in Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs). People could pair-up for a couple of hours a day, change partners, encouraging this way the casual, spur-of-the-moment sharing (and the giggles!) that would naturally happen in the office.
Many leaders who have not had much experience with remote working may be concerned about employees not ‘pulling their weight’ when working from home and enjoying a ‘jolly’. My first reaction when hearing this type of concern is to question two things:
1) The way the leader has build his team and recruited. Isn’t trust an important trait to be checked during job interviews?
2) The leader's own values and ethics and whether he is projecting that onto his team, expecting the same attitude from them as the one he's behaving.
The reality is that managers quickly get a sense for 3 profiles of employees:
- working hard
- not working much, and clumsy about it
- not working much, but clever about covering his tracks
Employees who work hard are easy to spot: They have an open calendar. You can see what they’re doing at any point in the day. The reason they have not been active on Slack for the past hour is because they've been on a video conference call. Such employees will also be open about their limitations (have to look after the kids, feeling distracted...) and ask for or offer solutions to work around them. You’ll quickly feel at ease with this type of employees, things will feel smooth even when facing challenges in extraordinary settings.
Employees of the second kind are easy to spot because you soon notice a pattern: Never answers emails before 10am. Takes an hour to respond to you on messenger. Doesn’t give you notice when they’re about to miss a deadline. Goes silent and reappear later, very apologetic with over-complicated excuse.. Discuss again with these employees their deliverables and expectations. Share with them the facts that you’ve observed and ask them for an explanation. Open the conversation sharing personal experiences and showing authentic empathy: “I got really distracted yesterday at home because of X. Is it hard for you too sometimes to focus on work?”.
Employees of the third kind are harder to spot, because they use technology to complement their spurs of presence, sending emails at appropriate times so you get a feeling that they worked all along. However, managers will soon enough get a sense that something is “off”, because when chatting on messenger, answers will be short or vague, often asking for more time… as if the employee was not really working right now. This type of situation is more challenging than the previous one, because there is a problem of trust. I would advise a manager dealing with such an individual to start a conversation using the team’s values. It’s less confrontational than to say “I know you’re lying!” but effective as it tackles the problem at its core: Trust, alignment, behavior, best practices, ethics… And this is really what you want to talk about.
Exceptional times call for exceptional measures and while we're all adapting to a new situation, we're also trying to maintain a sense of purpose and normality.
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About Marion Gamel
Marion Gamel is a BetterMananger Executive Coach with over 20 years experience as a leader and marketeer. She worked in digital at Google, Eventbrite and Betson, and was a Chief Marketing Officer before becoming a coach.
March 13, 2020