Managing Remote Teams: An Essential Guide for Managers

inCaseAs a leader in your business, how can you achieve the best productivity and boost morale when your team is working from home?

We have brought together leadership tips and insights being shared by digital workplace transformation experts right now, including from the Leeds Digital Festival just last month.

According to the CIPD, working mainly from home has increased by 80% in the past 20 years to reach 5.3% of all workers, predominantly due to technology; an aging population; increased commute times; and cost pressures. In April 2020, the ONS found that 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home and of those who did some work from home, 86.0% did so as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As with the previous pandemics and other major events, such as the Great Depression and World War II, the coronavirus pandemic will profoundly change workplaces – accelerating the growth of home-working significantly further.

How can I be the best remote manager possible?

Being a remote manager isn’t drastically different than any other type of effective leader, the biggest difference is about understanding the challenges your people are facing. Otherwise, even your highest-performing team members may experience declines in job performance and engagement when working remotely, especially in the absence of preparation and training.

This article covers:

  1. The importance of good communication
  2. How to help your team with stress & anxiety
  3. What are the different types of remote worker?
  4. What type of remote manager are you?
  5. Building a resilient workforce for the future

The importance of good communication

Communication is one of the most important elements of managing a team. Google’s two-year research project into teams found that the highest-performing teams had one thing in common: psychological safety. When considering how anxious and disorientated your team may feel when learning to adapt to a new way of working, it’s important to ensure they feel safe and supported to ask for help, seek feedback, develop knowledge and voice work-related dissenting views.

Many office workers, used to a vibrant office have been thrown into a situation where they may be isolated and alone with new distractions. Could one of your team members go an entire day without speaking to anybody? Try and make time to have a real conversation, a quick video call now and again. As a manager, communicating and making sure your team is communicating effectively is essential to make the transition as easy as possible.

Consider your communication channels

Make the most of collaborative tools, e.g. Microsoft Teams, and other collaboration software that has made remote working easier than ever before. You can instant message people, call an ad hoc meeting, collaborate on the same documents, but more importantly you can keep in touch.

Talk about the tools you’re using, especially those your team are not used to, so they are comfortable using the channels you provide and communication isn’t stifled.  Many of us text and use WhatsApp extensively in our personal lives, in fact, those under the age of 25 rarely use email, so consider communicating in a way that your staff feel most engaged with.

Think about the way we have adapted to communicating with customers, e.g. live chat on the website, but expect staff to send emails, get used to that change in instant communication if not already.

How we communicate is important, if you consider the pyramid of engagement pictured, the most common office communication channel is email but it has the lowest engagement. Look higher up the pyramid to achieve higher engagement levels e.g. when you can’t meet in person, a video call is the next best thing.


Video conferencing

Using video conferencing for your meetings should be a given. The importance of visual interaction cannot be underestimated to make communication as close to a real conversation as possible. But ensure everyone has their camera switched on, otherwise you lose all the benefits!  A risk in virtual group meetings is that some members may be tempted to divert attention else where e.g. scrolling through their Facebook feed, which they wouldn’t otherwise do during a face-to-face meeting. To combat this engage with people, asking opinions, question people direct if needed.

When leading a meeting, be ‘video call organised’, make sure you have everything available, open up relevant files beforehand, close anything you don’t want anyone to see and turn your ‘do-not-disturb’ on communication settings if you have one – so you don’t get notifications popping up.

Ask participants to join a few minutes before hand so you can start promptly, as inevitably people will spend the first few minutes catching up – and you wouldn’t want to stifle those valuable informal interactions for team morale.

If it’s more than a 1-2-1, encourage participants to utilise the full video call functionality to improve the experience and productivity of virtual meetings, e.g. utilise a raise your hand feature to the meeting facilitator when you have a question, or post a question in the chat facility without interrupting the person talking, which can be come back to or quickly answered without affecting conversation flow.

Also, if you think a meeting is going to take 30mins, put it in for 30mins. If you put for an hour people will tend to use that whole time when you could be getting on with something else.

Help your team communicate with your clients

In addition to communication internally, think about the tools your team use to communicate with clients. Your clients are going through the same challenges, so how can you make their life easier? E.g. if you’re a law firm and you usually have clients coming into the office to undertake ID checks, posting documents to your office or calling your office for updates on their case, think about how you can digitally plug your clients into your team.  A tool like our InCase mobile app, allows your team to work safely from home and still progress their cases with features such as the ID checker, digital forms and digital signature, not only making your team’s lives easier but impressing your clients who are more likely to use you again and recommend you to others.

1. Celebrate successes, no matter how small

When someone notices and appreciates your hard work, it’s a great boost for morale. This can have an even bigger impact when you’re working remotely, as when you’re not there to receive a simple thanks in person, it can feel like your efforts have gone unnoticed.

Never miss an opportunity to recognise your team when they’ve done a good job. By also letting team members know how their work fits into the bigger picture of the business, you let your people know just how valuable their work really is.

Some employee benefits platforms such as Perkbox allow team members to recognise their colleagues for going above and beyond in their job. Your entire business can top into recognition giving, e.g. quarterly prize for the team member with most recognition.

2. How to help your team with stress & anxiety

The number of people reporting high levels of anxiety has sharply elevated during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with ONS figures showing 19 million adults in Great Britain reporting high levels of anxiety. In fact, 1 in 5 people said that their work had been affected because they were finding working from home difficult.

Your responsibility as a manager is to help stop acute short-term stress relating to the outbreak turning into chronic stress, with health & productivity implications through the rest and beyond Covid-19.  So, what can you do?

You can identify meaningful work for people and set realistic goals, identify what work actually needs completing and what’s just busy work that can be postponed. Be as flexible as possible. Cleary communicate your expectations, deadlines and speed of work; be flexible about working hours, regularly check in with your team and be realistic about how they’re managing their workload. Foster a sense of community, which you lose when not working together in the office.

Share your experiences, talk to everyone regularly, don’t make everything work related, keep some dialogue informal. Think creatively, e.g. if you want to encourage team members to take 5 mins out of the day to let off steam with a colleague, you could facilitate something like Coffee Roulette – where your team members will be randomly matched for regular coffee meetings.

Ultimately, get to know your team as individuals, with one-to-one check-ins to identify any risk factors, particularly now – when restrictions are tight; who is alone / shielding. Recognise that everyone has their own unique circumstance, e.g. financial strains or parents that could be thrown back to home-schooling if their child/children’s bubble is affected by a case of Covid-19. Give staff an outlet to help understand what’s going on in their lives.

3. What are the different types of remote worker?

In any workplace you will have a real mix of different types of remote workers, as a manager it’s helpful to find out what persona types you have within your team and even yourself. Looking at each one…

  • The natural: works well independently, but needs good resources and communication; may well have worked from home for a long time, works independently, thrives outside the structure of a traditional office. They will require the right resources to continue performing, therefore, ask them how you can support them virtually. Their feedback will be very helpful, as pointing out any gaps e.g. in tools, will help you to create the optimal virtual experience for everyone.
  • The honeymooner: is a seasoned veteran in their field, however, working from home may be new to them. Once the novelty wears off – never mind any added pressure from child care / home schooling – it’s hard to anticipate how they will perform in a remote setting. Ensure regular open communication, especially as more and more things become apparent to them about the effects of remote working. It is a good idea to match them with a seasoned remote worker – such as The Natural.
  • The Over-Achiever: They are laser focused. No matter where they are, this employee accomplishes more when working remotely. However, fail to strike the right work-life balance when working from home, you can leave them susceptible to burnout. To remedy that, reassure them of their value to the team, reiterating to them normal working hours to strike that work-life balance.
  • The Solo-Act: as the name suggests, this person flourishes when left alone to work on projects. They can help you as a leader to avoid micro-management, but the lack of collaboration, often comes at the cost of innovation. To help combat this, acknowledge their strength, but help them collaborate with others to gain perspective and in turn make their own work more powerful.
  • Creature of habit: these are your people where every hour of the day is planned out. So, working from home allows them to strike a perfect balance between accomplishing their work and satisfying any personal tasks they have going on. However, be mindful that the last minute unannounced meeting that interferes with previously planned events can cause stress for them.

These are a selection of the main types we’ve found being shared at this current time. When designing the perfect experience for your virtual employees, it’s crucial to always remember that there is not one perfect experience. The ideal experience will be determined by your virtual employees’ personas. Identifying them is the first step towards optimising employee engagement and happiness.

4. What type of remote manager are you?

Thomas Kilmann’s Model of Conflict & Interaction lends itself nicely to engagement with our teams from a remote distance.

Essentially, Kilmann identified five key ways in which people are being non-assertive and non-cooperative with varying degrees in between, so essentially you have a y-axis of unassertive to assertive and an x-axis of uncooperative to cooperative.

If you are in the top left, being assertive and not cooperative you will find yourself in a win-lose scenario, it’s too aggressive and not great leadership. Bottom-left, unassertive and uncooperative, you’re avoiding problematic situations and avoiding the fact that your team needs you to lead in this environment. In middle, compromising, partially assertive – partially cooperative, only partially satisfying the concerns of your team. Bottom-right you’ve got accommodating, too cooperative and not assertive – being too nice where your team’s objectives are not being met. Top right is what you ought to strive to achieve, collaborating where you’re being assertive and cooperative.

How to you achieve that collaborative approach?

Involve the team in decisions, but understand where to draw the line as the final decision maker. At the end of the day the buck stops with you. Be crystal clear in including people, but when a decision is made, move forward, don’t let resentments seep in – let individuals know why decisions have been made, particularly when you can’t see people face-to-face to ensure inclusivity and proactive cooperation. Above all, don’t create virtual vacuums where people feel isolated and excluded from the team.  It’s your job, as a manager, to reach out and bring people together virtually when you’re not in the office.  The important thing is to recognise that things have changed and lots of people are still getting used to it.  It takes patience, empathy and understanding that not everybody works in exactly the same way.

5. Building a resilient workforce for the future

Resilience is the ability of a person to adjust to adversity, maintain their equilibrium, hold on to some sense of control over their environment, and the ability to move forward in a positive manner [Boyd (2014)].

One of the things we touched on above is the isolation, distractions and increased stress levels that can come from working from home. Think about how to build resilience with your team; it’s easy to focus on the technological advances that allow us to work from home easily, while forgetting the emotional element that working remotely brings.

What do good managers do to help their team adapt to change?

Leaders have to be able to inspire, motivate, captivate and engage a team to ensure that they achieve their fullest potential, and in doing so build your business and increase profitability.

A priority for you as a manager is to encourage interaction. Without an office space, your team is not chatting around the kitchen kettle or nipping for a quick catch up in a break-out room; therefore, it’s important to create that team engagement in a remote environment.

We have covered communication tools to connect visually wherever possible, think about other ways to use them to bring your team together, e.g. training events give an opportunity to learn new skills and interact with each other at the same time.

Keep employees up-to-date, disseminating info’ in a timely manner. If you don’t, it can create distrust amongst your team and exaggerate any disconnect throughout the workforce. You need to create strong bonds, so share news and updates when it happens. Going back to technology, if you are using a team collaboration software, such as Microsoft Teams, set up an all staff/team channel, and encourage others to share their news/updates. Similar principles apply with an intranet site or internal newsletter, the key thing is to keep everyone up-to-speed with what’s happening in the business, to avoid adding to an anxiety.

As a manager, lead by example – setting the tone for good behaviour. Behaviour, whether good or bad, is contagious and if a manager’s attitude stinks it will have a ripple-effect amongst employees. Remote teams can be resilient if managers exhibit positive behaviour, encourage staff to talk to you about issues in the same was as they may have done when grabbing 5 minutes with you in the office. Continually nurture your people: we set out to source the best talent in recruitment process, so you ought to continuously cultivate your team members even when working remotely.  To bring out best from our people, reward for a job well done and offer timely constructive criticism and support when needed. Give options to develop work and soft skills. Continuously building a remote culture for your team can be challenging, therefore, repetition of expectations will help to reinforce these messages.

What contributes to resilience?

What groups of behaviours, skills and beliefs contribute to resilience? What can we actually measure resilience against? To answer these questions, Driven investigated many existing models of resilience and combined them with neurological models to create 6 domains of resilience. Looking at each one…

  • Vision is the most important domain, about an individual’s sense of purpose and goals. All other domains are guided by what you want to achieve.
  • Composure is about regulating your emotions. The ‘fight-or-flight’ response of the brain loves to flare up when facing conflict, or in this instance – a sudden change in circumstances at work; to overcome this instinctive emotional response, recognise hidden opportunities and solve problem in different ways. It’s not just big things, also the small things. Why do we get emotional about spilling a cup of coffee; it’s not worth getting worked up about… maintaining composure helps you to conserve energy to focus on what is actually important.
  • Reasoning is around creativity and problem solving – useful when facing challenges. You need to anticipate and plan for what’s going on in our work lives – recognising opportunities to change; it’s not just about applying critical thinking in times of a crisis, but about taking action ahead of time to prevent things going wrong in the first place.
  • Health is the foundational domain to enable you to achieve your overall personal vision. As you will expect, good health is about what you eat, doing exercise, getting quality sleep. When working from home, some of this can easily go out the window!
  • Under tenacity, persistence is the key. Being smart isn’t everything, you need to be willing to work hard to solve problems and learn from our mistakes, none of us are infallible. Don’t be naive, Set ambitions and realistic goals.
  • Collaboration is integral to everything we do when working remotely; we are social beings and the brain has a deep fundamental need to interact/connect with others to survive. In a remote world, the way we engage with each other has shifted, therefore, leverage the tools that are available to us to help our people and clients engage most efficiently.

When building resilience in a remote team, understand what you need to do to make your team’s lives better, and yours personally too.

Final word

We hope this has provided some useful insights to help you foster a healthy high-performing team.  We have also put together some practical tips covering infrastructure, software and tips for staff when homeworking, which you can find in our Home Working Guide.


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