As global efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) become more aggressive, many organizations are temporarily allowing their employees to work in remote teams. These proactive steps to reduce the risk of infection are prudent but not without challenges. The concept of working remotely is far from new—roughly 20-25% of the US workforce currently telecommutes at least part time. Yet, when polled, up to 90% of workers said they’d prefer the option to work from home at least occasionally. The technology to meet via video conference, instant message, group chat, and collaborate in real time on documents has been widely used for years. So, organizations that have not yet embraced the flexibility of remote work likely have deep-rooted beliefs about the impact remote working will have on communication, collaboration, and productivity.
More importantly, many managers are transitioning to leading a remote team for the first time with no formal training on how to lead them effectively. Here are a few tips to ease the transition to leading a remote team:
- Question your assumptions. If you find yourself saying “there’s no way we could accomplish that remotely,” ask someone to play Devil’s Advocate with you. Reach out to your network on LinkedIn to see how other professionals who collaborate remotely would solve a similar problem. Get creative before concluding something is impossible.
- Test a variety of tech solutions. From Microsoft Teams to Zoom and Slack, there are thousands of collaboration tools on the market today, and several big tech companies are offering their services for free or at a discount due to the coronavirus crisis. Demo several options to test their features before making a commitment. Each technology has unique features, so make a list of the required and desired functionality you’ll need to continue business as usual.
- Be patient. Just as you’re entering an unknown territory as a remote leader, many of your employees are adjusting to the new remote team as well. They may not have a home office area established and be anxious about how they’ll adapt. There may be some anxiety over how people will perceive their home-working space. Communicate your expectations and relieve stress where possible. When I started as a remote leader, I told my team that I don’t expect them to adhere to the same professional dress code we applied to the office. I’m not interested in seeing how “camera ready” they are; I’m interested in getting work done. To reinforce my message, I wore a casual shirt to our next call which put everyone at ease on future video calls.
- Expect distractions. Do not expect everyone to work exactly like they would in the office. The decision to work remotely was initiated by a crisis. There’s nothing “normal” about the world of work right now, so set your expectations appropriately. Dogs will bark during conference calls. Doorbells will ring. Internet connections will drop. They’ll happen at inconvenient times and create stress for your employees who are doing their best to adapt professionally. Be understanding. Additionally, with schools and daycares closing to reduce the spread of the virus, many of your employees will be juggling work with having kids at home. Inevitably, kids will walk in the room during video conference calls or ask for snacks before the parent is able to hit the mute button. Again, we’re all going to have to adapt to inconvenient circumstances, but you are in control of being human and understanding given the extreme situation.
- Over-communicate. Be more present than you think is necessary, at least in the beginning. Transitions are challenging for everyone but being engaged and evaluating what is and isn’t working will help you be agile in finding solutions. Solicit feedback from the team frequently so you understand their challenges and concerns. Consider making a 15-minute morning video meeting a new tradition while everyone becomes accustomed to the new arrangements. Check in with everyone over coffee just like you would if you were in the office.
Continuing “business as usual” when absolutely nothing feels normal is an incredible responsibility. Don’t forget that self-care is not optional. You can’t bring the best version of yourself to work if you’re anxious and unrested. No one has all the answers in a time of crisis, so don’t expect to be the exception to the rule. Do the best you can with what you can for as long as you can.