By Adrian Johansen
The past year or so has been instrumental in understanding that remote operations can be practical for most businesses. Perhaps more importantly, this period has highlighted that allowing employees to work from home can boost their job satisfaction, increase productivity, and reduce overhead. If your company has looked at these results and decided to make online operations a permanent feature, you’re not alone — the percentage of permanent remote workers around the world is expected to double in 2021.
That doesn’t mean to say that this approach doesn’t present some challenges. Managing a virtual team can bring hurdles that are both familiar to previously in-office leaders, and others that are distinct to this new approach to operations. It may take a period of adjustment to get it right, but when you adopt management strategies that are geared toward supporting your permanently remote team, you can empower everyone involved to succeed.
Let’s take a look at some of the key considerations that you should be focusing on in order to get the most out of your remote team.
You must have a strong communications strategy. Businesses that were allowing employees to work from home as a temporary measure during COVID-19 might have been able to get away with some minor adjustments, but this isn’t appropriate for a permanent shift. When tight communications protocols aren’t in place, productivity, efficiency, and even worker morale suffer.
This begins by making sure you have the right tools in place. There are various types of remote communications platforms, and these generally fall into the categories of collaboration software, project management solutions, and video conferencing. Your best approach is to review the types of tasks that are being undertaken, along with the types of communication they require. Then select the tools that best suit your business. However, there are some platforms that combine these categories — such as Google Suite and Microsoft Teams — and can simplify the path to good communication rather than forcing employees to switch between platforms depending on the task.
Tools alone won’t make a sustainable difference in permanently remote teams, however. You need to make sure that processes are formalized and adequate training is given in order to cement the importance of comms in your business. Make it clear from onboarding onward how and when to use communications platforms, and even set up channels that are used for social chats between team members. Build communications courses into the talent development program, and make sure that they are discussed during all worker evaluations. Encourage employees to build their skills in this area, and demonstrate through your own behavior how central they are to success.
Strengthen Team Culture
One of the most common issues that remote team managers come across is keeping teams close when they are in disparate locations. In order for remote teams to be productive, innovative, and efficient they need to all be mutually engaged and invested in their success. For businesses that are temporarily using remote workers, this might be a hurdle, but for companies moving to permanently remote activities the lack of team culture could be disastrous.
As early as possible, you need to implement a regular series of team-building sessions. This could — and should — take various forms. Get together on a video call a couple of times a month and play games together or undertake some training. Simply putting some time aside for a social chat once a week also helps everyone to loosen up, and it strengthens employees’ bonds with one another. These sessions can also double up as part of your plan for ongoing employee wellness; minimizing their isolation, giving them a chance to take a break from their duties, and finding happiness in their time together.
However, part of having a strong team culture remotely is also empowering them to pull each other forward. As such, there also needs to be mutual team accountability and shared leadership. While you may be the manager of the team, over the long term you also want them to take ownership of their collaborative work and behavior. Don’t just delegate tasks to them all the time; provide each of them with opportunities to show initiative and to take leadership roles in projects. Encourage an open forum to discuss how the team can improve actions and approach challenges. Give them the space to be an effective, strong team.
Clarity is key when managing a permanently remote team. When operations are in-house there are opportunities for managers to see whether activities are being undertaken to their standards. However, this generally isn’t present in virtual circumstances. You have to be confident that all members of your team understand exactly what is expected of them — both in general and on individual tasks — so that misunderstandings don’t impact efficiency, productivity, or morale. As such, you need to eliminate ambiguity.
The employee handbook can be an important tool in this regard. You aren’t always going to be with them to talk about their behavior or to advise them about human resources processes and benefits. Therefore you need to take the time to build a thorough, clear document that is geared toward the needs of your remote team. You don’t have to start from scratch. Instead, utilize an employee handbook template and work through each section accordingly. Amend them to reflect the relevant remote approaches to their online conduct, disciplinary action, complaints procedures, and even performance reviews.
It can also be important to make sure that instructions on tasks aren’t only given verbally. Yes, it’s important to ensure remote workers take responsibility for their own work, but you can help them to avoid making errors by reducing potential instruction ambiguity. When tasks are discussed during meetings, provide the entire team with minutes that repeat and clarify those instructions. Utilize project management software to produce visual records of tasks, so that staff can clearly view what has to be done, understand the deadlines, and also see how it fits into the bigger picture of the project. Even actions agreed during one-to-one employee evaluations should be followed up with an emailed record and a process of the employee agreement.
Managing a permanently remote team can result in incredible benefits for the business, but there are also challenges. Make communications tools and protocols a priority, and take the time to ensure that your team remains strong in the long term. This, alongside operational clarity, can help make certain that you and your team get the most out of the move to remote working.