New world of work

How to manage remote teams: Boosting engagement and morale for remote teams during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond

by Hudson

remote-working

Times are turbulent. With teams working from home, team leaders have had to deal with the sudden and unforeseen need to manage through this crisis. They must deal not only with business as usual—which can be unpredictable anyway—but with the added layers of remote work, waning morale as worry and anxiety about the future creeps in, and drop-off in engagement as people become isolated in work-from-home silos. 

As a manager, it’s your job to keep the engine running, and your change management skills are going to be tested as you keep your team on task, feeling valued and communicating effectively. Here are some tips on how to make sure engagement remains high during this time:

Communication

When working with a remote team, you need an agreed-upon and understood set of tools (such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts or other instant message and video platforms) to replicate easy in-office communication. As the leader, you also to set the culture of how and when to use those tools. Lead by example:

  • Ask quick questions via instant messaging rather than email to encourage agile responses and to reduce the amount of emails your team is receiving.
  • Hold regular team meetings and one-to-ones via video call and ensure that everyone gets a chance to share. You may want to increase scheduled meetings to make up for the informal chats that inevitably happen onsite.
  • Encourage your team to call you if they need to have a conversation about a task, time management, prioritisation or for feedback.
Be aware you might also have to deal with management across generations: some members of your team may be comfortable already with instant messaging and video calling tools while others may be hesitant: ensure that those people have access to IT support or training as needed.
 

Finally, make sure you encourage casual communication, whether it be checking in daily via instant message or holding a ‘coffee break’ via video conference. In-office communication isn’t all about work, and according to Gallup, having friends in the office is correlated with effort, productivity and engagement. Your people will appreciate the effort to check in on their well-being, as it fosters a sense of solidarity

Collaboration

You may be concerned about how your team will capture the magic of being in the room together when planning or problem-solving. Once again, finding the right tech tool will be your best bet. For example, project management and tracking tools (Trello, Asana), screen-sharing tools (available via many video conferencing apps), and a well-ordered shared drive for storing documents. Ensuring that everyone knows the process is just as important. With each tool, make sure that all team members understand how and why it’s used. 

Morale

While some managers may fear that productivity decreases for at-home work, studies show that the opposite is true, and people often work longer hours when working from home. However, longer hours can in turn contribute to a drop in morale, efficiency and focus. To counteract these effects, leaders should:

  • Demonstrate good work-life balance by ensuring all but the most urgent communication happens during standard office hours (avoid assuming that people have more time for work because they’re not commuting)
  • Make things as easy as possible, tech-wise, whether that’s getting the right equipment, getting IT support or making training available
  • Invest in some remote team-building activities like games, quizzes and fitness challenges to boost people’s positivity and connection.
  • Try to accommodate flexible work if members of your team have caring responsibilities, particularly as child and elder care may be more tricky at the moment.

Remember that you’re representing your whole organisation, so being as responsive and understanding to your team’s needs right now will make them feel valued by their workplace.

Motivation 

If you’re struggling with how to engage remote teams, remember that what motivates your people may shift as other demands and stresses compete for priority. 

So, ensure they stay engaged, make sure everyone understands their value to the organisation. When people are feeling potentially isolated, it’s more important than ever to let them know how the work they’re doing is building towards the larger goals of the organisation and contributing to its values. 

  • Communicate your team’s impact more regularly than usual so they can stay motivated.
  • Give credit, praise and acknowledge that the team is doing good work through a difficult period.
  • Encourage mingling between team members or between other departments, both in formal meetings and unofficial chats, to break down silos.

Returning to normal

As we slowly return to the office, teams might face staggered shifts in the office, or part of the team (for example those in at-risk categories) continuing to work from home. Facebook has told employees that they can work from home until the end of the year while Twitter has said employees could work from home indefinitely, the culture towards remote work has changed dramatically in the last few months. 
In fact, Gartner has found that 75% of CFOs are thinking of moving at least 5% of their on-site workforce to permanent remote positions.  Thus, managers will do well to embrace their newfound remote workforce management skills as they may need to rely on it indefinitely.  As we edge closer to the “new norm,” leaders will also have to promote continuity between remote and on-site team members, and to ensure that those who are still working from home aren’t out of the loop, which could lead to a further drop in morale.

Managing remotely is a new skill for many, and it’s been made especially tough while the world moves through this period of crisis. However, by paying attention to the needs of your team, you can effectively support them to continue to be productive, and also to ensure high-level engagement that translates to strong retention rates.