Leading Remote Teams in Crisis: What to Do & How?

Posted in Best Practice Learning & Development

Our recent research shows many managers are struggling to adapt to leading their team remotely.

Around 60% of managers believe their teams have been less productive working from home. And roughly the same number say they can’t get the most from their team without being physically present.

The good news is, these fears are typically unfounded. Nearly half of employees said they’re equally or more productive working remotely, despite challenges.

So, why the huge disconnect?

Most managers have abruptly transitioned from an in-office team to an entirely remote one, without any training on how to adapt their management styles to suit the new environment.

If this sounds like the managers in your organization, use these tips to help them continue to get the most from their teams.

person leaning against the couch and typing on their computer

Protect against burnout

Before COVID-19, burnout was already a Big Deal.

  • In 2018, Gallup said nearly a quarter of employees feel burned out very often or always. Nearly half feel burned out at least sometimes.

But now you can also add a generous portion of global pandemic anxiety and a good dollop of extra work-from-home pressure, and the situation’s even worse.

  • In the US, employees working from home are working three hours longer each day than before lockdown, new data shows. In France, Spain and the UK, people are working two hours longer each day.

Then sprinkle some good ol’ Zoom fatigue on top, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a stressed, burnt-out, anxious, depressed, sick, unmotivated team.

What can remote managers do? 

Work-life boundaries risk disintegrating completely as living spaces merge into work spaces. It’s crucial ‘always at home’ doesn’t mean ‘always at work’.

To stop that happening, encourage managers to set boundaries around when your team shouldn’t be working – for example, gently calling out employees who reply to emails in the early mornings, evenings and weekends.

Flexible working is fine; maybe they’re starting early so they can clock-off early. But make sure that trade-off is actually happening. And it’s important those arrangements are communicated across your team, or colleagues might feel misplaced peer pressure to work longer hours.

Managers need to be hyper-aware of the example they’re setting, and the impact of their routine on their team. As experienced remote leader Matthew Barby says:

“There are few things more anxiety-inducing for your team than waking up to 20 Slack messages and ten emails from you. I was guilty of this for a long time because I found [it] useful to go through some final emails and Slack messages before I went to sleep. […] The outcome for my team was that they felt like I was sending loads of urgent requests that people would wake up to every day.

To fix this, […] I simply scheduled all of the emails I was about to send to go out during my team’s working hours [and] saved Slack messages and sent them in the morning. This small change made a huge difference.”

It can also be helpful to define blocks where teams should be available for meetings and calls – like, 10am to 12pm and 2pm to 4pm. By communicating clear expectations of when you need people ‘on’, you give them permission to switch off too.

And don’t over-rely on video meetings. The National Geographic say “virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain” – sometimes a phone call is just fine.


Raise the communication stakes  

Our research shows communication has been the number one struggle between managers and their teams right now. That’s little surprise.

Working from home, the whole way your team interacts has changed. Scheduling conversations is harder. There’s a lot more scope for miscommunication because non-verbal cues are harder to read, even using Zoom. Expectations get lost in translation. Technical problems cause disruption and delays.

But effective communication is crucial. Without it, your team’s productivity will decline, tempers will flare, and team engagement will suffer. And soon, flow becomes friction. And you don’t have a high-performing, happy team anymore.

(Deep-dive into fixing remote communication hurdles here.)

What can remote managers do? 

Make sure your managers are aware that they need to invest more time and energy into communication when their team is working from home.

Managers need to have regular one-to-ones with their team. Weekly’s good – but remote leadership expert Dan Pontefract even recommends short, ten-minute huddles to start each day, to help build trust by proving that the manager is there for their team.

But this tweet makes a great point. With everything that’s going on right now, if you message someone asking to chat without telling them why, they might panic that they’re about to lose their job. That’s not great for mental wellbeing or productivity.

We need to rethink our language.

So instead of “Hey – can we talk when you’re free?”, try “Hey – when are you free to talk about this slide deck?” or “Hey – nothing specific, but I want to catch-up sometime this week and see how everything’s going. When works?“.

Even better, schedule recurring slots so everyone knows what’s coming.

It’s a question of manager accessibility. Our research revealed a worrying issue, that employees felt working remotely meant their managers were too busy and difficult to get hold of.

It’s super important managers make themselves accessible. Encourage them to share their calendar, for example. And reply to work-hours Slacks, emails or texts promptly.

And make sure teams always know who they can contact for immediate help, if that’s not always you. That’s especially relevant if you’ve got team members working in different time zones.

For HR, it’s important our managers understand why they need to communicate. It’s not enough to log hours talking to your team. Make those conversations count! 

This TED talk from Celeste Headlee is a great watch (Seriously, go watch/read the transcript and share with your company’s management team. It’s a good ‘un.).

She shares ten tactics for holding better conversations, like being present without multi-tasking (especially hard remotely; it’s all too easy to check emails or browse Twitter), true listening and asking open-ended questions.

Dan Pontefract also echoes the open question sentiment, saying a simple ‘How can I help you?’ are some of the most powerful words in a remote manager’s arsenal.


Act as an interpersonal enabler

Managers aren’t just responsible for one-to-one relationships with their direct reports. They’re also responsible for their direct reports relationships with each another. Nothing can destroy team morale and productivity faster than interpersonal conflicts.

And remote working can be a breeding ground for interpersonal conflict – especially in the current situation, when anxieties are running high. Misunderstandings can happen easily. Tempers are closer to the surface than usual. Curt replies can quickly spiral into perceived slights and harsh words.

The lack of connection that can easily come with remote working often adds fuel to the fire. A happy, connected team are more likely to take professional disagreements in their stride, while a disconnected team are quicker to take personal offence.

The problem is, seemingly small moments of tension amongst team members can spiral, damaging motivation, productivity and morale. 

In this TED talk leadership researcher Christine Porath talks about the business impact of incivility. She found, when employees faced uncivil behaviour from colleagues:

  • 66% made less effort at work
  • 80% lost time worrying about what had happened
  • 12% left their job altogether

Cisco used her findings to estimate business incivility was costing them $12M USD each year.

What can remote managers do? 

Managing workplace conflict is especially difficult when your team’s working remotely.

Managers need a clear process. Knowing there’s a structured process for handling conflict helps calm passions, reassuring everyone involved they’ll have a fair chance to be heard.

Workplace disagreements are totally normal – it’s when they’re bottled-up they brew into problems. But managers can bring the conflict into the open, by encouraging their team to confide in them about any grievances.

Educate your managers to watch for the signs and ask team members directly. Has Lucy gone unusually quiet on a call? Has Jack started replying to Slack messages with one-word answers?

That’s one reason frequent, informal conversations are so important – so you can catch potential issues before they escalate.

And why trust is *so* important for remote managers, to create a culture of openness and honesty. Great managers build trust by always sticking to their word; being present; being honest; being empathetic and sensitive; and asking for feedback (and acting on it!)

As Dan Pontefract says

“You can’t freak out as a leader when things go sideways – they will. What you need to employ is empathy, patience, kindness, consideration. If you don’t, [your team] are going to freak out. That threatens engagement; they won’t get their deliverables done; they’ll panic”

Managing remotely, we also need to work especially hard to keep teams connected. Encourage small talk. The Remote Leadership Institute talk about creating a ‘virtual water cooler’ with tactics like the “Inside Scoop’ – getting every team member to share something personal about themselves at the start of calls.

That can be as simple as starting your team call with ‘Hey guys, how was everyone’s weekend. Betty – didn’t you head to the beach, how was that? And James – how was your family meal?’. Small actions like that can make a big difference to how connected and valued your team feel.

If your managers have been used to managing in the office, the sudden switch to remote working can feel uncomfortable and disjointed. Teams are feeling uncomfortable and disjointed too though – and they’re looking to their managers for support. Don’t let your managers get inside their own heads. Just get them to follow these tips, be empathetic, sensitive and willing to learn, and remind them you’re in their corner and you know they’re more than capable of being a fantastic remote leader. 

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