When I agreed to write about this topic, I envisioned a “top 10 tips and tricks” style post about the things I’ve learned since I started leading a team that was working remotely before COVID-19 turned it into the cool thing to do. But it turns out that managing a remote team isn’t really about tips and tricks at all. Sure, things like turning the camera on to actually have a face-to-face conversation do help but it’s not what differentiates a successful remote team/leader from an unsuccessful one. The real tip is far simpler and also far more complicated. It’s about taking a leap of faith that might make you VERY uncomfortable. And the trick is that you should do it anyway.
My large department (the third largest here) has 47 employees, including a mix of hourly and salaried staff. We are the only department at Colorado Access that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’ve worked remotely for four years. I was lucky enough to join this incredible team in March 2018; managing remote staff was brand new to me at the time. And there’s been a lot that we’ve all learned together. Google “supervising remote staff” and feel free to try any of the tips and tricks people list in some of those articles.
But I promise you, none of them will work if you’re missing this one thing – the one trick that may not come naturally to you. The one tip that almost all of these articles will leave out (or even try to convince you can’t be done).
You absolutely, positively MUST trust your employees.
That’s it. That’s the answer. And it may sound simple. Some of you may even think you trust your employees. But how did you react when your team first started working remotely when COVID-19 hit?
- Were you worried about whether or not people were actually working?
- Did you watch their Skype/Teams/Slack icon like a hawk to see if they were active versus away?
- Did you think about implementing some kind of rigid parameters around how quickly someone needs to do things like respond to emails or IMs?
- Were you making phone calls as soon as someone moves into “away” status, saying things like “well, I just wanted to check in, I didn’t see you online…”
- Are you looking at various tech solutions to monitor your staff’s computer activity while working remotely?
If you answered yes to any of the above, it’s time to revisit how much you actually trust your employees. Did you have the same concerns when they were in the office, or did these suddenly show up when everyone went remote?
No one turns into a slacker overnight just because they are now working from home. If your employee had a good work ethic when they were in the office, that will generally carry over to the remote setting. In fact, most people are MORE productive at home then they are at the office because there are fewer interruptions. There will always be people who slack off – but these are also the same people who were watching Netflix or scrolling through Twitter all day in the office at their desk behind your back. If you didn’t trust them working in the office, you probably have good reason not to trust them working remotely. But don’t punish your good employees by presuming that they will lose all of their work ethic just because they now work remotely.
Resist the urge to monitor when someone is active online versus away. Resist the urge to metaphorically strap someone to their desk. Whether we’re in the office or at home, we all have different hours and styles of productivity – and we all know how to “look busy” when we really aren’t. Whenever you can, focus on the output of someone’s work rather than the literal hours they clock or whether they took too long to answer an instant message or an email. And while this can be easier for a salaried employee, I’d argue that the same is true for an hourly employee with a timesheet.
But Lindsay, how do I make sure the work is still getting done?
Yes, the work needs to get done. Reports need to be written, calls need to be answered, tasks need to be completed. But when an employee feels respected, valued, and trusted by their employer, they are more likely to give you a higher quality of work, in addition to a higher quantity of work.
Be very clear with your expectations for someone’s daily work. For some teams, that might be lots of very clear deadlines. For other teams, it could be expectations for tasks to be completed on a daily basis. Maybe it’s covering the phones for a designated portion of the day and completing certain tasks the rest of the day. I have a hundred different ways to make sure my staff are producing quality work and none of them involve checking to see when they are active on Teams.
When we were all in the office, everyone had built in breathing time, even outside of any formal lunches or break time. You chatted on the way back from the restroom or from filling up your water bottle. Your leaned over the cubicle and chatted with a teammate in between phone calls. You chatted in the break room while waiting for a new pot of coffee to brew. We don’t have that right now – make it OK for someone to walk away from the computer for five minutes to let the dog out or to throw a load of laundry in the wash. There’s a good chance that with COVID-19, your employees may also be juggling their children doing remote learning for school or taking care of an aging parent as well. Give employees space to do things like call in a prescription for a relative or help their kiddo get connected to their Zoom meeting with their teacher.
Get creative. The rules and the norms have literally been thrown out the window. The way you’ve always done it is no longer applicable. Try something new. Ask your team for ideas and input too. Test things out, make sure everyone is clear that things are on a trial basis and get lots of feedback along the way. Set up clear points by which you’ll evaluate whether or not something is working that goes beyond your gut feeling (let’s be real, there’s a lot of research that shows our work-related gut feelings aren’t very reliable).
Managing a remote team can be a lot of fun – I think it’s a more personal way to connect with my team. I get to see inside of their home, meet their pets and sometimes their adorable kiddos. We goof off with funny virtual backgrounds and incorporate polls about our favorite snacks. The average tenure on my team is more than five years and the biggest reason for that is the work-life harmony that remote work can grant us – if it’s done right. My team regularly exceeds my expectations without me watching their every move.
But managing a remote team can have its challenges. And managing a remote team in a pandemic can have even more challenges. But if you do nothing else, trust your people. Remember why you hired them, and trust them until they give you a reason not to.