Leading from the home office: managing remote teams now, and post Covid19


It’s been about six weeks since the Federal Government urged businesses to put in place arrangements so that people could work from home to slow the spread of Covid-19 across the country. Some businesses handled this with ease, for others it was a scramble, and now, as the dust starts to settle, we are starting to see the real impact of people working from home.

By Michael Mekhitarian.

Of course, technology has been disrupting traditional ways of doing business for the past couple of decades. Flexible, contracted and part-time work-from-home arrangements are not new, nor are they uncommon. But managing a handful of employees who work this way is very different from managing an entire workforce, particularly when some employees have never worked remotely before.

Covid-19 has certainly been a real test – of systems, processes and technology.

It has also been a test for people, presenting a range of new issues around ‘human capital’, the most critical of which is how to manage in a virtual environment so that employees continue to feel motivated and included – both which are vital to their engagement, contribution and sense of self satisfaction.

Livin' the dream


Working this way could very well become the ‘new normal.’ Optus recently announced that going forward, the large majority of its workforce will work from home, Telstra is currently in the process of adding a couple of thousand jobs to its Australian workforce, the bulk of which will also work-at-home jobs. The Justice system – previously wholly reliant on face-to-face contact, is finding new ways to operate. Many thousands of small businesses are considering what their own arrangements will be when the lockdowns ease.

 

And, to be fair, thousands of people will be very happy to permanently embrace the idea of ditching the long, stressful commute and work from the spare bedroom down the hallway in their sports shorts.

Managing teams remotely


But how do we get it right? So that productivity remains intact, and people still feel a sense of ‘belonging’ in the workplace?

Many studies over the years have come to the conclusion that employees can work as effectively from home as they can in the office. This is good news, particularly as Australia emerges from Covid-19 and businesses seek to boost productivity (and profit) as quickly as possible.

But as far as the research goes, ensuring this outcome tends to be contingent on four important factors.

Four factors for remote working success


  1. Communication: Set up and encourage two-way communication, preferably with visuals, like Zoom and GoToMeeting, because being able to actually ‘see’ others goes a long way towards fostering both team spirit and accountability. Having numerous opportunities to communicate with team mates is vital.
  2. Providing structure and routine: Quick daily morning ‘check-ins’ and regular scheduled meetings help people to manage their time and workload. Home has a lot of distractions and temptations too – Netflix, for example. Structure and routines keep people focused.
  3. Facilitating ‘social interaction’. General chit chat and banter should not be underestimated as a team building tool. A lot of people are not simply colleagues, they’re also friends, and they need opportunities to connect and converse in ways that are not strictly work-related, without distracting others. Some workplaces have virtual ‘coffee get-to-gethers’, Friday drinks, online workouts …. Others have a simple message board where the frivolous stuff can be posted. Another idea is to make space in regular meeting slots, either before or afterwards, so people can have a moment or two to muck around. What you decide needs to reflect your traditional workplace culture, so people don’t feel awkward participating.
  4. Information-sharing. This is paramount to keeping the wheels from falling off, and it is also where cloud systems really come into their own when they’re set up properly and managed well. Remember, the former ability to ask a colleague a quick question at the watercooler or in the hallway is now replaced by an email, or a phone call or a text, or will need to wait until the next team meeting. This can cause delays and is often reported as one of the greatest frustrations by teams working remotely. Support your people with good systems that provide easy-to-access to the files and data they need.

Introverts versus extroverts


Humans are social creatures, and some people thrive in the ‘community’ of the office and may not be coping so well in isolation. Others – (usually the most introverted employees)  find working away from the ‘hustle and bustle’ makes it easier to concentrate and get things done. Much depends on the nature of the employee and their role within the team.

Leadership is key


But right now, people are also fragile, and a little uncertain about the future. These are, as the well-worn phrase goes, ‘unprecedented circumstances’ and it will take time for people to really settle into new arrangements.

Right now many parents are under the added pressure of having to supervise school work in the home environment, and have children at home during the day. This will ease as time goes on, but as we adapt, employee mental wellbeing needs to be a priority.

 

Leading through change


The greatest challenge for leaders is re-adjusting their own style to a virtual environment. Certainly, leaders will feel the strain of ‘having to be available all the time’ initially, but as time goes on this stress will subside. Setting clear boundaries as well as honouring their own personal needs and commitments is a must to avoid burnout.

 

In a virtual environment, the principles of good leadership remain, but at this point in time leaders must acknowledge that they are leading through a time of significant upheaval and change. This requires empathy, and the ability to provide a sense of stability at a time when there is so much unpredictability.