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Managing remote teams: How to effectively manage remote employees

What is managing remote teams?

If we’d asked this question before March 2020, the answers would have been very different to now, when most organisations have had a crash course in managing employees working from home.

I’ve been a social scientist looking at this area for almost 15 years, and it has been fascinating to see how managers, leaders and organisations adapted during lockdown. There were a lot of assumptions that people would have the equipment, the technology to speak and present themselves online. And also the confidence – it’s a bit more performative than meeting people face-to-face, so you need that confidence.

Managing remote teams has challenges, often around these issues. But fundamentally, it’s simple: it’s being responsible for people’s performance and well-being when you’re not physically able to work with them and are only connected virtually.

Effective remote working

People sometimes ask: how can remote working be effective? Can a team leader effectively manage remote employees?

Of course! Any work can be effective if it’s done effectively. However, remote working lends itself much more to some industries than others: if we establish remote working there’s got to be a way to do it well. So you’re not going to be managing key workers that way, and technology is important.

Talking to participants on one of our sessions, they made the point that it’s not a given that every employee has got technology. That investment will become a necessity as we look at changing our working practices after the immediate crisis is over. Some of what started in the spring of 2020 will stay because of cost savings and new realisations, as organisations work out what was never needed to be done. There will be lessons learned and observant managers will have taken note. For instance, there may not need to be so many meeting rooms as before in future, because if they are all occupied the meeting can still happen online.

How do you manage a team remotely?

I would say the basics are not that different. The core of it is the same, but the means to get the result might be different. You have to be understanding, open, and develop trust in your employees. You have to be able to manage a task focus whilst retaining a people focus, and you’ve got to do that all the time. And there might be slightly different ways of communicating. You can’t do that by casually popping over in the office or bumping into each other in the corridor.

And yet many managers and leaders have found it incredibly difficult to adapt to remote working during lockdown. People have been trying to understand what they find difficult but to even verbalise the problem takes time. They didn’t know why but everything was difficult. They say: “I’ve never been so directive, or task prescriptive, or micromanaging.”

People have been changing their management style on the spot and later going back to reflect. At Roffey Park we can help our clients to pause and discuss what’s happening: before you can improve things you need to know what you’re currently doing. Going back to reflect is really important.

Tactics for managing a team remotely

At Roffey Park, we have had many conversations with people who have had to make remote management work, and helped them to make sense of what has happened during lockdown.

Can a team leader effectively manage remote employees? These are some of the insights I have gleaned into what works for managers at all levels.

Pause for some scenario planning

In lockdown, everything feels rushed because of the depth of the crisis and the task orientation of survival. It was hard for managers to stop and pause but it’s important. You are new to virtual management – what do you need to think about? People say to me “I lost sight of the bigger picture – I don’t know what the picture is because of the uncertainty.” Being able to think of the future, even if it is uncertain, and having some idea of scenarios is useful. Remember, they are not predictions and they should not be.  We can think of several scenarios and what we might do if they happened. You would normally be planning so don’t be frightened of not knowing what is ahead: in normal times it’s just an illusion that we know what’s ahead of us – we never do.

From that point of view, it is  not that different now – it’s just very clear we don’t know what’s happening in 3 or 4 months time.  You were always just doing your best estimation and you still have to do that in order to move forward.

You have got the skills

But they might be different skills to those you usually use.

You are not becoming a new person, you are just going to pull out some things that you potentially have not needed before. For instance, you might need to be more trusting – not that you have not been before – but you might have to trust that people are doing their work without seeing them every single day.

You do not have to be a technological expert

Many excellent managers don’t think they are technologically skilled.  – It was not a requirement for them and they didn’t think they were bad at their job because they couldn’t use Zoom. You do have to learn basics in order to facilitate communication with your staff, but you don’t have to be an expert. You are leading a team in your speciality, not in communicating virtually. People have this sense of perfectionism. As long as you can figure out the basics you can get better. You don’t have to be and you cannot be an expert in everything.

Be open to communication

Remote working during lockdown has meant we could see into people’s homes and perhaps that made managers more aware of issues like childcare. But we must not forget that what we see now often affected people’s performance in the workplace before the lockdown too. We also need to remember that life is different for all our employees with different challenges and we have to give people space to share their difficulty. It comes down to trust, as my colleague Janice has written – just because somebody isn’t online at a particular moment doesn’t mean something isn’t going to be done.  Make sure there is communication, make yourself available for these conversations and you can avoid blocks to achieving tasks.

Finally, you don’t always have to see people when communicating. It doesn’t always have to be Zoom, Teams and Skype – in the past you’d have used email or a phone call, and wouldn’t always have to see others’ faces, so why now?

Find time to listen

This is about how you are. You make yourself available and accessible as a leader and manager by your behaviour and your way of communication. To me that is no different in the workplace or when managing a remote team. You need to have empathy, find time to listen and actually hear what they have got to say. People pick up on that if it’s there and also if it is not.

As a manager, if you are reflective people respond to that. It’s not going to be that different whether you communicate online, face-to-face or in writing.

Micromanaging may not be a negative thing

In the lockdown, people do not always micromanage  because of the virtuality of the situation, but because of the intensity of the situation and the crisis. In crisis situation, things often has to be done very quickly for the business to survive and so the deadlines can be much stricter. The new milestones mean that managers needed to micromanage a little bit more and as people have felt very isolated it’s not necessarily a negative thing, although in some professions it would have been in the past.

Consider wellbeing when managing performance

If anything, people working remotely are doing more rather than less and working excessive hours. You need to monitor performance. but remember that for many the natural reaction is to work and contribute and work longer hours. Managers need to think: is their staff keeping well, healthy and balanced? If you manage the wellbeing aspect, you will have a productive workforce.

If you suspect someone is not working efficiently, there is often a complex combination of  reasons why not. If you are an open and empathetic person you will do this in a very human way by asking questions. What is blocking you? There could be a range of reasons such as mental health issues, the situation at home or a lack of motivation? Once identified what is it that is blcking them, then there is time to ask: Is there anything you can do to help?

Things shouldn’t even get this far, because if you are having a regular conversations with your staff about how things are going, if there is a problem, it’s important to address this before it gets worse.Clarity and transparency have always been important and are now more than ever.

Make sure everyone can speak in meetings

All levels of inequality get highlighted in a crisis, ranging from the access to good quality technology to confidence to speak out in virtual meetings.  For instance people who are less senior or those more introverted might  not be keen on the performative aspect of virtual participation and may not volunteer to speak in online meetings. You need to be aware of that. Do not  necessarily put them on the spot – there may be good reasons why they aren’t contributing – but make space for them in some way at some time without making it obvious. With good managers it’s always about observation: you may be observing less on screen but it is still important to do it.  There is human interaction going on there so open your eyes and open your ears and make sense of it – and then check back to make make sure you understood correctly what is happening. Don’t just assume. Just because somebody’s got a nice, harmonious looking background  behind them, it doesn’t mean you should make assumptions about what that person can or can’t do. Check with them.

How else can we manage remote employees better?

Remote working looks likely to be a feature of our working lives to some degree from now on.

To make that transition work, it’s important for us to be the best managers we can be. We have moved to support that at Roffey Park, creating online content on both general and remote management issues such as important skills from our earliest weeks in the jobhow to be an adaptive leader, considering how OD can work with technology and supporting your team to collaborate with each other.

We are also supporting managers and leaders finding their way through this new world, developing capability to lead, manage and adapt remotely, developing resilience, offering virtual coaching, developing skills and improving organisational processes. Fascinating conversations and incredibly valuable work are happening as we all move to a new way of working.

Dr Katarina Zajacova is a research and teaching fellow at Roffey Park, which she joined in 2020 after 13 years at the University of Surrey, most recently as Senior Professional Training Tutor.

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