The rise in working from home has been a trend for some time. About 25 percent of the workforce in the United States works from home, while approximately 69 percent of companies offer a work-from-home option – an increase from 60 percent just three years ago. The spread of COVID-19, though, has exponentially increased the number of people doing their work virtually.
As a result, you may suddenly be managing a completely remote team. The good news is that managing a virtual team is a competency that more managers will need in the future. Current circumstances offer an opportunity to develop and hone these skills.
The best practices for top-notch team management in the virtual world are identical to those for top-notch management in the physical one. Only some means and methods change. The most important actions are: 1) engage regularly and consistently with your team, 2) set clear expectations, and 3) focus on goal achievement and accountability.
Engage Regularly and Consistently With Your Team
It’s all too common for new virtual workers to feel a bit lost and disengaged from their managers and team, particularly if they’re new to working remotely and especially if they were onboarded virtually. Even if they’re not new to the team, when the transition is sudden, they may not even be clear how basic procedures and policies are affected.
To top that off, the informal opportunities for physical access, such as running into you while getting coffee or in the hallway, no longer exist.
In both cases, you need to make sure employees are engaged and motivated. The solution is simple. Intentionally build in both formal and informal communication opportunities. Don’t leave engagement to chance.
Plan individual meetings to check in at a scheduled time and day, at least once every week. Make these more frequent if you sense that an employee needs more direction and accountability.
It’s also a good idea to schedule team meetings. The frequency here varies, though, depending on what role the team meeting fulfills. If your corporate culture is collaborative and team-based, and you had a standing Monday morning staff meeting before COVID-19, continue to have a Monday morning staff meeting.
If you didn’t usually have a staff meeting, consider establishing one to build camaraderie and to ensure that your employees are on the same page.
Plan informal engagement concretely. Exchanging non-work-related information is part of team-building, whether it’s the latest Netflix series or swapping at-home playlists. Consider opening a Slack channel that replaces the role of chat and banter in a physical office. Make space for social interaction where appropriate, for example the first few minutes of virtual team meetings could be devoted to checking in on weekend activities.
Virtual management pros recommend using multiple channels for communicating. E-mail is great for news, for instance; Zoom works well for staff and individual meetings; and Slack can be ideal for informal communication. Make it clear how your employees can contact you, and adhere to the availability parameters you’ve set.
Set Clear Expectations
Set clear expectations for every facet of office life with virtual workers. Remember, without explicit expectations, new virtual employees may be left adrift. If you want everyone to use a project management software for assignments or a digital calendar to show days off and vacation time, for example, tell them which one(s). Train and model using them for those that are new.
Set forth clear methods for document or data delivery, communicating with you and the team and, if appropriate, time sheets and other documentation.
If you expect your employees to dress as they would in the office during meetings, say so. Similarly, make explicit whether you expect a 9-to-5 standard schedule at home or if employees can set their own hours.
There are several good reasons to consider flexible schedules if you’ve never offered them before. First, autonomy is often a good motivator for at-home workers. Second, employees working at home due to COVID-19 may also have other responsibilities, such as dealing with at-home children, that make them appreciate flex hours. The same goes for dress codes, people many be overwhelmed by at-home duties and asking them to dress up to stay at home can cause frustration and stress. Foster loyalty by offering it.
Focus on Goal Achievement and Accountability
Once your team is communicating with you and each other, and they know what the expectations are, you can focus on goal achievement and accountability. Each employee’s goals need to be aligned with company and department goals.
Break the goals down into specific, measurable and time-based objectives. These objectives become the focus of discussion at team and individual meetings. Touch base explicitly with whether the achievement of objectives is on track. If it is, and of good quality, praise and reward your staff. If they’re encountering bottlenecks, trouble shoot together.
Measure goal achievement as you would in a physical office. If your company measures by deliverables, there’s no reason to change just because the team works remotely. Define how much time, roughly, a deliverable takes. Solicit feedback from the team if you need more information. If your metric is billable hours, consider the use of time tracking tools.
These cornerstones to management success will help you and your virtual team work optimally and with a minimum of stress and distraction, whether you will be working from home permanently or until the office opens post-COVID-19.
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