In the last two months, businesses have had to adapt to an unprecedented way of working in a very short timeframe.
We’ve gone from full time office work, with the occasional day from home. To 100% of the workforce working remotely.
For some companies, this may not have been such a big leap. Most major consulting firms for example have been used to virtual meetings with employees dialling in from different regional offices and home, and as such their IT systems required only minor changes for the lockdown. Other types of company have found the change more difficult, their systems may have been designed for 5% of their staff to work from home and can fall over when everyone logs on.
For some, digitalisation has been on the agenda for a long time. For others, it was never in the plan; and it has been a bit of a learning curve.
But it’s a good learning curve. This has forced companies to evaluate how home working and flexible options are not only possible, but potentially better for business. And it is hard to see how working life for many people will ever return completely to being 100% office based again.
UK employees have the right to request remote working once they have been employed for at least 6 months, and employers have had the right to turn this down if it costs too much or would have a negative impact on performance. During lockdown employees have the perfect opportunity to prove it won’t have a negative impact on their performance, which will likely lead to more remote working requests being approved on an ongoing basis. Leaders will need to adapt now and in the long-term to this shift.
That being said, leading a team remotely poses its own set of challenges, especially when you are used to face-to-face interaction.
Here are our tips to ensure your team feels supported, productive, and effective. And not to mention, to help your teams keep their sanity when working in isolation.
1. Adapt communication plans
If you’ve gone from being in the same room as your teams, to suddenly only interacting with them on a screen, then you need to overhaul your approach to communicating.
It is an opportunity to take a look at your current processes and see what does and doesn’t work now.
Assuming that all meetings must now be held by video call isn’t necessarily best practice. You need to adapt to individual preferences, and this applies to employees and clients. Sometimes a roundup email is received better or a phone call is favoured over a video.
Communication also needs to include regular check ins to make sure that everyone in the team is coping with the new systems. Visual clues that someone is struggling with a situation won’t be as obvious from a video call, so you need to check in more frequently and ask the right questions.
How are you getting on? Is there anything you need from me? What can we be doing better?
Everyone is going to deal with the changes in different ways – the mental health and well-being of your employees is crucial, it’s not just whether they are getting work done.
This is also particularly relevant for companies who still have some employees on site. Where are they getting their information from now if half of the communication chain is furloughed or working from home. Make sure that they are given guidance on what is going on and where to access information from.
2. Re-evaluate roles
If you think that some employees are struggling more than others with remote working, have an open and honest discussion with them about what they are enjoying and what is more challenging.
Tasks and responsibilities can be moved between the team based on people’s strengths and weaknesses. Someone who is living alone or has a designated home office may feel more comfortable making business development calls or holding client meetings. Whereas others who previously excelled at this may feel uncomfortable if they are co-working with family and would prefer to do more of the back-end jobs.
Obviously not all roles can be re-assigned but evaluating new strengths and weaknesses may highlight some easy fixes to improve productivity.
Not only this but trusting your team with new roles and placing them where they can succeed will motivate them to develop.
3. Be honest about the big picture
It can be easy to focus on the day to day operations; just get through the job in hand and ignore the big picture.
But for a lot of people, their main concerns right now will be on the future of the company and their jobs.
You need to be honest about where business is and clarify a new strategy about how to get to where you want to be. This may mean blocking out time in your diary to really look at business strategy and to discuss what opportunities can come out of this.
Make sure fundamental objectives aren’t lost or forgotten because the new priority is to figure out how to manage the new way of working.
4. Stay connected
Teams that overcome difficult experiences together, frequently come out the other side stronger.
But this won’t be the case if you let your team work as separate entities that never interact. Make sure you still celebrate successes, talk about your daily lives, socialise about things other than just work.
The desire to feel connected to others is a basic human need, and many employees rely on this for mental health and well-being. Carve out times in the day for you and your teams to just chat and catch up; 5 minutes before the morning meeting, an hour on a Friday afternoon, have coffee rooms where people can dip in and out of a zoom call.
This is also crucial for any members of the team that you may have furloughed. When they return to the team, they still need to be a part of it. They may not be able to join in with meetings, but shared WhatsApp groups or pub quizzes are great ways to keep them in the loop.
Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” and if anyone knew about making technology work for you, it was him!
Being a great virtual leader is going to be a big change for a lot of people, but it is also a great opportunity to determine best practices now, so that flexible working can open more doors for you when life eventually gets back to normal.