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Leading and adapting in challenging times: managing a newly remote team

The dynamics of a previously high performing team will shift in response to the recent working from home directive. As leaders we need to understand the factors that will impact even the most resilient and high performing colleagues.

It’s likely that high-performing employees may experience varying levels of performance and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially if they have limited or no experience of working from home before.

A lack of face-to-face interaction is a major challenge for both colleague and manager. Many colleagues struggle with reduced access to managerial support and communication. Employees can feel that remote managers are less responsive and aren’t supportive in helping get their work done. Equally, managers worry that individuals may not work as hard or as efficiently.

A major source of frustration for remote workers is the added effort and time needed to locate information or get ‘simple’ answers from colleagues or managers. It’s broader than task-related work though, as interpersonal challenges can emerge among colleagues working remotely. When office based, we can recognise when someone may be stressed but our acceptance of a harshly worded e-mail will be significantly reduced if we haven’t got that recognition of their emotional state. Remote colleagues will be much quicker to take offence or judge their colleagues’ professionalism.

The lack of social interaction is one of the main complaints about working remotely. Short-term, it’s believed extraverts may suffer more but over a longer period of time, any colleague will feel isolated, leading to challenges with connection to the team identity and sense of organisational belonging.

Even in normal circumstances, the work life balance can prove a challenge to remote work; managers should expect these distractions to be greater during this unplanned work-from-home transition. Many colleagues will be contending with less than ideal workspaces along with unexpected child care responsibilities.

So, what can managers do to support their colleagues and team through this challenging period?

Introduce a daily check in – protect time in your calendar to either call individuals on a 1:2:1 basis if your team members work independently, or a collective team call if they collaborate on a regular basis. Ensure they are regular and have a standard format, providing everyone with time to ask any questions and know that their concerns will be heard.

Utilise the communication channels available – it’s likely that everyone is experiencing heightened e-mail traffic from clients, so wherever possible use the technology that will promote an enhanced connection. Ideally video- based technology will give colleagues an opportunity to connect and read each other’s facial signals for how they may be feeling or thinking about a situation. It will feel a lot more personal to the individual and helps with any feelings of isolation they may have. Equally, tools with instant message facilities can be useful for a quick check-in and group chat.

Communicate expectations – recognise that you and other managers are also going through many of the same feelings that colleagues are. Give yourself a chance to reflect on how you’re working, and what will work best for both you and the team. Set up team video calls for times where you recognise it’s not as busy for you or other colleagues. Be practical and transparent, let your team know the best times to get hold of you and what your preferred method of communication would be if urgent. Text messaging seems to work well for these instances. The most important point is that all employees share the same set of expectations for communication.

Encourage ‘the fun’ social interaction – many colleagues will have had to make a rapid transition to remote working and so providing opportunities for colleagues to talk about non-work-related matters will help people feel connected. Whether it’s a lunch time virtual chat or giving space at the start of a team meeting to talk socially. Or if you want to get really creative, a care package for each team colleague that could be sent to them and opened all together on a call. If logistics allow it, a virtual pizza party could be explored or a form of pub quiz on a Friday afternoon/end of a busy week. Whilst these might feel forced, colleagues will recognise the thought and effort put in to arrange and will generate good will and a sense of belonging, needed now more than ever.

Acknowledge feelings and be present – emotions will be heightened at the moment so recognising and empathising with them will help colleagues feel supported and understood. Knowing the individuals in your team, some may normally hold back so proactively asking them how they’re feeling, or how working remotely is working for them, could be the prompt they’ve needed to reflect and share what’s really going on. Ensuring that you’re present and empathically listening by summarising and restating what you heard is invaluable for ensuring individuals feel you care and that they’re truly supported.

Your team will be looking to you for assurances on the situation and your use of affirmative language will provide a positive climate. Encouraging them to consider what strengths and experience they can draw on to support themselves and others will help frame their thinking on looking at positives and a can-do attitude. Also acknowledging their stress or anxiety in these difficult circumstances, and then reaffirming your confidence in them and the team, will help you all get through this together.

This is the second in a series of four articles around leading and adapting in challenging times.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

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