Do you manage a remote or hybrid team? If yes, do you:
- Worry how engaged your team members are
- Find it challenging to provide timely coaching and feedback
- Wish that things got done faster
- Wonder what some team members are working on all day
- Struggle with exhausting, low energy Zoom meetings
If you answer Yes to any of these questions then you are in great company. With the sudden rise in remote work, the looming question for most organizations is how to effectively manage their newly minted remote teams.
Many of the management tricks and best practices from the pre-pandemic era do not apply to remote work. As a manager, you can no longer:
- Walk over to someone for a quick discussion
- Lean over and help onboard the newest member on your team
- Huddle in a room with a whiteboard to brainstorm solutions to a problem
- Sit with your team over lunch and build chemistry
- Celebrate wins together in a team outing
Remote teams have made it much harder to be an effective manager. Everything you need to do as a manager - hiring new employees, coaching your team, driving alignment, building cohesion, delivering results - is challenging in a virtual setup. This arises from factors such as limited face to face supervision, lack of information and fewer opportunities for relationship building. Even top CEOs have shared their struggles with the rise in remote work:
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, said “I mean most of us learn by an apprenticeship system, by seeing mistakes, going [on] trips, how to handle a client, how do you handle the problem. It’s hard to inculcate culture and character and all those things. It’s very hard to build and develop a deeper relationship on Zoom.”
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said “My gut says that, for us, it's still very important to physically be in touch with one another because collaboration isn't always a planned activity.”
However, all the indicators seem to suggest that remote work is here to stay. Per a Gallup poll, over two thirds of white collar employees in the US currently work from home on a full time or part time basis. And 91% of employees want to retain the ability to work from home post pandemic. There are compelling reasons for this - employee flexibility, ability to tap into larger talent pools and cost benefits.
The silver lining
Faced with the situation, companies have been actively experimenting with new ways to manage remote teams. Much thinking and research has gone into this subject. In an email sent to all Googlers in Dec 2020, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote “The good news is that over the last nine months we’ve learned how to work better virtually. We’ve adapted. We’ve kept innovating”.
At Clockwork, we operate as a fully remote team. We obsess over team productivity and cohesion and so we spent a crazy amount of time researching and trying out various tricks to work more effectively in a remote setup. Here are some of our recommendations for managers of remote teams, based on our collective experience and research on this topic:
Continuously emphasize the big picture
Employee engagement is one of the biggest challenges with remote work. A vibrant office space can be a great retention tool - you get to hang out with your teammates every day, you enjoy a variety of perks and you are surrounded by all kinds of branding and memorabilia to remind you how wonderful your company is. All of this is lost when you are working at home. Employees can easily feel disconnected from the company at large and start looking for other opportunities in pursuit of both career growth or deeper purpose. As a manager, you must counter this by using every opportunity you can to reiterate the company’s mission and to maintain an ongoing conversation on the employee’s career and personal growth. It goes without saying - don’t skip your 1:1s!
Focus on outcomes, not activity
Managing activity is extremely difficult in a remote setting. You can’t really look over the shoulder of your team member to see what they are doing. There is a silver lining to this. Goodbye micromanagement! Focus on results and deliverables instead of worrying about how team members spend their time and organize their day. In a remote setup, it is critical to set very clear goals for your team. You have fewer opportunities to oversee work and intervene on the fly. Hence upfront communication is key. At Clockwork, we organize ourselves around two week sprints with well defined deliverables for each team member. We then use a combination of Jira and our very own Clockwork Slack app to track action items so that nothing slips through the cracks. To learn more about how you can use Clockwork to manage actions and get things done, check out our blog post on this subject.
Establish communication protocols
Being remote means you have fewer informal chats that lead to spontaneous information exchange. Hence managers need to be very deliberate about designing and then sticking with team communication protocols. Develop a clear communication practice for each of the following:
- How and what frequency is information shared within the team
- How does the team communicate outwards with other departments
- How do you track progress against deliverables
- How do you escalate issues when something goes wrong
- What are the expectations for response time during core working hours and after hours
Cultivate team rituals
While you can no longer spontaneously step out of the office with your team for lunch or coffee, you still need some informal team rituals that help bring the team closer and strengthen relationships. Make an effort to discover and cultivate your team rituals. At Clockwork, we love getting together on a Friday afternoon to play board games online (This one is our favorite!). Other teams might prefer virtual happy hours or trivia quizzes. You might initially find these virtual events somewhat awkward. The important thing is to keep iterating until you eventually discover something that fits well with your team chemistry.
Rethink your meetings
No one loves remote meetings. Sitting in front of a computer screen, staring at a grid of faces on the screen is not ‘remotely’ (pun intended) as engaging as real life interactions. Unfortunately, business meetings aren’t going away any time soon. You can actually make remote meetings a lot more productive through a combination of better preparation, proper follow through and good meeting etiquette. At Clockwork, we have built a meeting management solution right into Slack that helps you run remote meetings like a pro - with agendas, meeting notes and actions. To learn more about how you can run efficient remote meetings with Clockwork, check out our blog post on this subject.
Conduct daily check ins
Since you can no longer see your colleagues in person on a daily basis, the next best thing is a quick daily check in for your team. This could be a formal morning standup where everyone shares updates on what they are working on. Or it could be just a 10 min virtual coffee break in the afternoon. It is important for everyone on the team to speak up at these standups. Resist the temptation to skip or cancel these daily check-ins even if you feel like you don't have much to discuss. At Clockwork, our daily standups are sacred. It is the one consistent forum where we get to see each other everyday and it has been key to building a sense of shared purpose and togetherness.
Be flexible and supportive
In a physical office, the unstated assumption is that once you arrive at work, you are expected to be fully available and present. This is unfortunately not true when it comes to working from home. The lines between work and personal life get blurred at home. Some team members might have kids yelling in the background, interrupting your Zoom calls. Others might be dealing with a difficult personal situation. Not everyone in a remote team might be on the same time zones either. As a manager, you need to factor this new reality into how you interact with your team. Be accommodating and show that you trust your employees and care for them.
We built Clockwork to help remote teams operate more efficiently. Give it a try and let us know what you think!