In July, more than three quarters of leaders confessed they’d never overseen a remote team, a survey by Terminal found. And, as we move into 2021, many are still figuring it out.
Despite Covid-19 vaccines now being rolled out, herd immunity is still a long way off, and leaders are now entering arguably the most difficult phase in the pandemic so far.
Motivating teams weary from multiple lockdowns–some of whom are now homeschooling children again, others dealing with poor mental health and heightened anxiety–and attempting to do so through a screen, is no easy feat.
However, even with face-to-face chats and team bonding opportunities off the table, many leaders are learning and innovating in their new roles, stepping up to build digital workplaces where culture can thrive outside the four walls of the office, using automation tools to make work more meaningful, and checking in on their employees’ wellbeing.
Meanwhile, others are making mistakes, deploying ‘big brother’ style monitoring software–essentially sophisticated clocking-in machines–to spy on their employees. While this might stand in a time of job scarcity, it’s a death knell for culture and trust, and you can wave your workforce goodbye when the pandemic is over.
Having led a partly, and now fully, remote workforce for more than 20 years, these are the most important things I’ve learnt:
1.Be available & visible
If you were sitting in the office, you’d have all sorts of conversations, great and small, throughout the work day – by the coffee machine, walking in and out of the building, rapid fire questions as you pass in a corridor. Small talk and interruptions might seem like one of those things we could do without, but it’s part and parcel of being sociable (and for leaders, approachable). Without it, we can lose that sense of community, of feeling connected. It’s not surprising the top two struggles for remote workers are loneliness and communication and collaboration, says Buffer.
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You can do several things here. First, use your company’s internal social media. Leaders who are a regular feature in feeds, who interact with posts both work-related and non, who create and share content, are generally more approachable. Keep a sense of humor and never shut down chatter. Why would you when closer teams function better and are more creative?
Check in with people, especially those who may be struggling, and listen. Consider making your calendar public so people can book meetings with you more easily. And, finally, take the time to say “thank you” for great work, either publicly, or by writing an email. Being a leader is often a thankless task, so we can forget how much impact this has.
2.Trust, don’t micromanage
A 2020 study undertaken during the pandemic and published in Harvard Business Review, revealed management trust issues: 38% of managers believe remote workers usually perform worse than office workers, and 22% were unsure. A large proportion, 41%, were also sceptical about whether remote workers could stay motivated in the long term, and a further 17% were unsure.
But, ask employees, and you get a completely different picture. A 2020 report by Owl Labs found three quarters have been as productive or more productive while working from home during the pandemic.
The problem tends to be that managers overcompensate for the distance, checking in and checking up so frequently that it hurts their team’s productivity.
Tightening the screws and badgering people for updates under the guise of informal ‘catch ups’ won’t fool anyone. Hire well, trust without requiring it first to be earned, offer genuinely useful support when it’s needed, and you shall be rewarded with happy, productive teams who feel empowered and take the initiative.
If you’re tired of learning, you’re tired of life. And, as it turns out, getting back in the classroom also happens to be a great distraction technique during a global pandemic. (Learning the piano and taking a course in quantum computing got my business partner through lockdown 1.0.)
Your employees know better than anyone what they need to work on to flourish in their roles so by offering a training budget, and leading by example, you can make sure your people are continuously improving and not stagnating. Plus your business benefits from all that new knowledge. Plus, bored employees leave.
There’s also a strong case for training employees in the skills required for remote work. The aforementioned survey by Owl Labs asked employees what would make them more effective as a remote worker. The highest response (32%) was remote training.
4.Take mental health seriously
According to research undertaken by the charity Mind UK in June 2020, 60% of adults and more than two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown. No business today can afford to be flippant or reactive on this issue.
While it does come with myriad benefits, remote working has a flipside: as well as loneliness to contend with, there’s guilt that causes some to work longer hours. A survey of 500 workers by LogmeIn found that 36% of workers suffer from pressure to appear more responsive on email while working remotely and 23% to work more hours.
As well as promoting a healthy work-life balance internally, you can also make sure your employee benefits are fit for purpose for a remote workforce. This includes mental health provision. Ask your teams what would help them most: be that access to online counsellors, free access to apps like Headspace for Work and consider training people up as mental health first aiders. We also introduced a ‘buddy up’ system where people are randomly matched to a colleague they don’t often cross paths with for a coffee and a chat. This has been hugely popular.
5.Be curious about tech
Mass remote working can only happen thanks to advances in technology and, today, the options go far beyond video meets and instant messaging.
As such, more business leaders are now looking for ecosystems where everything–from communication to full-scale projects to culture–can happen in one place, over fragmented apps and software that enable collaboration or communication. A 2017 survey, by VMWare and Forbes Insights, found that digitally empowered employees are 34% more efficient and 87% of IT leaders believe these employees can drive at least 5% additional revenue growth over three years.
First, know your pain points: what’s slowing your business down, what’s demoralizing your employees? Next, get curious about what technology could solve those particular problems. Read articles, sign up for demos, talk to other companies. Finally, adopt a ‘test and learn’ approach, trialing software on pilot groups of employees who will give you instant feedback.