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How to manage your team remotely and keep everyone sane

2/09/2020
— Nathaniel Bradford 

COVID-19 has brought with it the necessity for teams to shift to completely remote working. While the concept is not new, for many employees it’s their first taste of working from home and for many managers, it's also a first taste of having to manage a team remotely.

I have no doubt the lack of physical human interaction is draining for our team, a team that is made up of members that thrive on witty, impromptu exchanges and the ability to ask questions and bounce ideas off each in an informal way. We cannot change the remote situation currently, but still, need to be mindful that our teams need to be asked how they are coping and what as a business or as an individual we can do to assist.

In my own team, we have people in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, and for several weeks one in Griffith. Challenges of NBN connectivity aside, the workflow has been smooth and we are more connected as a group now than we were pre-epidemic. Some of this is due to the nature of the individuals, but it has also been helped through the use of technology in many forms.

As people managers, our role is to listen as much as it is to guide. I’ve found my time has been demanded more during this period, but it’s also produced greater outcomes and insight than prior to the WFH situation.

With all this in mind, here’s what I’ve found helps manage a WFH team during a pandemic bearing in mind that it impacts individuals in the team differently:

  1. Workday hours are different for different people.There is evidence mounting that people are spending longer hours working during isolation and lockdowns. This may be true for some teams, but I prefer to give the team the ability to work when most suits them within a window of time, rather than to dictate a 9-5 regimen. In doing so, work hours within the team have not increased. To do this relies on trust – in the people themselves and the ability to meet internal and external deadlines appropriately. I do not have an “off time” that I am unavailable to my staff, but have found I am not working more hours than I did previously, just different hours.
  2. Constant communication with each other is key. Several chat and video apps make this easy to manage. And overshare! Teams are equipped to do their best when they have all the relevant information at hand. Even if the update is “there’s no update yet on topic A”, that’s something and demonstrates it hasn’t fallen off anyone’s radar. Junior staff in hierarchical organisations also need to feel they have equal access and the right to raise issue of concerns. Depending on the staff member, they may be comfortable doing this in an open forum or, more likely, in a one-on-one. Be flexible and available to listen.
  3. Get the technology right.As tech PR specialists, we live and breathe this stuff and are generally very comfortable with existing and new technology. That doesn’t mean your company is! Secure internet access is a primary, followed by the right hardware and software to keep your people connected and productive. If you haven’t invested in the ability for your teams to work remotely, you cannot expect them to perform at their best. And not all video conferencing apps are the same – find the ones that work best for you, your team and your clients. We’re using at least four different video call tools currently!
  4. Find new ways to engage. Prior to COVID, our staff meetings were monthly and very procedural and despite having two physical offices connected by video conference, the interaction between the two offices themselves was minimal. We have shifted to weekly video staff meetings with very top line information shared by the CEO, and then shift into team headlines and then a couple of different, interactive activities determined by the staff. So far, office Masterchef, complete with voting, has been very happily received and the interplay between the teams and individuals from across the company provides humour and relief from busy, sometimes stressful, work weeks.
  5. Find time for you.Whatever it is that keeps you sane, block out time in the day to make sure you can do it. And do it away from your home workspace. For me it’s mountain biking (or at least was until I blew out my ankle ligaments playing masters rugby a few weeks ago) and playing with my dogs. But it can be anything that keeps you zen.

Covid is with us for some time to come and we need to be prepared for the long haul. I keep seeking new ways to introduce to our team to help them cope with the physical separation WFH requires and would be interested to know what other companies are doing in this space.

Nathaniel Bradford is Head of Technology at WE Communications Australia