Few, if any of you will be working with your team in the same office at the moment. And, if you’re managing your team, you’ll, almost certainly, be doing it remotely. And it’s not easy to retain a sense of control in those situations. The organic management system you may have had - ad hoc meetings, dropping by someone’s desk for a chat, the regular rhythm of the office day has disappeared. You’re now managing by technology and trust. So how do you make that work. Try these tips:
Understand synchronous and asynchronous managing
You’ll have had a plan like this before, perhaps just not known it. Synchronous meetings, when done remotely, are those where you are ‘live’ with your colleagues - channels like phone, video calls and in-person meetings. Asynchronous therefore means email, Slack, text, messenger apps and anything where you can create a message (and perhaps pause) before hitting send.
So have a plan for what meetings/processes/messaging will take place ‘live’ and what will live in email, Slack and the rest. That plan might have been instinctive before but it now needs bringing out so that you and your team know where to expect certain messages and notifications. Otherwise, it’s endless ‘could this Zoom have been an email’ thoughts as you include too many team members, or searching emails for something discussed on Slack.
But don’t be obsessive about it. You can transfer rambling email chains to a video meeting and make some quicker decisions.
Get the tone right
We’ve all had the clammy feeling when it’s become clear that what was a jocular email has been read by everyone else entirely differently and the atmosphere has changed abruptly. Conversations in text form lack the inflections, tone and visual signals of face-to-face meetings. Even video calls lack a lot of those signals, with nothing but heads and carefully curated bookshelves to give guidance as to how someone is reacting.
One way is to assume that everyone means well, so read good intentions into everything (without the need for smiley emojis), but a message to your team to be considerate to all wouldn’t go amiss. People may be feeling the strain of lockdown and have understandable anxieties, so reinforcing a ‘be kind’ approach can help.
Understand the expectations
Some teams need a little nagging to get things done. That’s fine when you meet them by the kettle a few times a day, those nudges can easily be delivered over the coffee. But that’s harder remotely - so make sure projects come with turnaround times and check-ins and that everyone knows what they are expected to provide. Delivering ‘weren’t you supposed to have done x by now?’ messages is hard to do digitally without causing at least some level of ill-feeling, especially if the response is ‘I didn’t know that was supposed to be me doing it’. Be clear in all messaging about who, what and when (and how much) to avoid any ambiguities.
Stick to the routines
Everyone thinks they have much more time in the lockdown, but rigorous timekeeping is hard, especially if you or your team are surrounded by family members or flatmates. But everyone’s interruptions are different so it’s difficult to work around them - consistency and discipline in routines is important.
If you tend to have an ‘all staff’ meeting every Monday, then keep it. If the accounts team meet every Thursday, make sure that still happens. We’re living in an unreal world where priorities seem blurred, so make the work priorities remain the same now and in more normal times. It will also help the transition period as we move out of this weirdness.
Keep video calls disciplined
While it may seem like a fun thing to have Friday video calls in a Disney costume or somesuch, restrict the idea that video calls are a way for everyone to feel they have a social life. Make sure your team treat them as seriously as a face-to-face meeting. Checking in on each other’s well-being is fine, obviously, but the rhythm, agenda and discipline of meetings should be the same. Just as you wouldn’t expect someone to turn up late dressed as Snow White and crack open a beer in a work meeting, it’s not acceptable just because it’s on video and ‘everyone needs cheering up’. So I won’t be doing that again.
One issue with remote working is that some people keep themselves prominent and others disappear a little. And those small meetings and the ‘while I’ve got you…’ conversations fall by the wayside, unless you make a special effort to keep the one-on-one chats. Make sure everyone is scheduled for a weekly or fortnightly video-call catch up to check in on their health and welfare as well as their work, especially the quiet ones.
Remote isn’t ‘always on’
The temptation with remote working is that it stretches the day… you didn’t have a commute, so you can work a little later… all the days are the same, so you can get in touch at weekends…. It’s a little early in that timezone, but they’ll be up, right? Well, no. It’s important to keep the same disciplines as in the ‘real world’ - give people their evenings and weekends back, unless it’s genuinely urgent. Don’t call before office hours, don’t hassle people for replies to emails at ridiculous o’clock, and be aware of timezones for team members, clients and agents in different timezones.
The next test will be when the lockdown starts to be lifted and people can start working together again. It will, most likely, be a gradual shift back, which will suit many as they re-adjust to what will be a vaguely familiar life. If possible, let people re-adjust for a while. Many will be nervous about public transport or being in crowded towns and cities so be patient. Allow for some to work from home a few days a week in the same way as these last weeks.
In the long term, you’ll have learned flexible and remote working options that can help your team in their domestic and professional situations. Where possible, let them choose different ways to deliver. Where they need to be in front of a room full of students, that may simply not work, but not all teaching will have to be face-to-face, so listen to suggestions. You’ve made remote working work in a crisis, see if you can do the same as we head back to ‘normal’.