The business leader’s guide to managing remote teams during COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed the landscape of business so suddenly and completely that there’s no going back to work as it was. Twitter, for example, recently announced that employees can work from home permanently even if the lockdown lifts. This has signaled a big shift in how organizations think of their workforce. For managers, this is changing how they lead, because as remote work becomes the norm, managing remote teams opens up a whole new set of challenges.

Managing a remote team

Remote work was seen as a compromise and a last-resort option for most teams and in-person work was somehow irreplaceable. All that has changed overnight with the advent of COVID-19. Managers at all levels have had to come to grips with the reality of remote work.

Managers have already started sharing best practices and tips on how to manage a remote team. The most important being 1:1 meetings that are regularly scheduled and stick to that routine. The meetings are done via video conferencing and are focused on outcomes. This is one of the advantages of using video conferencing and collaboration tools — communication has become more productive and purposeful.

The loneliness of remote work

remote teams

There are real-world challenges that remote employees face as they work from home. These include child care, homeschooling, home chores, and the loneliness of having to work without a team physically next to you. These challenges are harder to spot in employees as managers do not see them physically and wouldn’t be able to spot those behavioral cues. Managers need to pay attention to work patterns and clues to identify staff that need help. They also need to find ways to ensure remote staff have some human connection with the rest of the team or even encourage them to go out and meet and have a conversation with someone in person where possible.

Collaborating as a remote team

As teams and work processes change, the tools that teams use for collaboration need to change as well. Previously, in-person meetings were the order of the day with tools like chat and intranet being add-ons. Today, those tools have taken center stage as in-person meetings are not yet possible.

Video meetings are the go-to solution for teams looking to collaborate and communicate internally. In an isolated workspace, getting to view the face of a teammate can be reassuring and can strengthen connections.

VR making a comeback

Beyond video conferencing, there are hints that startups in the virtual reality space may make a comeback. To be sure, VR was dismissed as a fad and faded in comparison with its distant cousin artificial intelligence. AI has found a permanent place in the conversation around data science, but not so with VR. VR got relegated as a fringe technology. Today, with in-person contact restricted, there’s a good chance that VR could make a comeback to enable lifelike meetings, gatherings, and events.

A 2D video call, after all, is a bad indicator of the mood and body language of the person on the other side of the call. VR could be that in-between that delivers the convenience and comfort of having a meeting from home, and yet having an engaging experience as if it’s an in-person meeting.

All-in-one collaboration platforms

There is likely to be a unification of collaboration tools as the market widens and the larger companies look to absorb smaller, promising competitors to bolster their offerings. We’re thinking of Microsoft Teams, G Suite, Atlassian, and Slack making targeted buys to gain a competitive advantage.

A unified workspace that offers more capabilities in a single platform can be attractive for companies that want consistency across teams. A unified platform would also include natural integrations and automation that will drive up the efficiency of teams working on them. In a largely global workforce today, features like built-in translation would be appealing. Finally, a single bill could be more affordable than paying for multiple different SaaS tools every month that can easily add up over time.

Making the home work-ready

As the home becomes the new workplace, employees will think consciously about how to improve their home office setup. This could mean anything from repurposing existing furniture and space into a home office, or completely redesigning their home, or even moving to a more work-friendly home. Not having to travel to work daily means that people would now be free to move from a downtown apartment, to a suburb, or even further out to a place closer to nature.

Managers need to be cognizant of these drives that will become more commonplace as remote work becomes the norm. Setting aside a budget for setting up a remote office might be a great way for managers to augment rather than go against this tide.

Layoffs and changing organizational structures

Unemployment rates are skyrocketing with the U.S. hitting 14.7 percent nationwide in April and 13.3 percent in May. Even worse, 10 states have surpassed this number and are around the 25 percent mark. These include states like Nevada, Michigan, and Hawaii. Tech companies have not been spared with many unicorns like Uber, Airbnb, and We Work laying off thousands of employees each. Even if not laying off staff, companies are restructuring teams and reorganizing their workforce to save what’s left of their bottom line.

All this creates an atmosphere of fear, insecurity, and panic among employees. It’s up to leaders within the organization to sense the pulse of their teams and communicate with clarity and confidence during these uncertain times.

Easing transitions and having difficult talks

As the day-to-day workload and routines change, remote staff need to be equipped to cope with these changes. They may need to take on more than their role previously required. They may need to work with new people and teams. Leaders can take proactive steps to better prepare their workforce for these changes. This would include over-communicating details about the changes so there’s no ambiguity, using multiple mediums of communication like email and video conferencing, and putting in place documentation and processes to ease transitions.

In the event of having a difficult conversation about laying off an employee, it can be done in a way that shows that the organization and management cares. Airbnb has led the way in this regard by striving to communicate in a humane way and with much detail how they approached the layoff decision. Not only this, they created a generous severance package that included extended health care for the next year and also allowed employees to keep their Apple computers.

Managing your remote teams well will pay off

We live in a time of massive tectonic changes in how the workplace functions. It is fascinating to think of how the world can change overnight and the order of things can get so unsettled in a moment. Yet, for many, the changes are personal and bring emotional scars that will last years. In these times of change and uncertainty, business leaders can make a big difference in the lives of their remote teams. By showing a humane and deep understanding of the situation remote staff are dealing with, and easing through this phase, managers and business leaders can earn loyalty from their teams like never before. This is sure to pay off even in terms of productivity and profits for the business at large. This productivity is what organizations need at a time when businesses are doing all they can to stay in the game.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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