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Managing a [Suddenly] Remote Team

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

If you aren’t thinking about how to manage a suddenly remote team, you should be. The current reality of Covid-19? Spreading fast and when people test positive (many more will before this is over) they will be quarantined for two weeks - and that’s if they don’t get sick. You need a recovery plan for this and you need one now, particularly if your team does not normally work from home.

The good news? Research shows that remote workers are more productive. The bad news? There is always a transition period while an employee finds their way through the multitude of distractions that exist in a home environment and establishes new habits and processes for staying productive. If your team isn’t used to working at home, they will need to make the transition quickly.

5 Ways to Set Your Team Up for Success While Remote Working

Let go of your own fear and resolve to treat your employees as adults. This may be harder than you think, particularly if you are used to regularly checking on people’s productivity or making sure butts are in seats from 8am to 5pm. [Side note, just because someone is at their desk doesn’t mean they are being productive.] There is a great deal of data that shows treating employees as adults leads to greater productivity and micromanaging breeds resentment, low morale and loss of productivity - so if this is you, I encourage you to find a new way. People like to feel trusted and when they do, they tend to behave in ways that magnify trust. So, let go of your fear and treat them like the adults they are.

Establish your infrastructure. Even if this is temporary, you need an infrastructure and you need rules of engagement.

Use video conferencing for meetings. Meetings are most productive when you can see each other so make sure you have this in place. Zoom one platform.

Use a communication platform for regular communication. There are many reasons to adopt a communication platform for brick and mortar companies, but for remote workers, it is essential. Email is far too cumbersome. If you already have this in place, you are in good shape! Slack is excellent as a communication platform.

Shore up your expense reimbursement policy. Be prepared for added expenses for the people working from home and have a process in place for those expenses to be reimbursed. Check your state law to determine what you must reimburse employees for when they are working from home. You may be liable for phone service, data plan (if you use texting or apps for the business) and internet service. [Side note: this may be true for you even if your workforce isn’t remote - if employees are using their personal devices for work.] On the federal side, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which took effect in 2018, eliminated the ability for employees to write off business expenses that are unreimbursed by their company so expect this to come up.

Establish clear agreements. This is different than setting expectations or handing someone a “work-from-home” policy. Establish agreements with your team verbally so that everyone is on the same page. Start by acknowledging that it may be difficult to stay focused while working from home until your team builds new “work-from-home-productivity” muscles but that you are committed to setting them up for success.

Communication agreement: Establish a policy on how communication platforms are used - even if it’s just a stop-gap for now. Here’s an example: We use Slack for normal communication, we use text for emergencies, we use Zoom for meetings. We agree to return text messages asap and slack messages within 3 hours. We answer email once per day.

Meeting agreements: 1) Be on time for meetings and to conduct those meetings via videoconferencing. 2) Show up on time to meetings with cameras on (unless team member doesn’t have one or is sick) 3) Meetings start on time and have an agenda 4) Stay engaged and do not participate in multi-tasking or side conversations [Side note - just like in-person meetings, people should be focused on the meeting rather than side conversations or tasks. If you have trouble with engagement during in-person meetings, you will have even more with remote meetings.] 5) Be in a quiet (or private) environment for the duration of the meeting. Gain agreement on these points before agreeing to let your employees work remotely.

Time or outcome agreements: There is a mindset shift that happens naturally for businesses that transition to remote. Productivity is no longer measured by hours worked, but rather by results achieved. If your company already operates this way, you are way ahead of the game. Once you make this shift, it no longer matters what hours your employees work; what matters is that they meet the agreed on outcomes of their role.

Obviously this isn’t practical for all work roles, particularly those that depend on someone being available during business hours. But if someone doesn’t actually need to be tied to the phone or computer for particular hours of the day, it makes sense to be flexible about what hours they work. This may be particularly true if your employee actually becomes sick.

Workspace agreements: While many people will opt to set up their workstations on the couch or at the kitchen counter, the reality is that good ergonomics really matter. And they matter because you care about your employees, and also because stress-related injuries (and possibly other injuries) that happen at home, while working for you, are worker’s compensation claims. You are within your rights to require employees to work at a proper workstation. Provide employees with a diagram that shows how to set up their workstation.

Provide extra support. Working from home can be lonely and feel unstructured, particularly if you aren’t used to it.

Encourage employees to use video conferencing for co-working sessions and provide them with tips on how to be productive while working from home. And specifically, how to transition to working from home if they are new to it.

Keep your regular meetings intact - they will provide the comfort of a known structure to the day.

Conduct 1:1’s weekly and ask your team members how they are doing with working from home and what support they need from you.

Set milestones and agree to specific outcomes on a weekly basis. This will help your team stay on track

Have a recovery plan. Before the coronavirus scare is over, many people are likely to get sick. They will have their best chance of full recovery if they actually take time off to rest and recover. This means you are likely to be down some personnel.

Establish a recovery plan for this contingency including A) How work will be distributed B) What will need to be deprioritized C) What timelines will need to shift. Prepare for this eventuality as best you can. Make sure the entire team understands the recovery plan.

As a final point, don’t be surprised if this situation opens the door for your team wanting to transition to remote working or for setting up specific remote days. Don’t make a decision on this now - once your team is able to show you that they can be productive, it is natural to revisit this idea at that time.

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