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Managing Remote Teams During The COVID-19 Pandemic

For many teams, going to work now means—for the first time—staying home. While flexible work arrangements, remote teams, and working from home has become more normal in the past decade, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has prompted many companies to adopt new policies that require managers and employees to adapt quickly in a time of increased stress. In an effort to help our clients thrive, this article includes recommendations for managing teams working from home.

Managing Remote Teams

Following the CDC’s guidelines, many organizations have increased access to flexible work arrangements (FWAs) and encouraged people to work from home when possible. Modern epidemiological models show that social distancing works to “flatten the curve” by slowing the spread of the virus and will hopefully reduce the burden on medical systems around the world.

As companies continue to cancel events and change working arrangements to protect the health of employees, customers, and their families, there are things managers need to keep in mind with the new arrangements.

Practice empathy.

Many schools around the country are closed. That means—in addition to working from home—many team members may also be homeschooling for the first time. They may also have sick or at-risk family members. People are concerned about the eventual impact of the pandemic and wonder when life will return to normal. All of this weighs on people, so we need more than ever to practice empathy and demonstrate grace.

Adjust how you think about engagement and experience.

Employee engagement yields both increased performance through the application of discretionary effort and improved retention of key talent. Engagement is an outcome of factors that are both internal (experience) and external (environment) to any company. The novel coronavirus is an external factor that is likely yielding lower engagement. And although the stress and uncertainty around the pandemic may not result in voluntary attrition in the short term, many teams will see decreased performance as employees struggle to work through competing demands on their attention and mental energy. Working to meet employee needs during this time will help them navigate new waters while remaining engaged with their work.

Remember the basics.

Clarify expectations for performance and responsibilities. While teams work remotely, it is important that team members continue to receive feedback on their performance. Regular one-on-one meetings using video conferencing, when available, can help keep critical lines of communication open between managers and their remote teams.

Lead effective meetings.

Technologies from companies like RingCentral, Zoom, and Webex will enable teams to facilitate effective meetings from decentralized locations. Again, the basics of effective meetings—like having a set agenda and outcomes, using a facilitator, and documenting next steps—are important. For virtual meetings, using video can help people engage at a deeper level compared to audio-only conference calls. Also, encourage colleagues to use mute when they are not speaking to minimize background distractions of home life for the rest of the team.

Establish and respect boundaries.

Leading remote teams, especially across time zones, requires some additional awareness and intentionality. It is easy to call, Slack, text, or email people outside of their regular business hours when our work days begin and end at different times. If you suddenly find yourself managing a team of remote workers, encourage them to keep a schedule and respect those boundaries. We have worked with employee groups who report increased difficulty maintaining work/life balance when they work from home because it can feel like they’re “always on.” This is not healthy or sustainable long-term.

Maintain connections.

Belonging has a huge impact on employee experience, and during difficult and stressful times, relationships and connections are even more critical. In addition to one-on-one meetings with remote colleagues, using group Slack channels, group meetings, or even virtual happy hours help by providing colleagues the opportunity to connect and maintain relationships while maintaining the physical distance necessary to respond to the pandemic.

Anticipate success.

People can define success in terms of achievement, affiliation, affluence, and autonomy. While the current external challenges are unprecedented in many ways, the core needs of people remain the same. How can you support your team’s need for achievement, getting things done, and doing great work? How can you support relationships and connection using technology? What are team members’ needs related to finance and status during this time? How can team members experience autonomy around when they work, who they work with, and how they get their work done, while managers still effectively delegate with control? All of these needs are possible to meet in a remote work setting in this day and age, but it requires intentional focus and thought to meet them.

Measure and manage.

Finally, consider your ability to measure and manage your team’s experience and perceptions. Perceptyx provides access to real-time technology with innovative time-based reporting tools. Society is rapidly adapting to COVID-19 by the hour, not weeks or months. Enabling people to have a voice and contribute to the success of their teams provides them with a sense of influence over their future—when the future is anything but certain. 

At Perceptyx, our mission is to enable people and organizations to thrive. In addition to the information above, and along with a pulse survey assessing the corporate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have developed a second pulse survey specific to supporting and managing remote teams that we will provide to clients.

We encourage all organizations to consider and apply the management principles outlined above to care for and lead your people through this next season. With consistent and conscientious leadership, we should all be able to weather the current crisis successfully, and see the way forward together.

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