Remote teams were already a growing international trend pre-COVID, and the pandemic has only served to accelerate this change...
As South Africa continues to recover from the peak of COVID-19 infections in the country, more people are returning to the office. Yet the way we work has changed (in fact, some would say the world has changed), and many teams will continue with more remote work than before. This creates new challenges and opportunities. How should we change the way we manage teams?
By now, months after the start of South Africa’s lockdown, managers will have had some on-the-job experience of the advantages and challenges of having remote teams. As companies are increasingly able to populate their physical offices again, managers may also have to begin learning how to oversee hybrid teams of people who are in the office and those who have opted to continue working from home.
Remote teams were already a growing international trend pre-COVID, and the pandemic has only served to accelerate this change, and many companies are now considering remote working more seriously than before, with interesting outcomes.
Moving to a remote and distributed world of work requires a shift in some of the more practical aspects of managing a team effectively.
One of the most challenging aspects of management in this climate is that a blanket approach can’t be applied. While everyone had to work remotely, their personal lives became significantly more integrated with their work lives. As a result, some of their personal situations, such as children on rotational school attendance, loss of income in their household affecting the amount of money available for transport costs to get to the office and, in some cases, a preference for working from home, are just a few of the factors that can influence the decision to continue working remotely. Requiring people to perform in the same rhythm across a team is not always feasible and managers need to balance empathy, practicallity & performance.
Empower your team
Managers are also having to relinquish some visibility and increase their trust in their team members. While this may be hard for some personality types, it’s important to keep the end goal in mind. If someone is able to deliver the work required well and without compromising the rest of the team’s ability to perform, how they do so is less important. Focusing on when and what is being done throughout the day can add more stress and communication fatigue for employees, ultimately leading them to become less productive.
If someone on a team has found themselves to be significantly more productive when working at home late at night, there may be an option to allow them the flexibility to do that for a portion of their work time, but if there are key things like team meetings and client presentations happening during the day, they will also need to attend those and remain engaged with the rest of the team as needed. The most important thing for a manager to do is to be clear about their expectations and communicate those to their team. Consider establishing and circulating clear guidelines with your whole team.
It’s also important to highlight the need for availability when required to meet business outcomes. Flexibility is a critical element to consider as managers and employees strive to find a new balance. The manager’s role should be to coach, guide, learn and accommodate employee needs, while ensuring business objectives are met. Managers also need to find new ways to celebrate wins, which can otherwise slip by unnoticed when working remotely.
Timesheets can give a helpful indication of whether someone is continuing to remain engaged with their work at a satisfactory rate, but output should be the ultimate measure of whether someone is using their time efficiently. For instance, someone may be able to complete a task in less time in their remote environment if it has fewer distractions than an office, or, the pressures of home may mean it takes them longer to get something done. In that instance, a timesheet may make it appear that one person is working ‘harder’ (or longer) than the other, but it may just be the case that their environment is affecting their efficiency. In this new world of work, clock-watching has no place. It’s about outcomes – not office hours.
Define communication channels
Remote or hybrid teams are heavily dependent on technology, which means that choosing the right channels for different types of communication is essential. The manager of a team sets the tone in this and will have to be the one to gently bring people back in line if they are consistently wearing other team members out with their communications or demands.
Not all communication needs to happen in a group context, and not everything has to be a video call. Email, chat platforms and document sharing systems can help streamline communication so that important information doesn’t get lost amidst general chatter or an overload of online meetings. Again, clear guidelines are helpful in managing expectations, as well as boundaries. For example, Harvard Business Review notes that some companies have created acronyms for their digital communications like “Four Hour Response (4HR)” and “No Need to Respond (NNTR)”, which bring predictability and certainty to virtual conversations.
Being at home may mask some of the personal challenges people are facing and unless dedicated time is given to check-ins and connection opportunities, it’s much easier for people on a team to struggle silently in a remote context. Creating a safe space for feedback is also essential. Team members need to be able to express what they are happy about and what they’re finding difficult. Even if it relates to their manager or working conditions.
When working in isolation, bad news or negative feedback is sometimes harder to communicate gently without tools like body language or informal, unscheduled chats. People may also overthink communications for the same reasons (it’s much easier to interpret a short email as being abrupt than if the same thing was said in-person by a smiling colleague who popped into to your office to deliver the message). It’s important to find healthy ways of dealing with tough communications, and encouraging openness around these. Managers also need to be aware of changes in employee behaviour that might not be as obviously signalled as in a face-to-face environment.
Businesses are being challenged to mature in how we achieve results and trust our people, and how we develop them too. Many find themselves with one foot in the old world and one in the new. We need to be aware that this is a change process and not a singular event. This new way of business thinking is highly customisable to a particular organisation culture and environment, and embracing these changes and improvements will most likely set your organisation apart for the future.
F.R. (Rhys) Robinson, PhD is Executive Director, Infinitus Reporting Solutions (Pty) Ltd, provider of enterprise-wide consolidation, planning and reporting solutions.