The COVID-19 outbreak has affected workers in many ways. Some have lost jobs, some are busier than ever and many are working from home for the first time.
Managers have suddenly been tasked with changing the way teams work, which can be a challenge, particularly at a time of uncertainty.
What can you reasonably expect of team members working from home? How do you maintain accountability from a distance without micro-managing? How do you replace informal face-to-face communication that builds morale and shares information? And how many online meetings is too many?
There are a number of resources for managers – from the Harvard Business Review to Australia’s AI Group – which provide advice on how to manage this shift. Every workplace, and every team, is different so part of the challenge is assessing what works for you, but there are a few common threads which we’ve broken down below:
1. Get the technology right
This is make or break. Does everyone have access to laptops and the software they need to be productive and to communicate? Can everyone access all the documents or resources they need? What about staff who need to keep in contact with other agencies, clients or stakeholders. Act fast before anyone feels left behind.
2. Set expectations clearly and early
Get the team together and talk through how you want them to work, what the goals are for the next few weeks and how success will be measured. Listen to their input and be flexible. The more clarity everyone has about what they are doing and how, the better. Be realistic about what you expect from yourself and others as well. This is a stressful period for everyone and that needs to be taken into consideration, particularly in relation to expectations regarding productivity.
3. Communication is the key
This is a tough one and will determine your long-term success. Part of setting expectations is deciding how people will work together, how they’ll keep in touch, and what tools and processes they’ll use to allocate and keep track of workflow. Decide on a communications tool and stick to it.
Find a way to communicate through video – so much of our daily communication is done face-to-face which means online communication or phone calls will not have the same effect.
Once those things are sorted, the Harvard Business Review’s Tsedal Neely advises managers to meet with their team at least once a week. It’s a good idea for smaller teams to meet more often and for managers to have one-to-one contact with team members every week.
“In a remote environment, the frequency of contact cannot go down. If you’re used to having meetings, continue to do so. In fact, contact should probably go up for the whole team and its members. Newer employees, those working on critical projects, and people who need more contact will require extra one-on-ones.”
Use different forms of communication – email, slack etc – for different purposes and make sure to follow-up video meetings with extra written communication to ensure that the message has been understood.
Don’t limit communication to work conversations. Your employees may be more isolated than usual and appreciate meetings that let them share personal information and stories about how they are doing.
Don’t forget anxieties will be higher than ever and a big part of your job will be making sure no one feels left out of communication. Make sure everyone has access to you that they need.
4. Trust your people
They say that organisational culture is how people behave when they think nobody is looking, and this is the time for managers to have trust in their people and their organisational culture.
This is not the time to micromanage or increase restrictions on staff. Trying to introduce new time management systems on top of everything else will damage morale and hurt teamwork.
The UK’s Chartered Management Institute says that establishing relationships of trust is key, and that regular communication and feedback can replace the interactions within the office that build trust.
As Ernest Hemingway said: “the best way to see if you can trust somebody is to trust them”.
5. Be flexible and focus on outcomes
Don’t expect your team to work the same hours they used to. Many will be juggling caring responsibilities and may end up with different patterns of work. This is a chance to think about what productivity means, and rather than trying to replicate the office schedule, give your team the freedom to work differently.
To do this effectively, shift the focus to the outcomes you want from your team, rather than how they get there. Spend more time talking about the reasons behind tasks, and how your team’s work fits into the bigger picture.
6. Be supportive and positive
Expect that this will be more difficult for some of your team than others, logistically and psychologically. The Harvard Business Review says employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations, “If a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this will have a trickle-down effect on employees.”
Be calm, and focus on the successes the team is having, and the effort they are putting in to adapt to a new environment. Talk about the opportunities that come from this change and challenge them to make the most of the situation.
Don’t forget to go easy on yourself either. It is a tough situation, and you are inevitably going to make mistakes. Apologise, fix them, and move on.
7. Think about what could work for the long term
One day the COVID-19 crisis will be over and things will return to normal. Except they won’t, because in many areas people will have realised that things can, and should, be done differently. As you respond to the current crisis, keep an eye on what things couldn’t be done remotely and what has actually worked better than usual.
Perhaps a more flexible trust-based style of working suits your team? Maybe you haven’t been taking advantage of technology that’s been around for a while. This is a chance to broaden your repertoire of ways to work together and solve problems. Make the most of it.