The Rewind: Looking Back to Lead Your Team Forward

by Reem Papageorgiou | November 16, 2020

At MomUp, we often hear from our company clients that one of their biggest challenges is learning how to manage their whole team remotely. While managers felt confident “back in the day” when they had one or two remote team members, managing a whole team from a distance is an entirely different beast.  Managers are often concerned about productivity, communication, and culture. While COVID has changed our work world, the remote issues are the same, albeit on a massive scale. What is a manager to do when faced with a whole team staring back at them on the screen?  How can a manager ensure productivity isn’t compromised when employees are out of sight? Rewind and remember the benefits of remote work and use those benefits to design your approach. Remote Work Benefits For Employers: A Gallup poll in 2017 found that an optimal balance for productivity exists, and it leans toward remote working. Based on the poll’s findings, professionals who spend between 60-80% of their time working remotely reported being the most engaged with their work. Even with a team that is 100% remote, data continues to indicate that employees continue to be more productive when working from home.  Not only does remote work increase productivity, we also know it reduces attrition, contributes to morale, costs less, and boosts diversity in the talent pool. For Employees: Data from the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Executive Education Department reported in their Quality of Life Survey that the 6 top perks of flexible or remote work (pre-pandemic) for employees were: improved family and personal life, reduced stress, improved morale and engagement, enhanced sense of trust and respect, and better collaboration. Let’s use this data to help structure your remote management style (and decrease your stress) to maintain these benefits.  For example, if stress and personal life traditionally improved for employees when they were remote, then as a manager, your leadership style must speak to this need. In turn, you will have more committed and productive employees. Let’s tackle each area one by one. Personal Life With your whole team at home the lines between professional and personal are even more blurred. As a leader and manager your authenticity plays a greater role in contributing to your employee’s personal life than ever before. How can a manager contribute to improving their employee’s personal and family life?  Build Rapport. Rapport is the most critical managerial skill you must establish with your remote team.  Gone are the happy hours, run-ins, and coffee breaks: the need to over-communicate is greater when managing remotely. Building rapport may feel less natural because it feels contrived or scheduled, but use what you have in common, like challenges of the pandemic, holidays, or remote school to connect empathically. Ask specific and open-ended questions to create an opportunity for a deeper conversation. For example, ask your employee to give you a high and low of the day (which doesn’t have to be necessarily work related.) Ask WHAT and HOW questions to create more dialogue instead of yes or no questions which result in short responses.  Take initiative and share a bit more than you typically would about your own concerns or challenges – nothing brings people closer than a shared experience. Your goal is to get to know them as a complete person. Ask them what they’re into, about their family, and where they’re from. Showing that you care is important to them and essential for you to truly understand what motivates them. Taking the time to do this will also make them feel more trusted and that you are a transparent and authentic leader who cares.   Schedule regular one-on-ones that are designed to be about getting to know employees personally and professionally. Take a break from zoom and have a call over the phone. If you are able to, meet for coffee or use Facetime from a different room in your house to make it more relaxed. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your employee is talk with them while you are both on a walk (either together or separately) as it allows for better concentration and boosts creativity. Building rapport is the fundamental building block of your management style. For the company, you are establishing trust and open lines of communication for potential problems. A good leader creates a successful team through trust and empowerment. For the employee, you are helping them establish roots in a company they can feel good about, a part of, and committed to. Your authenticity makes your employee more dedicated because they feel more seen, heard and respected. Stress There is irony in the fact that pre-COVID remote workers reported less stress working from home, given that now remote work comes with its own stressors. Isolation, anxiety, and depression are significantly on the rise, and you must figure out strategies and systems to support employees as they confront these issues. Your goal is to support your team as well as make sure your management style isn’t contributing to their stress. By checking in with your team and truly listening to their needs and challenges, brainstorm ways you can help them during this time. Perhaps 4pm meetings are truly impossible or boundaries need to be redefined around expectations and availability. We are not working in the same world so we cannot carry over the same expectations and translate them into the remote office. Communicate, problem solve and come up with innovative solutions to support your team as a whole and your staff individually; ensure you really hear them so that you can find ways to support them in these challenging times.  Scheduling a weekly check in based solely on addressing stress is one option. As a leader you can also model healthy behavior by taking breaks and setting boundaries. Be clear with flexibility options and create a safe space where employees can share their challenges and have support to come up with strategies to address them without feeling penalized. Morale and Engagement How do you contribute to team morale as a manager with a large remote team? What are ways you can boost morale when gearing up for yet another video call? Celebrate. The top energy drivers for employees is seeing their work contribute to the company’s goals.  Take even more time to celebrate the contributions of your team.  Congratulate them on zoom, send out a unique celebratory email to the group, send them a gift card or have lunch delivered to their home. Increasing recognition will motivate and send a signal to other team members as well. Be Creative. Interaction with your employees and colleagues cannot only be about specific work tasks if you want to keep morale going.  Allow different team members to lead the standard meeting. Create optional opportunities for employees to get involved with each other. For example, have a team member schedule a fun training session. Have your marketing manager lead an optional call and to teach a skill that could also be used in your employee’s personal life:  “ How to Use Instagram like the Pros.”  You can use other team building games such as, brainstorming worst ideas or playing zoom bingo (complete with a square for who talks while on mute) to bring the laughter back. The internet is loaded with ways to engage your team, but tap back into your authenticity and think about what your team needs specifically to find the right ideas. Monitor the pulse of your team and  make sure the ideas are fun and of interest rather than another item on your employees’ to do list.  Get feedback on what they have enjoyed and what is both working and not working.  This is also a moment where small gestures  carry great weight. If you sense your employees  feel burdened even with optional calls, remember the little things.  Send a card if you know they are going through something.  Offer to cover the tab for two team members to meet up for a coffee. Make a point to remember something they have shared and send them a quick text.  The little things can be far more impactful and allow for deeper connection. Trust Trusted employees are much better workers than those who feel they are being micromanaged.  The best thing you can do is trust your team and have confidence that they will perform. Your goal must shift to focusing on the output not the process. You hired them as experts, now let them be just that. It’s difficult as a manager to not have the daily visual of what your team is doing, but you must let go and not micromanage as that will lead to disengaged and stressed employees. Define the goals and metrics you need met with a time frame and let go. Ask them their goals and what they need from you to help them accomplish them. Together, make sure expectations are clear and measurable. Identify the deliverables (so you can stay focused on output) and entrust your employees with the process. Since your team is juggling work and family commitments given the pandemic, enable your employees to work in the best manner for them. Learn the ideal times of day to connect, provide flexibility to empower them to manage themselves and their work in their own way.   Collaboration Both employees and employers miss the ability and ease of just popping into someone’s office. As a team, there are some tools you can use to boost collaboration.  Communication - use Emojis and GIFs. Yes, you read that right.  Since our communication style, which is 93% non-verbal, is blocked, we are limited in conveying and interpreting texts and the like. Of course, we advise this within reason, but use them to your advantage to ensure there isn’t a miscommunication. For example, if you are having a rough day at home and you send a terse email, you can follow up with a gif or emoji which reflects your day. Learn each other’s Communication Style – Some people prefer calls; others hate the phone. Who are the introverts of your group and the extroverts? Do some members of your team prefer sharing their ideas through writing rather than out loud in meetings? Take the time to get to know your employees’ style so that you are also getting them at their best.  While large team gatherings are important, make sure you also have smaller  meetings to give quieter employees an opportunity to connect without feeling  the challenge of communicating in a massive group. Take breaks from standard calls to allow for different team members to connect with each other on their own. At MomUp we like to use what we call our Friday Downloads. We keep track each week of the work we’ve done, goals we’ve met and the “to be continued tasks.”  We share them in an email Friday afternoon which allows us to make better use of our Monday meeting time to discuss our next steps. If you prefer a daily check in, make sure they are structured, regular and predictable. Engage your employee to lead the call with updates and questions they have, so it’s not a recipe for you checking on or micromanaging them. Most importantly, work with your team to create a strategy for communication. For example, video calls are for meetings, emails are non-urgent,  text or IM mean to respond  STAT.                                                                                              The key theme here is that as a manager you have to do more to ultimately do less. Taking the time to connect with your team will save you the headaches down the road.  You will have a dedicated team that is content, productive and in it for the long haul. Click here to download our FREE Guide to managing remote teams.