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Five tips to make remote working deliver

With organisations across the world being encouraged to put in remote working practices for their employees to help combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the rise of homeworking is an opportunity to grasp, says Kevin Green

Remote working

In the current situation it’s likely many people will be working from home for a significant period of time. It’s also likely many managers will be leading a completely remote team for the first time. This may have been thrust on both parties with little time to think, talk or prepare for this new way of working.

This will call for managers to operate very differently. We know that the way we engage and communicate with each other is informal when people physically work together. Great managers understand their people and can pick up on changes by observing both individual and team behaviour. However, both of these become more challenging as people work from home or remotely.

There is a huge, positive opportunity here – 80% of people who work remotely say if it’s done well their engagement and morale improves and 62% say they feel more trusted. This is an opportunity to be grasped.

Here are my top 5 tips for managers who find themselves in this position:

1. Set clear expectations about this new way of working
Including your expectations of people’s availability and accountabilities as well as how often team and one-to-one conversations will take place. My advice is to do the generic scene setting with the whole team so they all hear it together at the same time. Make sure there is plenty of time for questions and ask for ideas. How do we make this work etc.
Then have one-to-one conversations with each member of the team about their specific deliverables and what you’re expecting of them and when. Clarity is important but also giving people the space and opportunity to share ideas, ask questions and explore the issues avoids misunderstanding and difficulty later. Don’t rush the process.

2. Recognise the criticality of team working and keeping in touch
Team communication is always an important part of a leader’s role but when your team are all working remotely it becomes critical. Recognise you should spend more time talking, listening and engaging with your people – it’s important people feel connected. Firstly if possible use video conferencing rather than conference calls but even they are preferable to the dreaded email with all the potential there is for misunderstanding. The opportunity to use video is a godsend in these circumstances and is so much easier today with the tools available such as Zoom, Skype and Google hangouts. Over 60% of communication is non-verbal so seeing people as they talk enables you to pick up on non-verbal signals.
Keep the team communicating as a whole – I suggest ensuring that regular team meetings continue and to start this new way of working you may want to do it more regularly than normal, perhaps two or three times per week initially, as this gets people comfortable and allows people to test how it works for them.
Allow time for small talk: people may feel Isolated or even lonely after a few days with little social contact. A good way of doing this is to get everyone to check in (say how they feel at the moment) at the start of the call/meeting. It’s also a good idea to still do creative or brainstorming sessions with the team, asking for ideas or solving problems together: this enables the team to feel connected and that they are making a collective contribution.

3. Increase one-to-ones
One-to-ones must continue and as with team communication you may want to do them a little more regularly to start with. As a leader, ask lots of questions to find out what’s going on with each individual. Set shared agendas in advance and make sure you know what you’re going to be covering. Preparation is more important for conversations over the phone or video as they tend to be shorter and more business focused. Actively listen to what’s being said and try to avoid assumptions or talking over people, and ask questions to clarify what’s meant so you’re not at crossed purposes.

4. Foster friendships among the people that work for you
Apart from the formal calls and meetings encourage people to have informal calls so they stay connected. We know people feel more engaged and passionate about their work if they have confidantes and supporters at work. This may atrophy if it’s not encouraged. People go to their work friends when they need help or want to celebrate or commiserate about things at work. In the absence of that support work can seem lonely and isolating. It lacks attachment. We may like what we do but we won’t be fully energised or motivated if we don’t have close and supportive relationships at work.
A study by Harvard Business Review showed that remote workers are much more likely than on site employees to worry that co-workers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to work projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them and don’t fight for their priorities. Be a leader who fosters a culture of open positive friendships amongst co-workers - this will avoid these concerns becoming a reality.

5. Be responsive and available
Set time aside in your diary so people know you are happy to catch up on anything. The thing that makes people feel distant is the communication time lag. If people have to wait hours for a response to something they are working on or an idea they have, whether it’s right or wrong, people feel it’s not important to their manager. Setting time aside where you're available online or over the phone to provide feedback or insight instantly makes people feel recognised and listened to.

Many of these things will feel unnatural to start with but if you persist then there is no reason why your team shouldn’t be as productive, creative and energised as if they were all on site together. In fact, you may find that they perform better and deliver better results working this way! Out of adversity comes opportunities…

Kevin Green pictured below) is former CEO of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation and HR director of Royal Mail, and author of Competitive People Strategy: how to attract, develop and retain the staff you need for business success, published by Kogan Page

Kevin Green, former CEO of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation and HR director of Royal Mail

Published 20 March 2020

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