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The impact of the Coronavirus has led to many organisations asking their employees to work from home, perhaps for the first time. In our latest Q&A we provide some handy tips for leaders in managing a remote workforce. 

The following content is based on information available at the time of publishing.

TIME magazine believes that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) may just have triggered the biggest ‘work from home experiment’ that the world has ever seen.  The World Health Organisation and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (DCP) are now asking organisations to consider ‘social containment’ strategies, so while working from home was seen as a ‘flexible’ arrangement or a ‘privilege’, it has fast become a necessity. 

The Coronavirus may have brought some urgency to the work from home (WFH) discussion, but in Australia it has been on the rise for quite some time. Technological advancement, the gig economy and globalisation have been big players in the push for remote workforces and many organisations have been successfully operating with mobile workforces for years.

Studies have found  that remote working not only reduces commuting time, but it also enhances productivity, staff retention, job satisfaction and even creativity.   

So, whilst there is no doubt that the Coronavirus is a global challenge, perhaps this is just the push that some employers needed to venture into a new style of leadership. Maybe it is time that instead of viewing it as ‘flexibly working’, we focus on just consider it ‘working’.

A 'Ten tips to successfully lead a remote team' summary is also available for Ai Group Members to download. 

Ten key tips to successfully lead a remote team

As mentioned above, remote workers can be more productive and engaged, however this does not occur in a vacuum and requires a tailored leadership approach for optimum results.  

Whilst those who have previous success with remote working have taken to it like a duck to water, this is new territory for many leaders and employees.. The following provides some key tips to support employers to successfully manage their remote teams:

1. Build trust with your employee

Trust is a two-way street and is the most critical ingredient in WFH success.  

In fact, Gallup research conducted with over 10,000 employees, showed that employees ranked trust as the most important leadership quality. Whilst some leaders are questioning if they can trust their team to WFH those that have confidence in their workers to do the right thing can benefit from increased engagement and productivity. 

The reality is, workers that have been performing members of the ‘physical’ office are very likely to remain strong performers of the ‘virtual’ one.  Trust is a valuable commodity in the employment relationship and it should be nurtured.

2.  Set clear expectations for remote work 

When leaders have a direct line of physical sight to employees, there seems to be clearer communication in work expectations. When there has been difficulty in a WFH arrangement, it is often because the leader has failed to clearly communicate expectations.

It is recommended that leaders focus on communicating:

  • priorities;
  • expected performance outcomes and metrics;
  • milestones in projects and 
  • preferred approach to status updates.

3. Agree up front on the basics

Whether you are setting up one or twenty employees to work remotely, it is important to agree up front on some basics so that everyone is on the same page. Consider the following:

  • What will be the normal working hours for the team?
  • What is the preferred method of contact?
  • How long will the team take to respond to each other? For example, is it reasonable that a phone call or email is at least responded to within two hours?
  • What is the preferred communication method for the team? What is the preference for the individuals and leader?
  • How will the team advise each other if they are unavailable or in meetings? For example, will calendars be shared?
  • What technology will support the team – e.g. Skype.


4. Ensure team members have the tools for success

Working remotely provides some challenges to accessing the normal tools and services contained in a large office or work environment and  means more than access to the stationary cupboard.  Where possible, WFH  should be a replica of the work environment so it is important to check:

  •  IT connectivity
  •  The ability to print documents
  •  A work set up that meets WHS standards.  As an example, does the employee need to take their ergonomic office chair home? Do they have monitor and an appropriate desk and lighting? The couch may be comfortable, but it is not a viable option.
  •  Access to portals such as Skype, Zoom or Teams.  Virtual connectivity is key to success.
  • Access to company drives, information and intranet 

  
5. Don’t be a stranger – but find the balance

‘Out of sight’ does not mean ‘out of mind’. Whilst some employees will be totally fine without daily contact, others will find it very isolating to be at home. 

Employees who regularly work in an office environment are used to having conversations in the kitchen, over a cubicle or while standing in line for the photocopier. 

Leaders are encouraged to consider the personality and communication preference of their team member in the WFH arrangement.  Some employees will value a video call each day to touch base, whilst others will see this as micromanagement. If you currently don’t engage six times a day in the office, there is no need to apply a heavy-handed approach to communicating at home.  

6. Focus on outcomes and achievements – not daily tasks 

When managing a remote workforce, it is tempting to focus in on what employees have ‘done’ each day.  This usually comes from a leaders need to be assured that the employee is not out for long lunches or engrossed in the midday movie.  

In reality, it is much more productive, engaging and meaningful to focus on outcomes and achievements. Was the project finished on time? Is the work produced of the usual standard? Are the customer’s needs still being met? If the answer is yes, then it is somewhat counterproductive to focus on tasks.


7. Apply a ‘business as usual’ approach

The Coronavirus is an unusual situation, but it is important that leaders keep a business as usual approach.  

This means that the flow of work, projects, outputs and productivity should continue.  Does your team have a Tuesday morning round table? Perfect – simply use Skype, Zoom or an alternative video platform and continue with the meeting.

Consider that the uniqueness of the current situation warrants a clear explanation so employees know what is expected from the beginning of the WFH arrangement. 

Also, consider implementing a Weekly Action Review meeting with direct reports to ensure that successes can be celebrated, milestones can be understood, and obstacles can be jointly approached. Some employees will benefit from an end of day check in, but this should be avoided if it does not happen currently in the office as it will be seen as micromanaging.

8. Focus on maintaining or building a genuine connection 

Most employees want to feel connected to the culture and values of an organisation so itis important to keep traditions going – even if it is virtual.  

Does your team have a Monday morning coffee to plan the week? Then perhaps ask them to make their coffee and join the Skype meeting.  Keep the meeting as realistic as possible and don’t forget to allow time for employees that want to share exciting things about their weekend.  This allows for a sense of normality and helps nurture working relationships. 

Some tips for virtual water cooler conversations include:

  • Ensuring there is time at the beginning of each meeting for employees to connect. The latest evictee from Survivor may have no relevance to the meeting, but it does keep important banter going between peers.
  • Take an interest in employees and allow them to share something personal if they wish to. Maybe an employee’s daughter just won their grand final or a team member finally finished painting their house.  Whatever it is, sharing personal insights creates valuable bonds.
  • Consider creating an online platform for employees to discuss interests or debate the weekend’s football game.
  • Share customer feedback and individual successes with the broader team.

9.  Keep feedback flowing regularly

For some employees, working remotely will raise questions about whether or not they are performing well.

Consider the team members that thrive on positive feedback and make regular contact to tell them what they have done well.  This positive reinforcement demonstrates that you have not forgotten them and that their hard work is being noticed. 

Conversely, employees who are struggling or off track cannot be forgotten.  Coaching can and should continue in a virtual space and is imperative to avoid performance issues.

10. Agree with your team on a communication strategy

As a leader, you may have clearly communicated what you want and expect from your direct reports, but have you forgotten to ask them what they need and want from you? 

As your team members can’t physically see you, show them that you are present by placing a high priority on returning phone calls and emails.  Consider instilling a ‘video first’ policy where employees are asked to use tools such as Skype to achieve visual contact over picking up the phone. 

Remaining available and virtually present is key to success. Think about allowing employees access to your diary and encourage them to use tools such as Instant Messaging (IM) when a quick answer is required.

Summary

Whilst it may seem that the Coronavirus has sent the world into a reactive state, Australian organisations can take some comfort that not only is working from home the right thing to do at the moment, it turns out that it is also the smart thing to do. 

There is growing supporting research that remote workforces create a win-win scenario for both employees and employers. TIME magazine may have accurately described this as ‘the biggest work from home experiment the world has ever seen’, but all experiments provide learning and pave the way for future practice. In a climate of great uncertainty, it makes sense to embrace this WFH necessity that may just bring some unexpected benefits.

Further assistance

For further assistance relating to WFR or any other workplace matter please contact us or call the Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77. 

A 'Ten tips to successfully lead a remote team' summary is also available for download. 

Coronavirus (COVID-19)  advice and resources can also be found at Ai Group's dedicated webpage

 

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