Till recently the idea of staff working from home was a bit of a novelty. The most common occurrence was a few team members working from home one or two days a week, but often coming into the office, so managing them was relatively easy.
Now, thanks to the worldwide pandemic, those of you who are still gainfully employed have some if not all of your team working from home full time for the conceivable future. The question is how do you lead a team you don’t see and who don’t see each other? A number of years ago I wrote a program for a major University who had teams whose members were spread across several campuses and I have adapted the content for the current situation. Here are some tips:
Staff will rise to your lowest expectation of them, so if you think they are slacking off at home, you will convey that to them, and they will feel untrusted. I guarantee productivity will fall. So, whatever you do, while your staff are working remotely, you need to trust them to be productive and loyal to your organisation. By and large they will be, and any who aren’t, probably weren’t that productive when they came into the office anyway. Trust them and you will be rewarded with higher productivity, better customer service, stronger loyalty and immense good will.
A friend of mine, who was a senior member of a major organisation, who was working from home received a call from her boss because the boss’s system indicated that her laptop had been idle for half an hour. The boss was furious, and let it be known. My friend had spent that half an hour on the phone settling a very unhappy customer. Needless to say, the damage done by the lack of trust was far greater than any potential unproductive time. Workers at home may well ‘hang out the washing’ or ‘go out for a little exercise’, but trust them to be fair with their time.
Check in with them – don’t check up on them!
Remote workers often report feeling isolated and disconnected, so it is important to stay in touch. But checking up on them indicates a lack of trust. It’s a delicate balance.
Contact them regularly to see how they are going and if they need anything. If you use video technology let them know before hand – so they can put tidy up and prepare. Remember, you are invading their private space. Be respectful.
Communicate openly and voice your appreciation. It’s not easy working from home.
You may want to encourage peer to peer communication as well. After all, the team banter and problem solving is something that will be missed and isn’t easy to recreate with a remote team.
Set goals and targets
The real measure of performance is NOT how long a person sits at their desk, it’s the output they produce. So set realistic daily or weekly performance goals. You should do this in consultation with the team member. Remember to set both qualitative and quantitative goals and make sure they don’t fight against each other (the number of calls answered can impact the quality of customer service given to reach the quantity targets).
Two additional things: 1. Don’t forget to celebrate and reward a team member’s achievements. 2. Make sure it is safe to NOT achieve a goal. There are always extenuating circumstances that hinder goal achievement, and these are increased when staff are working from home, with all the domestic distractions.
A goal should be something to aspire towards, a matter of pride – not a source of punishment, fear and guilt.
While e-mail has been around for a long time now, written instructions are still often misunderstood. It is not the best way to convey complex information, but if you do use it, be very clear and make it okay for them to ask questions and gain clarity.
As mentioned, there are a number of video platforms that can help with communication, either one to one or large groups. Choose your platform well and perhaps develop a set of protocols. People working from home sometimes forget what’s behind them when they turn the webcam on! For more on this, I’ve written a short article about video conferencing.
Even with the level of technology available, there is still no substitute for face to face meetings, but in the current environment, this may be the best option. It’s certainly better than an endless stream of ambiguous e-mails.
They are adults
Isolation isn’t easy at the best of times, but working from home, with other adults and possibly children is never going to be smooth sailing. But because they are adults, they’ll achieve the goals set, it just may not occur between 9 am and 5 pm. Most people I know who work from home, will run to the shops, or put a load of washing on, but they’ll also put in an extra hour or two to make it up. Don’t forget the average office dwelling worker is only productive for approximately 5.5 of the 8 hours you pay them for anyway.
In this environment we are all juggling way too many life changing issues and events simultaneously. Trust them, as adults, to make the right decisions about those priorities. Above all, they need to know they have your support.
Given all that I’ve said above, and some alarming statistics about how the isolation is affecting our mental wellbeing, we really need to look after each other. It can be easy to focus on our own mental health and forget the wellbeing of others (out of sight out of mind) but reaching out to others is also good for us. Every day should be RUOK day. Does your organisation have an Employee Assistance Program? Do they provide telephone counselling? Make sure your staff are all aware of the services on offer.
The virus may be a physical health issue, but the solution makes us anxious about our own health, anxious about the health of our loved ones, anxious about our job, anxious about the present, anxious about the future and we have to deal with it all in isolation.
My friend Sandi Givens has started a Facebook group Psychological Safety Works, providing for the wellbeing of us all at this time.
Nothing replaces face to face learning, but in its absence, give them some development on-line. Recommend some Ted Talks, engage with LinkedIn Learning or give them a ‘stretch’ task to complete. Send some topical reading materials or ask them to review something for other team members. If you want to be really radical, ask them what development they need and then find a way to provide it.
“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
When this is all over – and it will eventually be all over – and we return to a ‘New Normal’, the team will all come back together, but it won’t be easy. Six months is a long time in isolation, a long time of not being a team. They will need time to readjust to working together.
Perhaps start with a celebration, marking the end of the crisis and celebrating the achievements made. Schedule a team building or planning day full of activity and focusing on lessons learnt and the future of the team or organisation. Make it special.