Many people are finding themselves working remotely for the first time ever due to the coronavirus pandemic—not just for a few days but for the foreseeable future. While some of us might be adjusting fairly quickly on an individual level, larger teams will need to learn and adapt together to this new normal.
This is especially true for managers who no longer have the luxury of leading their teams face-to-face. What worked in a shared office space may or may not be as effective when communicating with your direct reports primarily through video calls and group chats.
If you’re a manager trying to navigate your new role as a virtual leader—ensuring everyone on your team feels supported, connected, and set up to succeed during this time of uncertainty—you’re not alone.
We know you probably have a lot of questions, so we turned to Karissa Sachs, Vice President of Digital Strategy and Talent Acquisition at our partner Kforce, who has over 13 years of experience managing remote teams, to get some expert advice.
Here are six tips to help you successfully lead your team from home:
1. Lead With Empathy
It’s important to keep in mind that this current version of working from home isn’t like working remotely for the afternoon to oversee home repairs or taking a day to focus on a big project outside the office. Our daily lives have been impacted significantly and making the necessary lifestyle adjustments won’t be simple for some people.
“There are so many new dynamics that people are faced with as they try to navigate this new world of work,” Sachs says. “Many families are juggling full-time positions working from home and trying to facilitate online learning for their children who are out of school. Employees may not have dedicated work-from-home spaces in their homes and might also be faced with an additional challenge of having their spouse trying to work remotely as well.”
Being cognizant of the fact that everyone is adapting to a unique set of circumstances can help you manage your team members appropriately and be accommodating as needed. Open a dialogue by asking your direct reports how they’re managing the transition and asking if there’s anything you can do to help them adjust. Encourage regular feedback as well so you can modify expectations together, in real time.
2. Connect Face-to-Face (Through the Computer)
Not everyone loves being on camera—and when you add pets, roommates, significant others, kids, or other family members to the mix, finding a quiet space to take video calls might not be easy (or even possible) for some people.
But since in-person communication isn’t an option at all right now, Sachs recommends having webcams turned on when participating in conference calls. “Having your webcam enabled allows you to maintain that face-to-face connectivity even if it’s through a computer,” she says. “Being able to see people’s facial expressions, nodding in agreement, or raising an eyebrow when confused is critical to being able to work in a remote environment successfully, especially when managing a team.”
As a manager, you can set the tone that it’s OK if people have things going on in the background. Embracing minor distractions is a regular part of office life anyway and ultimately, video enables teams to maintain a sense of normalcy through human connection. (It’s also OK to make exceptions and let people keep their cameras off sometimes.)
3. Don’t Hesitate to Overcommunicate
If you’re nervous about possibly micromanaging your direct reports during this time, remember that there’s a difference between constantly checking up on people (which may not be welcomed or helpful) and reiterating action items to make sure your team is aligned on key projects.
Sachs says that overcommunication is important, especially while we aren’t able to have quick follow-up conversations at our desks. “Associates who aren’t used to working 100% remote will naturally feel disconnected in so many ways,” she says, but small changes to your typical routines can help combat that feeling.
Keeping people engaged can be as simple as sending recap emails after one-on-one meetings or sending out specific next steps after conference calls, Sachs suggests. Providing people with something concrete that they can refer back to not only helps them stay on track but also helps them feel confident moving forward on assignments.
4. Use the Right Tools to Stay in Touch
You might also be wondering if there’s a good rule of thumb for how to check in with direct reports and host larger group meetings.
In general, Sachs has found that reaching out via your company’s instant messaging platform to quickly touch base or just check in works well on a one-on-one basis. For collaboration and large projects involving several employees or departments, the team at Kforce leverages Microsoft Teams. But the reality is that remote communication is going to look different at every company. “Understanding the various communication tools at your disposal and how to best make use of them is really important,” Sachs says.
There’s going to be an adjustment period while you figure out what works best for you and your team, so don’t be afraid to use some trial and error. For example, you could test out two types of brainstorming sessions—one over a video chat platform like Zoom or Google Hangouts and another using a dedicated Slack channel—and then ask your team members which approach felt the most productive.
It’s also worth reaching out to other managers at your company to compare notes and exchange ideas. You’ll probably end up helping them just as much as they help you.
5. Encourage Natural Breaks Throughout the Day
Going from working in an office every day to working from home all the time isn’t the easiest transition to make. Some people might even feel like they have to stay glued to their desks (or couches or makeshift workspaces) so they never miss an email, message, or phone call. But that’s not necessarily how they would be operating back in the office—so it’s crucial to remind your team that it’s OK to step away.
“We take for granted all of the human interaction we have in an office environment,” Sachs says. “We get up from our desks to freshen up our coffee and stop to chat with two or three coworkers. As you’re heading downstairs to join a meeting, you run into your boss in the hallway. You constantly have a change in scenery in the office throughout the day. Trying to replicate that at home is really difficult, but it’s so important for your overall mental health and success in a remote environment.”
While it can be hard to do, Sachs recommends encouraging your team to step away from their workspace for a designated lunch break, to take a walk or fit in some other kind of physical activity, or even just to take 30 minutes to press pause and reset. As a manager, people will look to you to gauge what’s acceptable. Modeling these healthy habits yourself (and being transparent about what you’re doing) can help assure others that it’s OK to do the same.
6. Remember You Can Still Have Fun and Socialize—Virtually
We may not be able to interact with our coworkers in person right now, but that doesn’t mean team bonding has to take a back seat—and it shouldn’t. Video conferencing technology is a hugely valuable resource for maintaining healthy relationships and camaraderie on your team (and your company as a whole) during this time apart.
“One of my managers had a virtual happy hour recently, which turned out to be so much fun. Everyone had their webcams on, grabbed a cold drink...and just hung out, chatted, and laughed,” Sachs says.
We’ve taken a similar approach to virtual socializing here at The Muse with employees hosting fun, optional events like game nights, movie parties, MTV Cribs-style home tours, and more.
The way we think about work has changed significantly in a very short period of time—it’s uncharted territory for so many people and companies. But you don’t have to rethink your entire approach to being a manager. Making small, thoughtful changes can help your team stay engaged, feel supported, and be motivated to keep doing great work.