For many organisations around the world, working as a team remotely has become a part of the new normal. With the pandemic of COVID-19 continuing to impact so many countries, and social distancing being a major part of mitigation, employers are trying to help workers stay at home. For some teams, working remotely may or may not be completely new. But for many of them, needing to adjust to totally remote arrangements, in most cases suddenly and indefinitely is requiring a learning curve.
How to make working as a team remotely successful:
Recognize this is not easy. With so much technology in our lives, it seems on first glance that dialing into a videoconference and getting on Slack can replace all our in-person operations. That’s not really true. For one, videoconferencing is really best for meetings – pre-planned appointments with agendas. But most of day-to-day interactions with team members are actually not in meetings. It’s a quick call, or stopping by someone’s office. Then two of you loop in a third person for a brief huddle. You can talk at the same time, scribble things on a piece of paper, lean over someone’s shoulder while they bring up something on their screen. It’s all fluid and organic. And now. . .it’s all gone. Not the ability to communicate, but the natural engagement. So it’s important to recognize that it isn’t easy to make this shift. Otherwise you’ll be surprised – and frustrated – when you realise that actually interaction is now more stilted, less impromptu, and generally less satisfying.
The professional becomes personalised. No matter how much of a fully built out, totally private home office you have, it’s not the same as being in the workplace. And most of your team members are very unlikely to have such a situation anyway. Most are working from kitchen tables, or sitting on their sofa, locked away in a spare bedroom or other makeshift arrangements. Some of them have to deal with lack of childcare, partners also working from home, or flatmates nearby at all hours. Pets and babies are rarely considerate just because there’s a business call going on.
Add to that simple new realities like being available to meet the daytime deliveries that have replaced after-hours shopping. Your team has gone from a fairly uniform environment to very individualised situations. The first thing is to recognise this and take pressure off of everyone. Working as a team remotely under present circumstances has to require some loosening of protocols, lowered expectations around professional standards, and maybe even some reasonable relaxation around deadlines.
Call it quits more often. If you’re a leader, you need to signal to the team that it’s not only ok, but advisable to finish the workday early. Or, if it’s feasible, perhaps consider every other Friday off, or similar flexibility. The workday is more taxing when you are working as a team remotely. For one thing, there is not only the widespread fear and stress of the health crisis generally, there are specific challenges to individual at-home circumstances. In many cases domestic help is no longer available or children are being home schooled. Even Internet has become slower in households where everyone is online all day. This makes the workday more taxing, and it’s simply harder to concentrate. Add to that the loss of natural breaks that come with a midday run to grab lunch, or an afternoon break to go get a latte, and it means work is more intense. Encourage your team to start a bit later or end a bit earlier. Don’t let those who still have the ability to work long hours put pressure on those who no longer can sustain the same schedule.
Temper the technology. It really is great that we can text, email, DM, videoconference and talk on the phone. It’s also really exhausting that we can text, email, DM, videoconference and talk on the phone. Try to manage how much your team over communicates via too many channels. Decide you’re going to rely on Slack, or not. If someone looks available but doesn’t respond immediately, don’t follow up with a text message and send an email. Otherwise you’re soon sending the same information in triplicate. People begin frantically checking multiple devices and platforms to keep up. Remember that you have far less visibility into people’s availability. If you stopped by someone’s office and they were on the phone, you wouldn’t walk in and start talking to them. Technology means information can be delivered faster. People are working at the same pace as before.
Working as a team remotely means working as a team differently.
For now, the world has changed, and professional life must adjust as well. Just as a slight cough has now taken on an ominous meaning, a simple business call can require negotiating relative quiet from three people and the family dog. Be easy on your teammates and easy on yourself. Eventually you will come back together and relish being stuck in a conference room. Until then, keep learning to support each other no matter what the distance.
And one last thing — one tool I love is the Webex platform we’ve developed at Cisco. It’s an outstanding videoconferencing system generally, and right now it’s offering months of complimentary service. The free plan has also been upgraded to include additional benefits tailored to the specific challenges of COVID-19, and there are multiple tips on how to better leverage technology in these uniquely trying times.
Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.