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Tips to Manage Your Remote Team (From a Completely Remote Team)

Chelsea Iversen Mar. 17, 2020

Managing a remote team? You’re not alone.

This week, the number of people doing work from home has exploded in the U.S. due to the precautions taken to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that roughly 25 percent of the American workforce did work at home. There are other statistics that point to higher numbers. (Back in 2016, for example, Gallup reported that 43 percent of people worked from home at least some of the time, up from 39 percent in 2012.) Whatever the numbers were, the new mandates for some employees from companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Twitter, Amazon, and countless others mean that the number of remote workers has almost certainly increased in the last few days.

These are unprecedented times, that much is true. But this overnight norm may set the groundwork for a trend that continues. Studies seem to indicate that those who get a taste of the work-from-home life like it. In fact, 99 percent of 2,500 remote-working respondents to a Buffer study said they would prefer to work remotely, at least sometimes, for the rest of their careers.

That said, there have been questions surrounding the productivity and well-being of remote workers. One study showed that employee attrition rates dropped by 50 percent among telecommuters, and remote workers “took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off.” 

Though most recent studies show that remote work can be more productive, the isolating nature of working from home and the toll it takes on workers is an issue. In one study, two-thirds of remote workers admitted that they weren’t engaged with their company, and in another, workers said they did not want to work from home 100 percent of the time because it was too isolating. More than a fifth of remote workers reported feeling lonely in a recent Gallup study.

Though isolation and loneliness are linked, it’s important to point out that they are not the same. Isolation is the structural issue of lacking social interaction. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotional state reflecting a lack of social connection. In order to combat loneliness, then, employers and managers have to help their teams combat isolation.

In a time of social distancing, social interaction for remote teams is more important than ever. Social engagement is absolutely critical, especially in the face of worries about health and safety that still loom large. And, in a time when there are hundreds of online tools available to connect us, it’s more possible than ever as well.

While some workers are happy to squeeze in some extra fur-baby snuggles, some have suddenly had to balance work with homeschooling. Many are working from their parents’ kitchen tables while others are completely isolated following “shelter in place” ordinances. Others still are dealing with illness in their own homes.

At ALEx, we have been a completely remote team since inception, and have established some tried-and-true strategies for staying engaged, productive, and happy at work. As a highly-functioning WFH team, we wanted to share our tips for managers who may be leading fully remote teams for the first time.

Here are our strategies to fight isolation and help your team work from home successfully:

1. Connect via video

There are a handful of tools you can use on a daily basis to stay connected when you cannot meet face to face. Zoom is an incredible way to host meetings and conference calls. Try turning your video on for all your calls. Part of being part of a team and feeling engaged at work is showing up just as you are. Of course there are some limitations, just as there would be in an office, but generally, turning on your camera and looking into the face of your coworkers has a powerful impact on your emotional state. Psychology Today reported about one study that showed video-chat was actually able to prevent depression among older adults. Video is the next-best thing to in-person. You’re able to see body language and respond to facial expressions — two key parts of social interactions that are missing from other technologies like email and phone calls.

2. Encourage your team to stay healthy

During times like these, it’s especially important to make sure you’re prioritizing your team’s mental and emotional health. Checking up on how your team is doing and inspiring them to take care of themselves is paramount. Happy, healthy workers are more productive and engaged in their work, and it’s critical to not lose sight of that when working with a remote team. Encourage people to block out a ten-minute space every few hours to take a walk outside or just do some jumping jacks inside the house.

3. Keep your space tidy

As one of our ALEx team members puts it, “A clean house makes for a clean mind.” When your team is working from home (and might even have some unexpected coworkers around these days), they can try keeping their space clean with five-minute chores. Taking a few minutes every hour to complete one household task can do wonders. It’s a great way for them to get away from the computer for a bit, keep up with the chores that are perpetually distracting them, and still power through hours of work.

4. Keep collaboration organized

In an effort to stay structured and avoid confusion — misunderstandings can get overblown quickly on remote teams — keep your collaborative efforts organized. At ALEx, we rely on tools like monday.com to track projects, assign ownership, and stay up-to-date on everything. Collaborative project management tools that are visible to all help keep things straight. And if you require word processing, spreadsheets, or slides and you haven’t started working in the cloud, it may be time. Try Google’s G Suite or a similar collaborative business management tool.

5. Create mingling spaces

In addition to using Slack for productivity, at ALEx we use Slack channels to create water-cooler spaces where the team can come and chat about topics not related to work. Because so much of avoiding isolation includes social interaction, expecting a completely work-productive workforce is actually counter-productive. People need time and space to blow off steam. Use tools like Slack to let your team keep in touch, chat about things that are on their minds and decompress. One company goes so far as to host virtual video happy hours with the team during which work conversations are off limits. You can also host team-wide challenges or games on Slack if you’re sensing team engagement is slipping. The more in touch your team is, the more engaged they are. And the more engaged they are, the more likely they are to stay healthy and produce great work.

6. Encourage productive procrastination

Instead of getting stuck down a news sinkhole, encourage your team to learn something new or keep their skills sharp. Engage your team even more with online courses in your industry. (As a start, you can sign up for The Ad Learning Exchange for free to get access to courses in advertising and marketing.) And they can sign up for newsletters like theCLIKK to keep pace with daily changes in  marketing. The world of marketing is still turning, and your people need to be at the top of their game. Give them the opportunity to skip dwelling in the news cycle and, instead, look ahead to acquiring new skills that will propel their career forward. 

7. Practice empathy and flexibility

Understand that everyone has a different work from home life, especially now. Some members of your team may be parents and have to care for children who cannot go to school. Some may be completely alone for the foreseeable future. Be flexible, be open-minded. Be compassionate. Ask your team how they’re doing. Encourage open discussions, and give your team the support they need. This is a difficult time for all, and managing a remote team requires flexibility. In a recent study, 96 percent of workers said empathy was an important quality that companies should demonstrate, but 92 percent of employees say empathy is undervalued at their current company. Empathy can be more difficult without in-person interactions. But it’s not impossible. And it’s as important as ever.

8. Schedule 1:1s

Remote teams struggle with isolation, which means they may not always feel seen and heard. Combat this from the start by building in 1:1 meetings with every member of your team. Make sure they have time to talk to you directly about how things are going, what their progress is on certain projects, and voice their concerns and ideas. Setting aside time dedicated to personal conversations with your team works wonders for productivity and can help ensure your team feels valued.

Does your team need to sharpen their marketing skills? Learn how to train your team from home: