Remote work has become essential for many organizations. However, it appears that some employees and managers are ill-equipped for this type of work arrangement. According to a new survey by leadership training company VitalSmarts:

  • 21% of employees don’t feel their team members have good enough collaboration habits to work effectively from home
  • 20% of leaders are either unprepared or very unprepared to manage remote teams

A VitalSmarts survey conducted before COVID-19 found that remote workers were already experiencing challenges when issues arise:

  • 84% of remote employees said their concerns dragged on for a few days or more
  • 47% admitted to letting concerns drag on for a few weeks or more

That survey also revealed that compared to their on-site colleagues, remote employees reported more negative impacts in productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress, and retention.

That’s not exactly the type of news you want to hear when transitioning to remote teams.

“We've just entered uncharted territory as a workforce, and as our research indicates, many leaders aren’t fully prepared to manage remote teams,” says Justin Hale, a training designer and researcher at VitalSmarts. He believes it will take time to adjust to this new normal, and recommends patience, since everyone works differently. “Some prefer to work digitally, while others crave in-person meetings and communication,” Hale says. “We need to be flexible with how we work and adjust, while acknowledging it may take a little longer for some people to adapt than it will for others."

However, Hale also believes that managers must handle another potential issue. “This is a time for managers to realize the way they lead will make or break the trust they have earned with their direct reports.” The good news is that the ability to maintain trust now will serve to strengthen relationships moving forward. “But, if managers lose trust by improperly managing employees today, they may lose their top performers in the future.”

The IT connection

Technology is more important than ever with distributed work teams. “As entire workforces move to work from home, technology can help IT teams manage computers remotely — so that troubleshooting can be handled no matter where employees and IT admins are,” says Jason Dettbarn, CEO of Addigy, an Apple device management platform. Whereas you used to hand over your laptop to the IT department, and they, in turn, would install security updates, etc., he says this can now be done remotely.

“The first thing companies should do — if they recognize they're not ready for everyone working from home — is to check their security protocols,” Dettbarn says. “And since more people are working from home and on home and public Wi-Fi networks, that makes this even more important.” He warns that devices have to be updated with important security settings to reduce the types of risks that come with working on less secure networks.

Darryl Burroughs is the deputy director of infrastructure operations in information management services for the city of Birmingham, Alabama. His team has been working nonstop to address a laundry list of items to ensure the city continues to run efficiently.

“We are identifying mission critical team members first and determining their needs to do 100% of their work from off-site.” Burroughs says he has also ordered additional laptops and purchased additional VPN licenses for access to the city infrastructure and applications.

“We have secured additional licenses for Webex and other collaboration tools that help us to work together even though we are spread out across the city,” he explains. “We have also leveraged InfoTech Pandemic IT SME to help plan and think through quickly — and then properly respond to all the new challenges the pandemic has created.”

Burroughs says that full-time remote work has never been an option before for the city's 4,500 employees. “As managers, we are developing plans for reporting, and monitoring work performance of remote workers.”

7 Tips for Managing Remote Employees

Like Burroughs, many leaders don’t have experience managing remote teams since the vast majority of organizations don’t have distributed workforces. Hale shares the following best practices for managing remote teams and mitigating risks:

1. Frequent and Consistent Check-ins

Check in frequently and regularly with remote employees. The cadence of the check-ins can vary from daily to bi-weekly to weekly but should always be consistent and entail a standing meeting or scheduled one-on-one.

2. Face-to-Face or Voice-to-Voice

The most successful managers insist on some face time with remote employees. If in-person meetings are not possible, at a minimum use video conferencing technology or pick up the phone to ensure colleagues occasionally see one another’s face or hear one another’s voice.

3. Exemplify Stellar Communication Skills

You cannot overemphasize the importance of general, stellar communication with remote teams. The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of overcommunicating.

4. Explicit Expectations

When it comes to managing remote teams, be clear about expectations. Managers who are direct with their expectations — especially when the “rules” of work have suddenly changed — have happier teams that can deliver to those expectations. People are never left in the dark about projects, roles, deadlines etc.

5. Always Available

Successful managers are available quickly and at all times of the day. They go above and beyond to maintain an open-door policy for remote employees — making themselves available across multiple time zones and through multiple means of technology (instant messaging, Slack, Skype, email, phone, text, etc.). Remote employees can always count on their manager to respond to pressing concerns.

6. Technology Maven

Successful managers use multiple means of communication to connect with their remote workers. They don’t just resort to phone or email but are familiar with video conferencing technologies and a variety of services like Skype, Slack, instant messaging, Adobe Connect and more. They often tailor their communication style and medium to each employee.

7. Prioritize Relationships

Team-building and comradery are important for any team and remote teams are no exception. Good managers go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They use check-in time to ask about their personal life, families and hobbies. They allow team meeting time for “water cooler” conversation, so the whole team can create personal connections and strengthen relationships.