The Challenges of Managing Remote Teams
The current global situation with respect to COVID-19 has led to many companies requesting that their employees engage in their daily tasks remotely, from their homes. These measures were taken in response to government advice, in order to limit exposure to the virus. However, for companies whose daily routines are not geared towards digital tools, and who have not planned for such a scenario, there is a great likelihood that this essentially overnight change has had an immediate negative impact on the business.
When team-based operations move towards remote working, they tend to try and take their office ways of working with them and replicate them in the remote space. This may result in several issues, the most common of which being the lack of coordination between different team members. Leaders will often find that their team members either share tasks/deliverables unknowingly or that the deliverables of team members do not meet the requirements. Another concern that leaders may face is the inherent lack of visibility over team activities. This can result in uneven capacity as the workload for each team member cannot be measured easily. Remote workers describe collaboration and communication as their biggest challenge when remote working.
To highlight another challenge, let us use the example of a team member who requires assistance from their team leader in a remote working environment versus an on-site working environment. In an on-site environment, it is just a question of passing by the leader’s desk and asking for guidance. In contrast, in a poorly functioning remote working environment, the team member would have to call the team leader and hope that they are available at that moment. As a result, the team member would often try to get by without assistance or call a fellow team member, disrupting them from completing their own tasks.
To overcome this, the leader may see fit to organise virtual daily meetings. Like their non-virtual counterparts, it is all too common for these virtual meetings to start late, resulting in a feeling of unrest amongst employees who start to see a crucial part of the day as a waste of time and effort. This can be worsened by the fact that one team member may find themselves having to engage in several meetings, each having the same issues. Add to this working with technology and tools which teams have not been trained to use, and it becomes very clear just why companies still tend to prefer the classic office environment to the online one.
The challenges discussed above have several common root causes. Most common among these is the fact that companies have had to move to a radically different way of working without having built a structure for these new daily routines in the first place. We must keep in mind that many team leaders have received little to no formal training in maintaining a team in the remote space and thus will find it difficult to put effective standards in place to maximise the output and efficiency of their team. Without adequate standards in place for disseminating information and conducting a meeting correctly, it is only natural that teams are not getting the full benefit of the daily briefing. Aside from adequate standards, it is also important for leaders to be aware of the vast number of tools they have at their disposal in order to assist them in the daily management of their teams.
In an office environment, most teams will begin their day with a daily briefing to align daily expectations and deliverables with team members. So, with all the previous concerns in mind, let us now design the ideal virtual team meeting environment. A daily team meeting should begin at the exact same time every day, without exception. This ensures team members shape their daily routines around the meeting and minimises absenteeism and lateness. When communicating virtually, the best way is to engage in a video chat (followed by audio, messenger and e-mail). Not only can a visual meeting allow for better communication, it also allows for the use of visual tools that add dynamics to the agenda, via screensharing.
The daily meeting should have a structured agenda that follows a work plan, performance indicators and improvement cycle. This will help to closer manage the ongoing work as well as the motivation and energy of the team. Progress can be tracked through traffic lights; performance indicators should be easily understood, updated and interpreted so that team members can better track their own performance as well as that of the team as a whole. This should also boost the sense of accountability among team members when the workplan is clear for all and shared. Being publicly praised for good work can be a great motivation to perform and work well.
When assigning work, it is best to divide it into short sprints (of about 90-120 mins each) each with its own set target. This helps team members maintain their work pace and facilitates follow-up. Meeting the work plan targets means that the team is still on track for their daily deliverables. This way, the team leader can provide better guidance and assistance to his team. Furthermore, completing daily deliverables enables employees to switch off after work – this is one of the most common struggles of remote working.
Remote team leaders should also try to make the most of the available software. Having a centralised file sharing platform such as Dropbox or OneDrive is crucial. SharePoint can enable team members to edit documents and programs stored in this centralised platform simultaneously. Having a team chat room in Slack or Microsoft Teams can help keep communication strong between team members. Using powerful but accessible data analytics tools such as Power BI or Tableau enables data to be communicated in such a way that it can tell a story. Tools such as Microsoft Teams, Miro or Trello are a great help for leaders to build their digital boards and manage meetings remotely. For those who prefer to use the tools they already have, these meeting elements can be created on Excel or PowerPoint, with the team leader sharing his screen. Independently of the tool being used, leaders should share the meeting agenda with the team and encourage team members to participate in an orderly fashion, creating a dynamic and ensuring everyone gets involved.
With more companies now having been forced to work remotely, at least for the time being, it is easy to foresee that with employees having experienced the potential benefits first-hand, this will soon become the norm and not the exception. It is now up to companies and business owners to ensure that they are prepared to take advantage of this new reality. Redesigning business processes to leverage the benefits of remote work may prove to be a competitive advantage once the economy is ready to recover.
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