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Leadership & Management

Managing Remote Teams: Increasing Engagement and Productivity

Jim Cunningham

Jim Cunningham

July 12, 2023 6 min read

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The pandemic brought about a remote and hybrid workforce and several challenges with it. The greatest being that of managing remote teams. What many of us have learned is that workers enjoy the freedom and flexibility that comes with remote work but for leaders, it is difficult. We are not able to keep a tab on the actual impact it has on employee engagement and productivity. How then can one be managing remote teams?

Engagement  can be measured with survey instruments that are well-suited to gather employee sentiment about their role, the company, the work they do, and the culture that surrounds them. When it comes to productivity, we may need to think about those measures differently as they might not be relevant.

Despite our measures, it is fair to say that remote work is not going away, so how do managers make sure that employees are engaged in the mission of the organisation, productive in the assignments they have been given, and still feel a sense of belonging to a cause and a team? Managers are in the best position to lead this effort and there are some tips you can give them to operate in this new world.

Create an online culture by establishing norms.

For example, when meeting virtually encourage your team-mates to switch on their cameras with some reasonable exceptions that accommodate for eating a meal or calling-in while picking the kids up from school. Whatever the rules, it is better to be clear about the “why” as number it allows employees to agree or disagree with you and just makes communication clear. Switching on your camera first encourages others to do and helps pick up on non-verbal cues.

Have some fun with it and encourage people to use creative backgrounds that reflect their interests and family culture. One can also schedule time for activities towards the end of the workday or end of the week. For example- just a regular catch up on how things were or host team games like conducting a quiz etcetera. It’s one way to managing remote teams.

Jump start relationships with in-person time

It isn’t always possible because of geographical limitations, but virtual relationships tend to be more genuine and productive when people have had a chance to spend time together in-person. When possible, invite the remote team to meet in person and do some team building. You’ll notice a difference in online interactions after the team knows one another on a more personal level.

Don’t make virtual all about work

When in the office, we all take time to connect about our families, what we did on our vacation, our favorite sports teams, etc. One of the challenges with online work is that interactions are generally scheduled around a meeting and its agenda.  Schedule daily or weekly huddles and leave some time for people to connect more personally, or schedule virtual lunches where team members can eat and share more about themselves; food is a great ice breaker. It is alright to let the first five to ten minutes of a meeting be a little less productive if it gives people a chance to catch up, celebrate a birthday, or talk about their plans for the weekend.

Create some socializing opportunities

During the pandemic and lock downs, people got creative with virtual happy hours or holiday celebrations… so do the same. Hold an event virtually, inviting family to join along. Let colleagues meet each other’s families, a best friend, or dog. In many ways, virtual socializing frees us of limitations or social concerns we were plagued with before. We no longer need to worry as much about how we are dressed, and we can include anyone meaningful in our life without worrying about an expensive event. There is a real opportunity to improve employee engagement and a sense of belonging in the remote and hybrid world, we just need to be creative and throw out some of the old rules.

Remember it is about flexibility

So when working in a hybrid setting, avoid too many rules mandating what days of the week are in-person and find ways to optimize individual flexibility. There is nothing wrong with three people working together in a room while talking with three others who are home working remotely. The workforce of today values flexibility perhaps more than any other benefit so have rules when they are needed, but not for the sake of having rules. You’ll reap the rewards as you recruit and retain the best talent.

Make use of your digital tools

By making sure robust messaging, audio, and video conferencing are not only available, but that everyone is well trained in how to use them effectively. Collaboration tools should be available so team members can share information easily and in real time. Don’t forget to consider how time zone differences affect the remote and hybrid worker so set preferences and boundaries around meetings that may be scheduled in off hours for certain team members. Have an IT support infrastructure that is responsive and able to scale with the rest of the organization.

Today, much of our personal and professional lives take place online, be it through email, messaging platforms, or social media. There is no reason to believe our virtual existence will decrease in coming years and for managers it is important to reflect on how this has, and will continue to, change how we communicate. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic many of us learned to get comfortable with conducting meetings on Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meets, Skype, etc., and organizations developed different norms on how to interact. Some organizations frowned on team members who turned off their video and joined by audio only, and there were companies that didn’t care. Some organizations insisted on standard backgrounds that included logos or company branding, while others were fine with the family kitchen and fish tank on display. Technology helped us through a challenging time and will continue to be a much-used platform for how we operate. Help your managers be deliberate about how they keep employees engaged and productive in the new world of remote and hybrid work.

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