Effectively Managing A Remote Team? Look to the Tech Industry for Tips
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many student union and student activities professionals recently found themselves in a new situation: figuring out how to work from home while managing a remote team. Much like students confronted with remote learning and having to adapt quickly, administrators and staff stayed home, working to create welcoming and supportive environments for a widespread, physically distant community.
Looking ahead to the upcoming academic year, higher education administrators must prepare for the changing ways of work, understanding that with ongoing pandemic issues, higher education institutions may need to shift into cycles of remote and socially distant operations from time to time. To continue to serve campus communities in the long term, effectively managing a remote team is a skill worth developing.
In the technology field, remote work has been and remains a standard way to conduct business, so, for that reason, we look to technology leaders for guidance on how to effectively manage a remote team. Common themes from resources shared by technology companies and leaders suggest managers should set clear expectations, focus on results, and maintain their culture.
When setting expectations, managers must balance the needs of the organization and the needs of the individual people on their team. In the anxiety producing times of living and working at home during a pandemic, managers should understand their employees may feel more stress than usual. Setting clear expectations and structure will help team members when so much else is uncertain.
Dave Collins, founder and CEO of Oak and Reeds and a corporate trainer who works out of his home, suggests managers set rules for video conferencing such as: use video during calls, mute audio when not talking, and avoid multitasking. Collins notes, “If it’s rude to be on your phone when in person, it’s still rude in a virtual meeting.”
Another way to set expectations is through more regular check-in meetings and calls with team members. On a webinar featuring a panel of technology leaders, Natalie Nagele, co-founder of Wildbit, says you might start with daily check-ins when transitioning to remote work.
However, when scheduling meetings and considering the well-being of their employees, managers should limit the number of video calls they require. Mallory McMaster, who teaches executives and employees how to be better communicators, says it’s a lot of work on employees and takes a lot of energy to watch a dozen of your colleagues at once. “What I’ve told people is maybe set a limit of two hours of video calls a day and be upfront and honest with your teammates or your employers or your clients about that.” Individual capacity for more or fewer meetings varies, and managers should strive to meet the various needs of their team members, just as they would with in-person meetings.
Managers should also clearly communicate with their direct reports how they track productivity in a remote environment. Rather than measuring “time in seat,” Collins encourages managers to focus on outputs. Nagele reiterates the importance of outputs, saying, “To me, the value of remote work is that trust, that ability to empower every person to manage their time, to manage theirs, and their responsibilities around an output.” Managers must provide metrics and feedback to their employees to help them measure their output.
Some employees may overcompensate and spend more time working, now that they do not have the clear, physical distinction of home and work. If a manager knows their team member leans toward this behavior, they should check-in with the employee about their experience and also encourage the employee to channel their energy into meaningful projects that help them develop as a professional, rather than complete busy work that may lead to burnout.
On the other hand, a team member may also take advantage of the situation; those who can do less will do less. Collins also believes people are going to goof off wherever they are, in the office or home. At the end of the day, the ability for people to effectively work remotely requires clear expectations and trust from managers that employees want to do a good job and will try their best to make themselves productive at home.
Beyond productivity, managers must work to build culture, even while remote. The opportunity to chat during the down time between meetings in the office and walking from place to place is gone. Collins recommends building in unstructured time in each meeting to allow for casual socializing and hallway chitchat. Sarah Park, president of MeetEdgar, suggests trying to mimic your in-office culture in the remote environment. If your team often drinks coffee and chats, goes out for drinks, or likes to play trivia, you can plan those activities online or in another format. A Harvard Business Review Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers includes ideas of virtual pizza parties where pizza is delivered to all team members at the time of a videoconference, virtual office parties, in which party “care packages” can be sent in advance to be opened and enjoyed together.
Since university budgets may be tighter, individuals could bring their own lunch or drinks to share together online. The Emory University Student Center Operations team now has a standing, optional Zoom coffee hour scheduled on a weekly basis, and, as part of their daily routine, some team members post early morning memes on Microsoft Teams, starting the day with the positive energy they typically bring to the office. “Whatever it is you like most about working in office, try to make the virtual version of it happen,” said Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier.
Managers may find themselves challenged by the current situation and should keep in mind that learning to do remote work well takes time to learn. Kieran Flanagan, vice president of marketing at HubSpot, says this about his team: “I’m sure we were not a very good remote team to begin with, but we stayed with it because we believe it is a better option for people who want to live that kind of lifestyle and have that kind of life around their work.” In struggling to make it work, managers may find it helpful to keep in mind that eventually being able to effectively manage remotely is worthwhile for their employees.
Lastly, in learning how to effectively manage in a remote environment, managers must be kind to themselves and recognize the stress they and their teams are likely feeling. In a piece advising how to communicate to your team in uncertain times, Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, reminds managers, “Put on your own oxygen mask first.”