Remote control: how to manage and motivate a virtual team

Remote working is different, and you need to think and manage differently if you want to keep staff motivated and productive.

Given that before the coronavirus pandemic only five per cent of the workforce – worked from home, it’s strange to think how the transition to remote working has gone more smoothly than anybody expected.

We spoke to HR expert Natasha Kearslake, director of consultancy Organic P&O Solutions, to get some insights.

From ensuring that water-cooler chat continues to dealing with apprentices in pyjamas, read on for expert advice… 

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Whether it’s behemoth corporations such as KPM seamlessly shifting its 16,300-strong UK workforce to home working or small practices questioning whether they need to pay expensive office rents, most firms have adjusted to their workers slogging away from their kitchen tables or garden sheds.

Even as lockdowns start to lift, it looks as if some people may never return to their office cubicles or endure soul-crushing commutes ever again. Facebook expects half of its workforce will work remotely over the next five to ten years; Twitter has announced that its staff can work from home “forever” if they choose.

That doesn’t mean that remote working hasn’t thrown up considerable challenges. In particular, many managers are concerned staff could be slacking given that it’s now difficult to monitor them. There are also some reports of trainees being furloughed because the experience of supervising them and delegating tasks has gone so badly.

1. Restructuring your team for remote working

Assess staff needs

“The first step is recognising that some people will adjust to this easily and others will struggle,” says Kearslake. “Assess what remote working means for your people. Do they have enough physical space? Do you need to loan them any equipment? Will home working affect their mental health? Identify these issues first.”

Establish a team ‘check-in’ 

Within your organisation, it’s worth having a team ‘check-in’, somebody who speaks to staff individually on a daily basis at a fixed time. This remote manager will monitor what staff are currently working on, as well as acting as their go-to person should they have any concerns or worries.  

2. Getting the most out of your staff 

Set team objectives and express these clearly

Workers have actually become more productive during lockdown. One recent University of Montreal study revealed that one third of those surveyed feel their performance has improved since they started working virtually.

However, not every boss is confident that their hires aren’t spending all day scrolling through Instagram feeds or playing with their pet dog. In fact, now that physically hovering over their desks is no longer an option, there’s no way of guaranteeing whether staff are slacking or not.

Kearslake’s advice is simple. Because remote-working requires staff to take more responsibility, managers should abandon any ideas about presenteeism. They should ensure that any work produced has to be results-driven, perhaps setting assignments with timescales and deadlines. 

“Because you can’t see staff working, it increases the case for managing by results,” says Kearslake. “Don’t focus on how many hours they should be working. Instead, have a conversation about what you expect them to achieve.”

Clarity is essential here. “You need to be absolutely clear with staff about deadlines and what you expect them to produce by a certain day,” says Kearslake.

If in doubt, managers can monitor email traffic, phone calls or financial performance. However, before you start snooping their data, Kearslake warns that you should check whether such surveillance is in your employment contracts. Another (more drastic) measure is to contact a private investigator: in Las Vegas De Becker Investigations has caught home-workers playing tennis and golfing after their suspicious companies hired the detective agency to do some sleuthing. 

Become an inspiring leader by developing the personal touch

“If you praise people when they produce good work, they’re more likely to repeat it,” says Kearslake. “The postal service hasn’t disappeared – try sending a thank-you card or gift.”

It’s also worth making yourself more visible as a leader, she adds. “Think about content, whether it’s a video you put on your intranet page every morning or blog posts.”

Keeping company culture alive 

The fabric of the workplace thrives on water-cooler chat. Some companies even claim informal conversations lead to innovation – see Google, which keeps its canteen lunch-lines deliberately long in the hope this “serendipitous interaction” will foster inventive ideas.    

But how can you inspire team bonding when everybody has dispersed into isolated, one-person units? Kearslake recommends changing the means of communication. “If most of your work is conducted on email or Zoom, then consider encouraging staff to chat with each other on less informal channels such as Slack, social media or instant messaging.”

The last few months has also seen countless creative examples of staff letting their hair down online: digital happy hours, quarantine quizzes and virtual pizza parties (whereby pizza is delivered to all team members during their videoconferencing call).

3. Managing apprentices and trainees/ Managing younger staff

What to do when an apprentice doesn’t attend a virtual meeting because they’re having a lie-in… 

Start by observing their working habits, suggests Kearslake. “Does this person operate on their own initiative or do they need motivating? Is this apprentice capable of getting themselves breakfast or will they wander through the day in their pyjamas? It’s about seeing how they get on.”

Ditching nine-to-five working patterns is also a good idea. “Work with the rhythms of your staff the best way you can,” advises Kearslake. “Be flexible: concede not everybody needs a 9am start. If somebody functions better when starting later in the day, let them do that. Also, set clear boundaries about what they need to achieve, rather than focusing on when they’re available.”

According to research by Henley Business School, millennials and generation Z (those born those born between the mid-1990s and early-2010s) desire flexible working and would happily trade pay for the freedom to work wherever and whenever they want.

“With that particular age group, if you show that you’re prepared to give some leeway, you’re more likely to win their hearts when it comes to things that you can’t be flexible about,” says Kearslake.

Be mindful of their home working conditions

Junior members of staff, apprentices and trainees are more likely to be working from a parental home or shared accommodation. It’s something that bosses should be conscious of, says Kearslake.

“What kind of space are they working in? Have they got a spare room to work from? Or are they using the kitchen table as a desk? It might be noisy with lots of children around, or they could be caring for their relatives.”

If that’s the case, Kearslake suggests exercising some leniency. “These are unusual times and you can’t apply traditional working principles,” she says. “You’ve got to be understanding about the challenges they’re facing. Find out the best times of day for them to work. It might also mean that the apprentice has a conversation with their families, such as telling their furloughed mother they can’t watch Netflix in the background of their Zoom calls.”

Become acquainted with asynchronous working

Asynchronous working broadly means that business hours won’t be at the same time for everybody.

“Think carefully when scheduling hours for your staff,” says Kearslake. “For example, you could move somebody to starting early before their kids wake up, because that’s the only time when the house is quiet. Or you could shift other staff to the evenings because that’s when they’re most productive.”

Helping workers who aren’t tech-savvy

“Find whatever technology they are comfortable with,” says Kearslake. “If the rest of the team is on Zoom, and they’re more comfortable with telephone conversations, consider that instead.”

Helping less confident trainees

Holding team meetings on virtual conference calls may mean the voices of bashful staff may struggle to get heard. Fortunately, many videoconferencing platforms have chat functions where team members can type messages for co-workers (see Zoom’s ‘Raise Hand’ feature or Google Hangouts’ Google Chat).

4. Employee wellbeing 

Looking after… the physical health of workers

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a legal duty to protect staff when they carry out their work. This includes home-workers. Although it’s logistically difficult to ensure staff are using equipment properly – you can’t visit their homes, after all – you must educate and train them on any potential hazards, plus provide any devices to help mitigate any risks. Kearslake suggests referring to the Health and Safety Executive website [HYPERLINK: hse.gov.uk], as well as “giving information to the employee so they can conduct their own risk assessment at home and report back.

Looking after… the mental health of workers

The lack of face-to-face interaction can leave staff members feeling lonely and isolated; one recent Nuffield Health study found that around 80 per cent of British people working from home feel that lockdown has negatively affected their mental health. Managers should check in on the wellbeing of their staff, and refer them to professional support such as counselling should they need it.

5. Recruiting and dismissing

Recruiting virtually

Body language and other non-verbal cues are an essential part of job interviews and something that doesn’t immediately translate to video calls. Kearslake suggests conducting more than one interview for potential recruits and setting them some work. “You can also learn about them from how they turned up for the call,” she says. “Did they attend on time? Did they have tech issues? The way they approach remote working is important, as it’s how we’ll all be working in the months ahead.”

Dealing with underperforming staff and firing them

“You need to change the standard template of any correspondence to reflect the fact that these are unusual times,” says Kearslake. “Also, let them have a say in how the meeting happens. You should never accuse underperforming staff of being lazy either – you need to find out what’s going on [at home] and give them an opportunity for them to tell you they’ve hit a problem.”

In summary

The Covid-19 pandemic has radically altered the way that businesses operate. Even when restrictions are lifted, it’s likely many firms will permanently shift to home working, as it can result in increased productivity and a reduction in fixed costs. By recognising that employee living conditions aren’t always a place of calm, setting crystal-clear boundaries to staff, plus constantly observing what works with remote working (and what doesn’t), managers have a critical role to play if they want their companies reap any benefits.

Further reading

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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