How to Manage Remote Teams in a Crisis

Manager Agile

Most managers are already familiar with the concept of working from home, and you may have even done it yourself. In these cases, remote work is a one-off occurrence; maybe someone had a personal crisis or a scheduling conflict but returned to the office after a day or week.

Sometimes critical emergencies happen that affect the entire team. It could be damage to your office building, a natural disaster or even a worldwide pandemic. Whatever the case may be, your team can no longer work from the office and has to work remotely at separate locations.

Suddenly, your team is beyond your physical reach. You can’t tap them on the shoulder when you need something or glance over to see if they’re at their desk. You’re not used to working that way, but you need to figure it out--and fast.

Fortunately, we’ve got some handy tips that can help make the transition smoother. We have been a primarily remote team for six years, and also have experience working remotely for other companies and managers.

1) Help your staff set up their remote offices

It’s safe to assume that everyone these days has their own home computer, but those computers may not necessarily be fast enough or have the software required to do their work. Also, home computers may not be secure enough to access company or customer data, and may even be infected with malware that puts the business at risk. Be prepared for the inevitable panicked calls when they realize they forgot just one more thing.

(It will happen.)

Ease some of the panic by providing your employees with company laptops, secondary monitors, VPN, and whatever other equipment, programs or permissions they need to perform their essential job functions. The money spent on hardware and software here will be money saved on lack of productivity or security otherwise.

2) Pick a communication channel and stick to it

Once your staff is set up at home, your team is going to need some way to keep in touch. Email is too slow and unreliable. You need something live they can use to talk to each other, both as a group and individually.

If your team is already using Slack or some other instant messaging app, then you can just continue to rely on it. If you don’t have any such app, and you can’t get IT to set you up with one on such short notice, then you can just use any of the following free chat apps:

Each of these apps has a desktop and a group call function that allows your team to meet informally. Assemble a directory of each person’s User ID, and distribute it to all members of the team. Make sure you review the security for whatever platform you choose, and educate your team about what kind of information should be sent via messaging apps and what might require a different protocol.

3) Establish ground rules

Check if your company already has a remote work policy in place. If not, set up some informal ground rules with your team for working remotely. Define things like:

  • Working hours
  • Breaks
  • Video / audio etiquette

Just remember that not everyone on your team has worked from home or is comfortable with it, make sure your policies take all perspectives into account. Be cognizant that some may be working with challenges beyond their control, such as lack of childcare or shared spaces with other people working from home. The more supported they feel during those challenges, the better they will communicate about their needs and how they can be more productive.

4) Schedule regular check-ins

For some of your team members, this will be the first time they will be working from home for an extended period. So they will need a lot of guidance and management support--at least at the beginning.

Schedule one, big, virtual roundtable session where you set expectations like the ground rules and how long your team can expect to work remotely. If there is time/opportunity, have each member mention what they’re working on so that the rest of the team is up to date.

Afterward, conduct regular check-ins with each member to see how they’re adjusting to the new environment. Leave an open line of communication between you and management as well, so that you can report any issues up the chain. Also schedule regular group meetings, like daily standups, to stay coordinated and maintain team cohesion.

5) Get to know your team (again)

As a manager, you might already have a good idea of how your team functions in the office. But working from home is a completely different dynamic. You can’t predict how well each team member will handle distractions, temptation and the challenges of remote work--and they can’t tell you, because they don’t know either.

Pay close attention to how each team member functions in the first two days of remote work. See which ones stay consistently productive, which ones overwork themselves and which kind of float through the day. It’s harsh to say, but some of your team may use remote work as an excuse to goof off, and you need to be wary without being overbearing.

Adjust your management style on a per-person basis. Tell people what you expect from them and help them achieve that however you can. Be a firm and constant presence and always know what each member of your team is supposed to be working on.

In Conclusion

Humans are some of the most adaptable creatures on the planet. You may have been thrust into a remote, work-from-home situation unprepared, but this is an opportunity to learn a new way of working--one that may eventually turn into a permanent arrangement. As we have seen some of the benefits (less time wasted commuting, cleaner air, and fewer worries about illnesses coursing through an office) we may find that this is a long term solution worth considering, at least a few days per week.

As a manager, you have to stay calm and show your team that you have the situation well in hand. Focus on getting them up and running as soon as possible and keeping the momentum going for as long as the emergency arrangement lasts. Then, once the dust settles, you will have the option of either going back to the way things used to be or establishing a new status quo.


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