Leading a team that is working from home

When workers are suddenly sent home to work they will face plenty of challenges, especially if they’ve never done it before. Team leaders will face an additional challenge: Leading a team that is working from home. In this post we offer a range of tips and advice for how you can do that. To keep it simple and easy to implement we’ve stuck to a 3-step approach:

  1. Start by understanding the challenges
  2. Keep the team working together
  3. Lead your team as they work from home

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What are the challenges?

Technical

An immediate priority for leading a team that is working from home is to ensure that team members have the tools to do their jobs remotely. This includes both productivity and communication tools. As a leader you can approach this with the whole team by checking they have what they need and discussing which kinds of communication technologies work well for them. Not everything will work as it did in the office and as a team you may need to decide to use ad-hoc technologies as a temporary solution.

Emotional

Some team members may feel isolated and this can have a serious impact on motivation. This is best discussed in a one-to-one setting. Individuals will all have different emotional and psychological challenges and you need to know what these are in order to help them. A simple question like, “How are you looking after yourself?” can open up a discussion and go a long way to making team members feel supported individually. Read more on this topic in our post Dealing with Loneliness and Isolation when Working from Home.

Personal

Don’t forget to also look after your own needs and work through your own personal and logistical challenges. If you don’t address these, you won’t be as effective at helping other people with their issues. Get advice on how to do this in our post Three Steps to Adapt to Home Working.

How do I keep the team working together?

In the 1970s, MIT Professor Thomas Allen discovered that team cohesion is strongest when employees are physically closer. His ideas have been taken forward by some of the most successful companies who engineer ‘collisions’ between employees to strengthen bonding and group affiliation; simple things like coffee-machine conversations, team social events, sharing stories, etc. So, how can you do this with a team that works in physical isolation from each other? Here are some ideas we have seen that work:

  • Set up daily check-ins or ‘stand-up meetings’ at the start of each day where the team shares their priorities for the day and any impediments they face. This can give team members a reassuring routine which is both work and socially focused and help to overcome feelings of isolation. It also gives you a helicopter-view of what’s happening each day.
  • In team meetings always add an agenda item with a question like, “How is this arrangement working for us?” This helps to address emotional/psychological issues of individuals and build trust. Avoid closed questions (asking “Is everyone ok?” won’t give you much information) and use “us” and “we” to reinforce team togetherness.
  • Monitor team communication patterns to pick up on problems, side issues and tone that team members are using with each other. This doesn’t mean using spyware! You just need to go over conversations that are happening on Slack, Teams and other conversation channels.
  • Use video in team communications; humans bond much better to faces than to voices and non-verbal communication sends powerful signals of belonging and empathy. Seeing faces also puts more energy into calls, which helps to overcome feelings of isolation.
  • Create and manage social interaction to replicate what normally happens in the office; have a virtual lunch together, share internet memes, play games together, just get people laughing and having fun. Social interaction is the base of creating trust in a team; you just need to do it a bit differently in a virtual work setting.

Which skills do I need for leading a team that is working from home?

 You don’t need new skills to become an effective leader of a home-working team, but you will need to use some of them more. Here is a short list of where to focus your leadership skills:

Be available

You may have an open door policy in the office but that won’t work in a remote team. So, be explicit about when and how team members can contact you. If you haven’t heard from someone in a while, check in with them and ask how they are. At the same time be careful that you also ring-fence the time you need for yourself and your own tasks.

Solve problems

This is probably the biggest thing your team will need from you, at least at the start. You may need to be flexible and change processes if necessary, for example lifting constraints on how and where data is stored and shared. Focusing on outputs rather than processes will help push the team towards purposeful activity and away from missing their old physical environment.

Make rules and hold people accountable to them

It’s important to establish some ground rules with the team, for example on which communication tools to use for different tasks, how and when to contact each other. You then need to monitor that the team is sticking to those rules and jump in when they are not.

Continue to manage performance

Research shows that employees value their performance being managed and they rate managers highly when it’s done well. This is still true in a home-working environment, but it will take more communication and more regular, smaller steps to address the distance and isolation. A practical start is to set some short term performance goals on adjusting to home-working at the beginning.

We hope you enjoyed reading this post and please share what works for you in the comments. If you would like to know more about our experience of helping teams with remote working, feel free to contact us. We also offer training on managing your focus, energy and impact when working from home and leading people when they are working from home.

 

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