At the latest with the arrival of coronavirus and the digital boost it brought along with it, working from home has become as ordinary and commonplace as going shopping. Decentralized virtual teams, company workplaces, and work models are no longer a thing of the future. They are part of the norm. This presents managers with new challenges. But fear not – managing people remotely is entirely doable. It’s just a little different.
Our experts have outlined for you what remote management entails and have provided tips that will help you to successfully overcome the challenges it presents to you as a manager.
In contrast to managing in person, which relies on face-to-face contact and personal communication, remote management involves no direct contact at all. This doesn’t mean that remote management has to be impersonal. On the contrary.
And of course there are also combined forms of management, where employees are sometimes managed through digital media and sometimes in direct, personal contact. These forms, referred to as hybrid management forms, are very popular and common today. In the case of virtual leadership, employees are managed exclusively through digital media, without any direct personal contact.
Many of the classic management rules also apply to remote management. In the virtual space, however, they need to be reinterpreted and applied differently. For example, it is important that employees are supplied with all the relevant information that they need in order to do their work. For a healthy work atmosphere, relationships based on trust need to be built up online too. So as you can see, when working from home and in virtual work spaces, managers are faced with new challenges.
"Short leash” or “long leash”? Striking a good balance between control and trust is essential. Too much control by a manager can stifle motivation. An attitude that is excessively “hands-off” may unsettle some of your employees. Talk about this openly in your team and find the right balance that works for you and your employees. Whatever the situation, always stay in dialog. And even more so, when remote and online.
Working remotely makes it more difficult to assess individual team members’ performance. Especially if they work together on projects or tasks. Make sure that you know each team member’s roles, tasks, and deadlines and keep an overview of them at all times. Project management tools and regular check-ins are useful for this.
In the digital realm and when working remotely, there are limited opportunities for personal interaction to strengthen relationships. Obviously, there is a lack of personal contact. No daily chats next to the coffee machine, no quick smile in the hallway or off-the-cuff tossing of ideas. What’s more, those spur-of-the-moment team meetings that can be called at short notice when everyone is in the office are no longer really possible when working remotely. Not only for organizational reasons, but also because your virtual team may be working in different time zones.
Management is then a bit like conducting a long-distance relationship. The same goes for maintaining relationships with your employees – it’s not impossible but more difficult. This also has an impact on employee development and retention and, not least, job satisfaction.
Leaders don’t always succeed in managing people from a distance right away. The role of the "remote manager" first has to be developed, particularly if the shift from conventional management is recent. Here’s what is key: Consciously take the time to find out about the requirements of this role and actively develop solutions to handle the new circumstances. View virtual leadership as a task that is being given to you as a manager, and that you want to master.
And, as always: Keep an open mind and tackle challenges with a positive underlying attitude. Look at remote management as an opportunity, for you and your team.
Regardless of whether you use Teams, Slack, or the phone: Make sure you keep a human touch in your virtual collaborations. This will help you to make your communications in the digital space more personal. Your management style may quickly come across as impersonal if you do not adopt the correct tone, and if everything takes place through a screen. Email and chat messages in particular leave a lot of room for interpretation. It is therefore especially important to communicate clearly, positively, and appreciatively with your employees. Make sure you take enough time for this.
One important success factor for virtual teams is having the right technical set-up. Make sure that everyone in the team has the technical infrastructure they need to do their jobs and to participate in everyday work activities. Select one or more communication platforms for team communications (e.g. Skype, Slack, Yammer, email, etc.). Make sure that your employees receive all the information they need and have subscriptions to the relevant information channels, such as the intranet and internal newsletters. Another important element for virtual leadership is the shared file storage system: Make sure that meetings and decisions are logged and documented and that documents are stored where everyone can reach them.
Hold one-to-one meetings with your team members on a regular basis – at least once a week. Get feedback and ease your employees’ anxieties by answering any questions they may have directly. This generates trust and provides even the more reserved employees with the space to raise issues. Put out your feelers and speak to employees who appear fearful or insecure and offer them your support.
When communication moves into the digital realm, the risk of cybercrime and data breaches increases. Make sure your employees know how to recognize phishing emails and cyberattacks and who is to be notified (e.g. your company’s IT department) if anything is suspect.
Make sure that your employees treat documents with the appropriate level of confidentiality when working from home. Point out, for example, that screens may only be shared if sensitive documents are not made visible to everyone.
Hold regular meetings of the whole team. This could be weekly team meetings, for example, or daily check-ins. Make sure that you know and understand your own role and those of everyone else. Also make sure that the work is distributed fairly and that all the tasks are clearly defined and communicated.
Make use of video conferencing. Gestures and facial expressions are important to gauge someone’s mood. They can also help to lower the risk of unnecessary misunderstandings.
Take steps to gauge the mood of the team on a regular basis. Are there any factors that are causing dissatisfaction and which you, as the manager, could address? You can only deal with it if you know about it.
Encourage interaction and collaboration within the team, with collaborative digital tools like Miro, for example. Make it clear that you are working towards a goal as a team and showcase regularly what you have already achieved together. Encourage your employees to take time for informal chats too. After all, sharing coffee breaks or having team drinks on a Friday after a hard week is just as important in the digital realm.
The good news is that even when managing from a distance you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many of the rules for managing employees apply to remote and digital-based work as well. The key is to communicate openly, honestly, and regularly with your team members and to set up the technical basis the employees need to do their work. This fosters trust and reduces anxiety.
Whenever possible, try to lighten up your online work day with personal and informal touches. Gauge the well-being of the team on a regular basis. Get clarity on everyone’s expectations and discuss the opportunities as well as the challenges. Let your employees know that you are there for them – in a video conference, by email, or even old school, over the phone.
In this way, remote management can be just as effective as in the office.