By Anna Mamaeva Agile Coach and Facilitator, Solutions Consultant
Team management when working remotely can be tricky, and many managers are suddenly facing this new challenge without preparation. So to help, we have compiled our best advice for managers, condensed from 22 years of experience managing distributed teams, so you can learn how to eliminate distractions and manage your teams more effectively while working from home.
“A remote work environment should encourage performance - not presence,”
entrepreneur Neil Patel told Zapier, a web app integration platform, for their 2015 book about remote work.
Let’s take a look at the best ways you can optimize remote team management in detail:
Tip 1: Over-Communicate
Good communication is absolutely vital to successful remote teamwork, and to those just starting to work from home it’s better to overshare initially than risk confusion or opaqueness. You can’t be too transparent with your team. In particular, remember to:
Check in at the start of each work day to make sure everyone is on the same page. This is especially important if you’re working across time zones.
A short weekly call to map out each working week is also helpful for a bigger picture view for the whole team.
Regularly share your priorities and the progress of projects with your team.
Be clear in the intent and urgency of any requests. This includes specific (time and day) deadlines.
Use emojis, images, and gifs in your messages – emotions are harder to convey in writing and a more natural, conversational tone will encourage communication.
Give more feedback than usual to your colleagues, especially praise, so they know their work is valuable.
Ensure the entire team is using the same platform for communication (e.g. Slack, Teams or other collaboration software) and encourage everyone to post thoughts, questions and updates on projects throughout their day. You will never be able to perfectly replicate the atmosphere of easy dialogue found in an in-office setting, but you can get close.
Tip 2: Own Your Productivity
Distractions are clearly an issue for everyone when working from home, and many managers fear productivity will nosedive. But there are some simple ways to protect your office hours and avoid losing focus:
Don't let incoming emails derail you. The Zero Inbox technique will help you streamline your message management; follow these steps to keep your time spent on communication ringfenced:
1. Consolidate your message-handling schedule by scheduling a few time-slots during the day to go through your messages. Try to keep your email client closed by default the rest of the time.
2. If you're concerned about missing urgent incoming mail, take a few minutes to create custom notifications for high priority clients or projects.
3. If a message requires no action on your behalf, archive it immediately.
4. If a message requires a simple reply that you can knock out in a minute or less, respond right then and there, and then archive it immediately.
5. If a message requires some level of thought or response, snooze it to a specific time during your email management window, so you can handle it with appropriate care but not be distracted by it sitting in your inbox. It will reappear and grab your attention when the time is right.
Consider using a Trello board to organize a simple Kanban-driven flow to manage your to-dos; this will help you to stay focused on what's most important each day.
Group similar tasks into batches, to be completed together. Switching between different types of work all day hurts productivity, so collate and time your chores appropriately. For instance, small, simple jobs can be saved for the periods when you're low in energy, or in-between meetings when you don't have time to get stuck into bigger projects.
A similar method is to front-load your day (or your week). This means you focus on the big, intense projects first, and on smaller tasks that don't have deadlines as you go through the day.
Start finishing instead of "just starting." Breaking down a job into smaller sub-tasks or action steps can help get over the hurdle of never-ending projects.
Automate anything that can be automated. Or delegated. If you're going to do something two or more times, automate it so you can eliminate busywork and tackle more meaningful work.
Mikhail Zavileysky, General Manager at DataArt, has these tips to share on successful WFH practices:
“1. Put everything on your calendar. Be your own manager. Make sure to set time aside for planning complex tasks, define key stages, milestones, estimate effort and duration, and allocate time. Next, make sure you actually follow the calendar. Keep your calendar 80%+ full - it creates reasonable pressure to be disciplined and prevents excessive relaxation.
2. Enjoy it: don't try to emulate the office. Wear comfortable clothes (shorts that are not visible in video calls), exercise instead of commuting. Feel smart: you can now both combine all the benefits and have extra time that you saved on commuting.
3. Put EVERYTHING on your calendar, including your lunch and coffee breaks. If you really need all those social things like 'water cooler conversations', have brief verbal exchanges with colleagues online in, say, group chats. Try to consciously substitute it with small informal chats, agenda-free meetings – "syncs", as we call it in our culture. This really helps to not feel lonely.”
Tip 3: Get Regular Feedback From Your Team & Projects
Communication is a two way street, and a necessary part of remote team building - and successful project completion with a distributed team - is feedback from all team members. Those quick and easy, off-the-cuff office chats now have to be planned. The best way not to forget this is through scheduling:
Maintain your usual team meetings, especially 1:1s. Consider setting up recurring bi-weekly (or monthly) meetings between you and your supervisor, and between the colleagues you supervise. Take 15-30 minutes to discuss the current workload, comfort level, upcoming tasks, and challenges, and provide feedback to each other.
Hold regular retros to validate and revise your team's methods of working remotely.
When gathering employee feedback, it's crucial to remember that the relationship isn't just between the supervisor and employee. Each employee has connections with their fellow co-workers too. Suggest your co-workers provide feedback for each team member in three categories: Start, Stop, and Continue. Each box should focus on behaviors that match the title. Just keep in mind that the feedback should be focused on behaviors and actions, not personalities. The former is something an employee can improve; the latter isn't.
Alex Makeyenkov, SVP at Finance Practice at DataArt, says this about WFH:
“Draw the line between your working hours and private life. The borderline is not so strong but when WFH it is even harder to tell the difference. My wife usually asks me "honey? Are you already home?" It takes time to switch personas between being a boss and a loving father.
Plan your day – when WFH you cannot just bump into your colleague or catch up near the water cooler, so you should plan all your meetings in advance and be punctual. Use Video conferencing when possible. We get so much more information through the visual channel, and it keeps you alert and alive knowing that other people can see you.”
Tip 4: Show Compassion
This might sound vague, but in an office setting people find numerous ways to display their compassion for each other. They show their care by buying lunch for a colleague, or cleaning up after someone. They chat easily, asking after each other and checking in throughout the day. But in an all-remote environment, these habits don't exist. So you must look for other ways to show compassion and care for your team, such as:
Sending caring emails or chat messages - just like an in-person “hey, how’s it going?” but online.
Have flowers or a gift card to be sent to someone who needs or deserves it. Consider sharing photos of the gifts online for all to see.
When something funny or silly happens in your home office, share it!
Use video capabilities during meetings. Your colleagues will get to see you, but also your workspace, and any new work companions you may have. Introducing your colleagues to your pets or other family members encourages team building.
Anastasia Rezhepp, Head of Design at DataArt, follows these rules to protect her WFH productivity:
“A) Be able to put on a Very Serious Face (scare the kids and relatives away, make sure they immediately leave the room and let you work). Alternatively, there are other 'codes' that work with the family: Mom wearing headphones = Do Not Touch.
B) When WFH, not only should you plan your own life but the lives of everyone you live with as well. Make sure your schedules are synchronized and, at the very least, you won't have to worry that your kids are fooling around too much.
C) Set a reminder to exercise. There are a ton of apps packed with 5-10 minute workouts. It's also way more convenient. Just imagine: warming-up without having to go to a coffee machine.”
Tip 5: Reconsider Your Meetings
Start asking yourself if every meeting is actually needed. According to a report by Bain & Company, by eliminating repetitive or unnecessary meetings, you could save dozens of hours monthly. So think about it: can you address the issue without scheduling a meeting? If the answer is yes, then write an email or make a call instead. If the answer is no, then facilitate meetings to be as efficient and productive as possible, by:
Using the 60 second rule to engage with your audience. You might share shocking or provocative statistics, anecdotes, or analogies to dramatize the issue at hand, quickly. Your goal is to make sure the group understands what needs to be done before starting to tackle the problem.
Don't allow participants to take an "observer" role. Create an experience of shared responsibility by planning an interactive, time-limited exercise. (Define a problem that can be solved quickly, then assign people to groups of two or four. Give them a medium with which to communicate with one another. If you're on a virtual meeting platform that allows for breakout groups, use them liberally. Give them a very limited time frame to take on a highly structured and brief task. You can use 1-2-4-All method from the Liberating Structures to help).
Keep your deck as short as possible. Select the least amount of data you need - don't add a single slide more.
Use video conferencing tools and turn on the camera. All participants should use headphones with a microphone to ensure they are heard. Provide a clear agenda in the meeting invitation.
Designate roles: a facilitator (who facilitates and ensures that everyone has the right to speak) and a secretary (who takes notes and shares them at the end of the meeting).
Tip 6: Take Care of Yourself and Your Mental Health
It’s no secret that working from home can be stressful, and that every team member will have their own unique set of issues and complications to overcome. It’s key to team and project success that every member of the team stays as healthy and happy as possible. Here are some simple tips to do just that:
Maintain a healthy routine, which matches your normal work routine as much as possible. Set a time to start the work day, and to end it, and don’t run over. Create clear boundaries between work and home life.
Take frequent breaks. Get up, go for a walk, have lunch. Sitting at your desk all day will make you a little stir-crazy.
Take time to connect on a human level with your colleagues, by having a virtual coffee date or lunch using Teams or Zoom.
Don't hesitate to express your frustrations, feelings of isolation, or other challenges that you may be having while working remotely.
Try to create a space dedicated to work - even if it's just a corner where you can store your work materials at the end of the day. Don’t work where you relax.
If you're working on a really distributed team, turn on your phone's "Do Not Disturb" mode so it won't ding with notifications all night.
Use the time you needed to commute on yourself. Allow yourself to go through a book or a podcast, read an article, or exercise.
Use differing schedules to your advantage. Now that you work remotely, you can lie down for a nap or have a quick workout if it gives you an energy boost and increases concentration.
Dmitry Bagrov, Managing Director at DataArt UK, uses these guidelines to ensure the most productivity while working remotely:
“1. Music. Listening to Rammstein or Depeche Mode while working guarantees the best productivity. At least for me.
2. HIIW = High Intensity Interval Working. Work in short yet intense intervals. Be your own manager: make sure to work for 15-30 minutes before you switch and do something else.
3. Let's call it a Five-Minute Mum. Now, this one might only be relatable for parents, but one used to say that during the five minutes while a child is chewing a cookie, a mother can manage to do a whole lot. My advice is: remember the time when you were actually able to do a whole lot in five minutes.”
Working from home is the reality for many at the moment, and preparing yourself and your team properly can be the difference between success and failure. Take the time initially to educate yourself and your colleagues on best practices, and remember that DataArt is here to help if you need more support!