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How to manage teams remotely – 9 key tips

In times such as these, it’s more important than ever to treat employees with empathy and humanness. Below, Dan Kerber shares nine tips for how to manage teams remotely, during self-isolation and beyond.

VP, Business Operations

Family looking at a screen together

VP, Business Operations

VP, Business Operations

Early mornings at the office used to be my corner. For years I have been at my desk and working by 5:30 a.m. This ridiculously early arrival time meant the first two to three hours of my day were largely free of meetings and interruptions, allowing me to focus on my top priorities for the day. Dedicated work time from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. was my personal productivity cheat code. Things are different now.

The coronavirus pandemic has rightly compelled many companies, including Ericsson, to require most employees to work from home. At the same time, kids across the country have been sent home to participate in the largest distance-learning experiment in history. Many employees no longer have a morning commute, and recently ordained home-schooling parents do not have uber-rigid morning rituals engineered to get every human in the household equipped for the day and rapidly funneled out the door.

Having traded a guided tornado of early-morning activity for a series of shorter, ad-hoc interruptions throughout the day, many people are starting work earlier to help flatten the curve of their daily workload. Members of my team that were reliably absent until 8:45 a.m. are now in my chat window at 7:00 a.m. sharp. Whether it’s a working mom wanting to get in a one-on-one meeting before she makes her kids breakfast or a 6 a.m. status call from an employee on an urgent grocery run, pre-dawn meetings abound. In the time of social distancing, my previously deserted early morning corner is looking more like a crowded Florida beach.

But you know what? That’s okay. We are all experiencing an inception-level shift in our shared reality, and people need support, guidance and empathy more than ever right now. I owe it to my team to be more flexible with my time as everyone attempts to find a rhythm in this “new normal”. It’s worth considering too that the way we work may never be the same again once the dust has settled. Millions of us are discovering new ways of working, whether it’s through online tools or revised routines, so we should lead the way and help others make the most of their new remote-working realities.

With that, here are my top nine tips for how to manage teams remotely:

1. Be flexible with schedules

Set clear expectations with your team on core working hours and mandatory meeting times where necessary. Within that framework, though, exercise as much flexibility with your employees’ schedules as possible. With kids now at home, new rules on grocery shopping, and a bevy of other disruptions to deal with, people will need space and flexibility to make everything work. As I illustrated in the opening paragraphs, supporting your team may also mean having additional flexibility in your own schedule and routines.

2. Help set boundaries on working time

While you should be flexible with your schedule, it’s important to help your team members set clear boundaries on their working time. Setting firm boundaries on working hours is a well-known hack for remote work veterans, but employees that find themselves abruptly teleported into embryonic home office operations will often end up working more hours than they did when commuting to the office. Help your people establish sustainable routines as quickly as possible.

3. Normalize the new normal

With the boundaries between work and home disintegrated for many, formerly solid work-from-home advice about setting up pristine working spaces impervious to outside distractions and wandering family members goes out the window. Employees are in competition with their significant others and school aged offspring for viable working accommodations. Kitchen nooks, laundry room hallways and children’s desks are being transformed into makeshift home offices. Some amount of distraction and impact on your folks’ productivity should be expected. Be gentle and help everyone go with the flow.

Plenty has been written about the value of using video for your meetings, and you should use it if it’s an option. But let your team know that it’s okay if they aren’t dressed in their business casual best or if their visible workspaces show signs of a normal humanoid existence. Model this by letting them see some of your authentic at-home self, including family members, pets, and lived-in living spaces. For still-reticent employees, several tools now allow you to blur your background in video calls. A version of this feature is supported in Teams, Skype and Zoom, and there are third-party apps that can add it to any video platform. 

Home working, video call

Members of Dan’s team (with some supporting cast members) holding their daily video call in their natural habitats

4. Meet more frequently

More frequent communication is essential, and that is doubly true with previously co-located teams now working remotely. For empathetic leaders, that means meeting more frequently with their teams and team members. If you don’t have daily team sync ups, consider adding agile-inspired 15-minute daily “stand-up” calls where each person quickly covers what they did the day before, what they’re doing today, and what they need help with. We did this on my team but extended it a few minutes to chat about new developments with people’s home lives or the news.

Try to also meet one on one with all your direct reports at least weekly while everyone is remote. These can be formal recurring meetings on your calendar or “virtual coffees” where you share an informal video chat with no set agenda.

See how Ericsson is responding to the coronavirus.

5. Listen more

When you’re talking with individual team members, let them know you’re listening and care about their health and well-being. Ask how they and their families are doing and give them time to talk about whatever is on their minds. If they are parents, acknowledge the difficulty of navigating this new normal with children. It’s also okay to be vulnerable and let them know that you have questions and worries too (without focusing too much time on yourself).

6. Be informed

Misinformation and speculation can be damaging in times of crisis, and your team is counting on you for clarity and guidance. Do research and be informed on important topics for your business and team including (but not limited to) the coronavirus. Find credible information and share it with your team, distilling any key points that are especially relevant to them. By staying on top of the news and finding quality analysis on the coronavirus, I concluded that our team should start working remotely several days before even the most responsive companies in our region had acted. And by implementing 100 percent remote work earlier than most, I was also able to help my organization better-anticipate some of the requests and challenges they would face.

7. Be transparent

Transparency should be a top priority for leaders during a crisis to be sure, but on a day-to-day level too. Be clear about what you do and do not know. Don’t spread rumors, but also do not wait for every detail to be ironed out before sharing important information. For example, if you know a key policy is changing, you can tell your team the change is coming but you don’t know the details yet. That transparency will be appreciated and builds trust.

8. Help connect with a purpose

In a world where it’s easy to become consumed with unproductive anxiety and angst, helping employees to connect with a greater purpose becomes a vital aspect of leadership. You are uniquely equipped to elevate your team’s perspective and keep the big picture in view. At Ericsson, this means reminding my team of the important role we play in keeping the communications services of a connected world running at a time when the world is relying on that connectivity more than ever.

9. Provide the equipment they need

Provide external monitors, keyboards, and mice to any employees that don’t already have them. These are relatively inexpensive to buy, or you can let them take theirs from the office until everyone returns  (be sure and check your company’s IT policy). Even if they aren’t asking for it, this can make a huge difference in their productivity and quality of life.

What are some of your best practices for managing remote employees with empathy? Hit me up on Twitter or LinkedIn and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

Read more

Read the message from our CEO Börje Ekholm on Ericsson’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Read Dan’s earlier blog post on the importance of showing empathy.

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