“Working from home” is all over the news right now. A quick web search yields a broad selection of articles with titles like “What you need to know to start working from home (Forbes)” and “How to work from home without losing your sanity (CNN)”. As a consultant who has mostly “worked from home” for the last 12 years, I can confirm that most of the tips are quite good, albeit repetitive.
Reading through some of them, I noticed the frequent use of the phrase “ask your manager”, which got me to thinking: where’s the advice for supervisors on how to manage and support a team who are newly working from home?
This is something that the QueBIT management team knows something about, having been founded in 2001 as a virtual consulting firm specializing in designing and implementing budgeting and forecasting software. Since 2001 we have grown organically to about 100 people, most of whom split their time between working from home and working at our clients’ locations. To make it even more interesting, we began in 2010 to grow our talent pool by hiring (and training) fresh college graduates, which led to a pro-active investment in creating a company culture in which they would thrive, learn and stay.
So not only are we geographically distributed across the United States without a physical office, over 60% of our staff are under 30 years of age, with no prior experience in our industry before they came to us. In fact, for most of them, QueBIT was their first employer after graduation.
It should be no surprise to hear that our managers made their share of mistakes and had to learn in a hurry!
With this introduction, here are QueBIT’s top tips for successfully managing a remote workforce.
Tip 1: Invest in technology
Make sure people can connect securely from home to the office systems they need to do their jobs. Do not expect them to perform with one hand tied behind their backs. If they do not have access to adequate internet from home, consider providing them with a wi-fi hotspot, at the company’s expense.
Besides email and an instant messaging and collaboration platform, make sure people have some way to meet virtually and share screens.
A computer with a built-in webcam is strongly recommended.
Tip 2: Set expectations for work
Do not leave it to your employees to look for, and read, articles like “How to work from home without losing your sanity”. Some of them may, but others may not. They may misinterpret the advice or pick up advice you don’t agree with. They may waste time trying to find their bearings.
Eliminate uncertainty and save everyone time by addressing the main questions pro-actively:
- Working hours, and what you expect them to do (and not do) during working hours
- Taking breaks to rest, hydrate, eat and exercise
- Review written communication etiquette and norms (example – email etiquette)
- Share tips on setting up a separate work area, dealing with interruptions and communicating with family members.
Tip 3: Invest in learning how to communicate
When we are physically together, a lot of communication happens effortlessly. We read body language and sense emotional states without even realizing we are doing it. Once apart, all that “free” information is lost, and it takes time, effort and patience to compensate for it.
If you, and everyone on your team, understands this and puts conscious effort in, you will all be better off. It’s worth stating this clearly and explicitly. Encourage people to sign up for on-line training on this topic. Sites like LinkedIn Learning offer some excellent content on this topic.
This is also a good time to figure out how well you know each individual member of your team, and what their preferences are in terms of check-ins and feedback. Some people will thrive in the work-from-home scenario. These people will be glad to be spared the commute and will use the time to put their heads down and produce, relishing the opportunity to get things done without interruption. Others will be miserable. They will miss the camaraderie of the office and find it difficult to focus. If no one reaches out to them on a regular basis, they will feel unappreciated.
Tailor your approach to the individual, and don’t make any assumptions about their preferences! It’s also a good opportunity to let them know what your preferences are.
Tip 4: Allow for some flexibility
A fear some managers have is that people will take advantage of the work-from-home situation, and spend time walking the dog or playing video games instead of working. Our experience is the opposite: when there are fewer interruptions, people forget to take breaks and lose track of time. The downside of that is that tired people tend to be less creative, and they can spin unproductive cycles trying to solve difficult problems to no one’s benefit.
The situation can be turned into a win-win opportunity by allowing people the flexibility to structure their workday so that it works for them and their obligations. Agree on some parameters in terms of workday overlap for team meetings and check-ins, but then manage people to goals and deliverables rather than the hours they put in. For example, suppose an employee needs to check on an elderly parent to make sure they have taken their medications two times a day. By giving this employee the flexibility to structure their workday around this obligation …
- You are helping them
- You are giving them an opportunity to take a natural break that can improve the quality of their work
- They will be appreciative, which can translate into commitment and even employee retention
Tip 5: Invest in the Team
Our final tip is to remember the adage that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!”, and that it is worthwhile to invest in building a strong team culture. Some benefits:
- When people are on the same well-functioning team, working together towards a shared goal, they will help and support each other towards that goal.
- When people like their colleagues personally, and develop friendships, they are less likely to leave for other jobs.
- When a team leader drives behavior through a value statement that everyone believes in and behaves in a way that is consistent with those values, people figure out the right thing to do with minimal micro-management.
Practical things a manager can do to build team culture and team spirit is to articulate team values and goals, and then do their best to embody them.
For example, the main job of a QueBIT manager is to support the team and enable them to do great work as consultants for our customers. To succeed at this, we must be available, and everyone’s (virtual) door – from the CEO down – is open and welcoming. If a Senior Manager does not make the time, they cannot expect that someone the next level down will do it: so we do our best to lead by example and with humility.
Regular get-togethers are also important, and when working remotely, this can be accomplished over a web meeting, with cameras switched ON!
Many QueBIT managers also host virtual “happy hours” once or twice a month with their teams where everyone is encouraged to bring a beverage of their choice to a web meeting and hang out!
We would do all this even if we were not a virtual company with everyone working remotely. But when you ARE a virtual company, you need to be mindful that making connections, building relationships and nurturing a great culture are equally important and require additional effort. But it can be done, and once you get the hang of it – it can also be fun!