The COVID-19 crisis has driven a revolution in home working. Research demonstrates that flexibility in working hours reduces employee work stress and improves mental and physical stability – which in turn creates greater effectiveness and efficiency, determination and coordination. Further, when there are options to work remotely this tends to result in significant improvements in morale, productivity and engagement.
Some businesses may be wary of remote working, perhaps due to the feeling that they can no longer control or measure the number of hours their employees are working. However, a radical change has already taken place and businesses that mobilise now to embrace this new way of working will find themselves ahead of the curve in terms of resilience and productivity as remote working becomes the new norm.
New way of working
The temptation for managers is to apply the same techniques used when leading a team based in the office. However, managers can no longer directly oversee to ensure work is being done or rely on personal interaction to pick up on problems or gauge how much support or advice a worker may need. They have to learn to adapt their natural communication style, understand how to ‘read between the lines’ from afar and learn how to engage and inspire trust in the team.
There are a multitude of skills required to lead a flexible workforce effectively, with trust forming the foundation, as follows:
1. Agree ways of working. Make sure every team member is clear about how you will work together remotely, how you keep each other updated, and how frequently.
2. Show the big picture but prepare to flex. Remind your team about the big picture and how their work fits into it. Review short-term goals regularly and adjust as needed. If some members can’t carry out all their usual work, consider other skills they can lend to others to meet team goals.
3. Set expectations and trust your team. Be clear about mutual expectations and trust your team to get on without micromanaging. Focus on results rather than activity. Inspire trust by assigning individuals with certain tasks and responsibilities as well as through regular contact to lend encouragement, support and guidance.
4. Make sure team members have the support and equipment they need. This includes any coaching they might need to use online systems or work remotely. Keep your calendar visible and maintain a virtual open door.
5. Have a daily virtual huddle. This is essential for keeping connected as a team, to check in on each other’s well-being and keep workflow on track. It needn’t be long, but regularity is key.
6. Keep the rhythm of regular one-to-ones and team meetings. This maintains a sense of structure and continuity for all.
7. Share information and encourage your team to do the same. Without physical ‘water-cooler conversations’, opportunities to pick up information in passing are more limited. Share appropriate updates or learnings from other meetings and projects and invite your team to do the same.
8. Tailor your feedback and communications. People can be more sensitive if they are feeling isolated or anxious, so take this into account when talking or writing. Communicate regularly, not just when things go wrong, whether it is information, praise or criticism.
9. Listen closely and read between the lines. Not being in the same room means you don’t have extra information from body language or tone to get the sense of what people are thinking or feeling, particularly in more difficult conversations. Home in on what’s not being said and ask questions to clarify your interpretation.
10. Help foster relationships and well-being. Make time for social conversations. This increases rapport and eases communication between people who may not meet often. It also reduces feelings of isolation.
11. Supervise appropriately. Whilst some managers make the mistake of supervising too closely, some slip into the “they will ring me if they need me” mentality. Conversations tend to be only when there is a problem rather than opportunities to share the ideas and experiences needed to build a highly engaged team. This lack of interaction will leave workers de-motivated, under-appreciated and under-developed.
12. Keep an eye on working hours. There is the risk of individuals overcompensating by spending more time working to prove their contribution to the business. Many flexible workers with the ability to work remotely admit to struggling to switch off from work, checking messages in the evenings and weekends and neglecting work life balance, which just leads to an exhausted, unproductive team.
Trust is key
Finland, which leads the world in flexible working, will say that the key reason flexible working is so successful is a deep rooted culture of trust. Trust is the most important factor in implementing flexible working successfully because, in the workplace, this trust translates to an expectation that staff working remotely or at different times of the day won’t end up slacking.
Many employers who have had remote working thrust upon them as a result of the COVID 19 crisis, and who have feared that their staff will not work efficiently and effectively away from the office, have been pleasantly surprised!
If you can foster a culture of trust, your remote team will thrive.
Building trust, communicating effectively and being able to read a situation remotely are not skills that can be developed overnight. Managers should:
• conduct a regular skills audit on themselves and their team to identify areas of improvement;
• request regular feedback from the team on any areas they recommend changing or doing differently.
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