In the midst of another Covid-19 surge, a lot of managers are asking themselves: “How do I manage people working remotely?”
First, don’t allow yourself to become so overwhelmed and distracted by the uncertainties—what you don’t know—that you lose sight of what you do know, and what you can control. Don’t become distracted and unavailable when your people need you most.
Second, you must establish a protocol for maintaining high-structure, high-substance 1:1 dialogues with the individuals on your team.
If you are working on any kind of partially remote schedule, keep one another informed of your schedules.
Coordinate times when you will both be working from a central location, such as the organization’s headquarters, so you can hold (appropriately distanced!) in-person, 1:1 time.
Decide—individually and as a team—which remote communication solutions work best.
Integrated webcams and microphones may seem ubiquitous these days, but for some of your colleagues, these technologies may not be readily available to them at home. Some of your direct reports may prefer to have a video chat via their smartphone or tablet than their laptop. Endeavor to find communication and remote meeting solutions that allow for multiple ways of connecting, but also keep things simple. You don’t want to create the added burden (for yourself or others) of managing multiple communication channels throughout the day.
Practice good email, text, and phone hygiene.
Too often managers slip into management by interruption, and that’s no different for managers of remote teams. “Call me when you need me” can easily become an even more invasive and interruptive policy when everyone is working from home. Don’t allow your communication to become increasingly disorganized, incomplete, or random. Have the team agree on policies for using email, text, Slack, phone calls, and video chats. Decide when and how you will utilize each of the communication channels available to you. Establish ground rules and expectations for when and how people should respond to or monitor work-related communications.
Schedule a series of dates and times for regular 1:1s with your direct reports and take that schedule seriously. Furthermore, don’t allow your 1:1s to fall off the radar or down the priority list. Prepare in advance of your 1:1s and ask for direct reports to prepare, too.
It is often a good idea to ask employees to prepare a written recap of highlights and key issues since your last 1:1, as well as open questions to discuss. Ensure any work product to be discussed is sent for review sufficiently in advance.
Don’t forget the follow-up.
Immediately following each 1:1, ask the employee to send you an email recapping what was agreed on in your conversation: the actions they are expected to take, the steps they will follow, and the timeline; as well as the date and time of your next scheduled 1:1.
The secret benefit of communicating via email
Our research shows that conducting face-to-face conversations—whenever possible—is much better than conducting your management conversations solely by text, phone, and email. But email does have a built-in advantage: you and your direct reports create a paper trail. Save those emails and you’ll have a record of your ongoing dialogues with each person. Structure your emails so employees can use them as checklists, or as the basis for crafting work plans, schedules, to-do lists, and other tools to help guide them in their work. For your part, you can use that paper trail as part of your ongoing tracking and documentation of each employee’s performance.
Keep extreme alignment in focus
Extreme alignment is basically this: staying in alignment with your boss, your direct reports, and your colleagues in the organization. It sounds simple. You may even believe you’re already doing all you can to be aligned in this way. But what I have seen, over and over again, is that teams who believe they are sufficiently communicating with one another are often failing to communicate in a way that is structured and substantive.
Often, there’s a lot of activity that looks like strong communication and feels productive: Slack threads, email chains, a carousel of Zoom meetings. But how often are these things adding real value and leaving teams feeling aligned? How often are they simply a form of busywork that distracts from the real work?
It can be tempting to view email response time and Zoom attendance as measures of productivity—for yourself and others. Don’t fall for it. Shift the focus instead to other forms of communication and interaction that add real value and establish true alignment.
In every 1:1 conversation, provide a full and honest account
Are you scheduling routine one-on-one conversations with your key collaborators? If you’re not, you should be. Group meetings and more informal check-ins simply cannot achieve the same level of focused alignment you can achieve talking one-on-one.
In these one-on-ones, account for exactly what you’ve done on your assignments for the person in question since your last conversation: “These are the concrete steps I’ve taken. This is what I did, and how. These are the steps I followed.”
Once you’ve given an honest account, have them do the same. Ask to clarify the next steps. As long as you are engaged in an ongoing, consistent, one-on-one dialogue with that person, this element will become routine.
Ask good questions—and take notes
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Very rarely will this be a signal that you’re not the right person for the job. (And if it is, wouldn’t you want to know that anyway?) Instead, asking the right questions tells others you’re committed to doing things well and doing them right. Learning in plain sight goes a long way toward boosting your reputation.
But even better than asking questions alone is taking diligent notes on the response. Again, don’t try to hide it! You’ll be surprised how much respect you convey by taking the time to take note of what other people are saying.
Spread the word
Ask customers, vendors, coworkers, and everyone else you work with to give you honest feedback about your performance. It can be as simple as asking them, “Be honest, how am I doing?”
People talk. Word spreads. You should know what people think about your work. Use that data as feedback to continuously improve and get better and better at working together.