Lessons from Lock-Down – Managing people
By Anna Bollinger
During the dreaded lock-down of 2020 we all took to our homes and were forced to embrace a whole new way of working. Here’s what I learnt about managing remote teams during that time.
As the Director of 3 small companies a lot of my time each week is spent meeting with and managing people. Like many of you, this became a whole lot more challenging when we were all forced to WFH. I was however a little more prepared than most as we have been managing an office in China and therefore ironing out some of these processes since 2016. I am by no means an expert but here is what I’ve learnt through trial and error along the way…
Businesses are not faceless machines; they are first and foremost a delicate collection of people held together through relationship. In order for the organisation to thrive those relationships need nurturing, and you as the leader of that organisation have ultimate responsibility for creating a culture in which that can happen.
One of the best pieces of advice I received as a young ‘bossy’ (aka assertive) young woman was that ‘people don’t care about what you know, until they know that you care’. In other words, nobody is going to be motivated to work for a self-interested boss who clearly doesn’t give a sh** about anything but the bottom line. Even more so if that boss is on the other side of the world.
When stress levels are high, deadlines are looming and you’re pressed for time it is easy to throw out so called ‘niceties’ in favour of efficiency, but in my experience, these ‘niceties’ become all the more vital when managing and motivating a remote workforce.
Here are a few things I try to do:
- Start every virtual meeting with a ‘check-in’. Ask the person how they are doing? What they did at the weekend? How their family are?
- Remember and celebrate key dates by sending cards/gifts e.g. birthdays, anniversaries, international women’s day
- Regularly schedule virtual socials which bring everyone together and open these up to team-members family too e.g. games nights, quizzes, coffee breaks
- Have non-task related slack channels e.g. for discussing socials, working from home and general chit chat
When stress levels are high, deadlines are looming and you’re pressed for time it is easy to throw out so called ‘niceties’ in favour of efficiency
When juggling a remote workforce there is less scope for spontaneous off the cuff conversations and therefore having defined, regular and predictable connection points becomes really important. Find a rhythm for meeting regularly which works for you, your team and what you’re hoping to achieve. This may be daily, weekly monthly or yearly. Define a rhythm and then stick to it for at least a few cycles so that everyone knows what to expect and can plan their time accordingly. Switching it up all the time can be frustrating.
When we were first starting the China office we had daily calls with the Managing Director out there. Now that things are more established the frequency and need for these meetings has dropped but we continue to meet on a regular and predictable basis in order to maintain connection.
Here are a few things to try:
- Use a shared calendar to manage meeting times so everyone knows when they are happening
- Stick to the rhythm for long enough for it to become established
- Plan meetings for the start of the day, either side of lunch, or the end of the day so that we all have a chunk of time in the morning and afternoon to find our flow and focus
- Regularly stop to review the frequency and necessity of each meeting
- Have a predictable structure to each meeting i.e. check in, review progress since last meeting, agree actions to be accomplished by next meeting
- Keep a written record of agreed follow on actions from each meeting – use shared productivity software like Planner, Teams, To-Do so that everybody can keep track
As well as having predictable rhythms for connecting, every interaction needs a clear reason. Nobody likes meetings for the sake of meetings or an inbox full of unnecessary emails.
As part of regularly reviewing the frequency and necessity of rhythms – think about the reason behind each rhythm and whether this can be better achieved in a different way. Spoken communication is effective for building connection but written communication is better for clarity.
At the start of lock down we were attempting to do regular code reviews with our developers via video call. This was inefficient and we soon learned that project management software where developers can clearly document their progress was a far better solution.
Here are few things I’ve learnt:
- Clearly define the purpose of each meeting
- Before shooting off an email ask yourself whether there is another more effective way of communicating with that team member
- Play around and explore different ways of communcating. Figure out what works best, when, why, with who and for what e.g. instant messages, emails, Loom videos, productivity software, video calls
I believe the lessons which we have been forced to learn during this lock-down have the potential to radically transform the way companies operate for the better. I hope that by valuing relationships, establishing regular rhythms and reviewing the reasons behind what we’re doing we will all continue to thrive both at home and at the office.