Corporate distancing: managing a remote team during COVID-19

Weeks into the era of social distancing, we’re settling into a somewhat surreal routine. Even companies that already embraced WFH culture are adjusting to fully remote life—and we’re learning new benefits and obstacles daily.
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Managers now oversee entirely remote teams, in most cases. But we weren’t given time or guidance on how to manage effectively from afar. That balanced, hands-on, hands-off management style you once prized might not translate to a fully virtual workplace. The spontaneous conversations that once took place while grabbing coffee or passing someone’s desk now require setting up a Zoom link or spelling it out on Slack. Those weekly 1:1s with direct reports might feel awkward on video chat, or harder to focus when kids and pets run amok in the background.

How can managers manage effectively from home during this pandemic? Our research points to these guidelines.

Be wildly flexible. Above all, we must remember the scale of this change. We are not simply working from home, we are responding to a pandemic, following (or consciously avoiding) unprecedented breaking news, dramatically changing where and how we spend our time, and home-schooling kids for the rest of the academic year. Everyone is operating under high stress. No matter the frustration—maybe someone keeps missing standup, or disappears from Slack at random hours—understand that people are likely showing up the best they can. Be conscious of supporting your team, rather than demanding explanations, and opt to give employees the benefit of the doubt.

Practice over-communication. With a dramatic reduction in casual conversations, we find ourselves communicating only through 45-minute video meetings. Questions that may have prompted a quick trip to your dev’s desk now leave us stumped, alone at home. This is the time to communicate, communicate, communicate. Try summarizing your Slack conversations with the key takeaways so that everyone leaves in alignment, or clarify if your questions require immediate action or deeper thought. Given the likely duration of social distancing ahead, you might take the time to create new Slack channels or remote etiquette that addresses today’s unique needs. When in doubt, overshare.

Share more from behind the scenes. Every day reveals new questions or uncertainties. People crave information about what’s expected to happen next week, next month, or for the rest of the year. Include your team in updates about work priorities, process changes, or company news as much as possible. What used to seem restricted to leadership now has greater impact on your team members’ lives; it’s both expected and respected to increase transparency during this time.

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Encourage frequent games of “Show & Tell.” Everybody adjusts in their own way. From all the homemade standing desks to the creative freezer-and-pantry meals, we can learn a lot from each other to optimize our home lives. Have you found a way to recreate your favorite takeout? Is the laundry room a surprisingly excellent location for Deep Work? How is your dog coping? The more we pull back the curtain, the more connected we feel—and the more we can make from our distance.

Find an excellent note-taker for meetings. Attending video chat meetings just isn’t the same as in-person collaboration. Add wayward kids and buzzing Instant Pots in the background, and you’re managing newfound distractions. To get more value out of virtual meetings, choose someone to take detailed notes with clear action items, and share them broadly afterward. This will also help those team members that have to skip occasional meetings to attend to their second job of home-schooling.

Maintain your weekly 1:1 rotation. This radically different way of life may increase or decrease your communication with direct reports. Whether you’re talking more on Slack or missing those daily coffee chats, your weekly 1:1s are more important than ever. Remote work might raise more questions or need for updates—and if those are being cleared by a light workload or constant Slack chatter, use the time to connect on mental or emotional health. We’re managing so much more than our jobs right now, we can all use an extra check-in.

Trust your employees. Micromanaging is so pre-pandemic. Looking at today’s circumstances more seriously, we see significant change in every aspect of our lives. Instead of tracking how every hour is spent or which employees take a mid-morning break for fresh air, use the (relevant) data you have available. Uplevel looks at Jira tickets, meeting health, and numerous daily factors that indicate productivity. Communicate clear goals and priorities with your employees and use your 1:1s to broadly address progress and feedback, but avoid worrying about exactly when and how they go about hitting those goals.

Forget about work. (Occasionally!) Each week feels like a lifetime. We have so much swimming in our brains that Jira may feel intangible compared to “real life” at times. It’s okay to admit that work is just one area of our focus. After checking on projects, remember to pause and simply ask how people are doing. How is their family managing? What are they loving for stress relief? Which Spotify playlists are on repeat? Give people an outlet for venting, connecting, or expressing needs beyond work. At Uplevel, we’ve been continuing our Friday lunch game time with remote games, like Codenames, Jeopardy, and Pictionary. It might seem like a superfluous tradition in unusual times, but now, we value it even more.

Our best tool during this novel era is adaptability. No matter how you re-shape your working style to fit today’s mold, remember that flexibility and understanding play the most significant roles in our success. We’re wishing you the best—and we welcome any learnings or questions you’ve found in self-isolation.