Three simple guidelines
Communication is always a big part of managing a team, and doing it well helps effective managers engage, gain trust, and inspire action.
When managing a remote team, the manager's communication strategy becomes more complex because they need to rely on virtual communication channels, and the arguably most powerful communication method, a face-to-face conversation, is not on offer.
For a manager whose team has had to transition from working in an office to 100% remote overnight (as so many have experienced in the past several weeks due to the Covid-19 outbreak), communication is even more complicated.
These newly remote managers are not only managing their team's usual workload in a newly remote environment, but they are also managing a massive transition for their team in a very uncertain time.
I can relate.
I recently helped to remotely manage a large org-wide transition at a national organization. We had staff working in 23 offices all over the US, and it was an extremely complex landscape for managing change. Because of our geographically dispersed organization, and the scope of the changes that were happening, communication via remote channels took far more time, planning and strategy than I had ever anticipated.
I learned a few important lessons from that experience that can support communication planning for managers of suddenly remote teams.
There is no such thing as over-communicating
Communications from remote manager- particularly during times of rapid change - must be even more thorough, frequent & thoughtful than those of managers whose teams are not remote.
It's easy to feel like you're on an island when working remotely. Regular connections with a manager or teammate can do wonders for supporting remote employees' morale and motivation, not to mention supporting better cohesion and prioritization of work on a remote team. There are many ways to incorporate more thorough, frequent, thoughtful communications as a remote team manager.
Recommended Strategy: Weekly Monday Bulletin Email
One strategy that I have seen work really well is a weekly bulletin the manager emails to their team on Monday mornings. This email supplements existing virtual meetings and digital communication channels, and is a way to streamline communications and focus the team on what is most important in a dynamic and changing context. (To be clear, this is not the dreaded weekly status report that managers sometimes are required to submit to their supervisors to update them on their team's progress - the audience is manager's direct reports, not their boss).
Making a weekly bulletin a consistent practice allows the manager to share with their team what they are currently working on, set team priorities for the week, communicate any other key project or operational updates, and build team alignment. Managers should customize their own bulletin to work for their team's goals and priorities. The critical thing is to pick a weekly format and stick to it - consistency is important for this strategy to work.
Here are sample topics that a manager might include in a weekly bulletin to their remote team:
Status updates on key projects
Important deadlines and goals for the upcoming week
Shout outs for team accomplishments
Employee engagement or other survey results
Articles or resources about leadership, sales strategy, or other relevant topics
Event or conference summaries
HR policy updates, scheduling changes, or other operational information
A story or reflection from the previous week
Remote staff love the weekly bulletin because they can rely on it for the most important info of the week, and it cuts down on other emails from their manager throughout the week. Remote managers love it because it's a chance for them to ensure their dispersed team is accountable and aligned around the same priorities.
Think about the "when" and the "how"
As a remote manager leading a team through a period of transition, it becomes extra important to be strategic with the timing & the channel for your communications.
Distance allows more room for missed communications or misunderstandings on remote teams. With so much communication happening digitally, it is common for remote staff to get overwhelmed by their email inbox, or check out during their 5th video conference of the day, and miss important information. Plus, digital communications like email or text make it harder to communicate nuances or emotions, and remote managers' messages can easily be misinterpreted.
In planning to communicate something to your remote team, it's helpful to ask yourself these two simple questions: Considering my team's communication needs, when is the best time to share this information?
It is important to consider the fact that remote team members are all on slightly different work from home rhythms, given their projects, kids, pets, virtual coffee dates, or other obligations - so it's not safe to assume everyone will read an email at the exact same time. The reality is that every individual on your team will access information a little bit differently, so it's important to get to know your team and ensure your communication strategy supports their diverse needs.
What channel makes the most sense for this communication?
You could send a communication out in an email, send via a chat or Slack, explain it at a virtual team meeting, or share it individually in virtual 1:1 meetings. Pick a channel based on the urgency, sensitivity, and importance of the message. And keep in mind it is usually necessary to use multiple communication channels for conveying important messages during a period of transition to ensure all of your remote team members receive it.
Proactively seek out and respond to feedback
Establishing open two-way communication channels between the manager and direct reports is a key part of a remote management communication strategy.
A central aspect of any manager's job is to both seek out feedback from and deliver feedback to their team members. That challenging work can be even more difficult for remote managers. This is because remote managers and remote team members can more easily "put their heads in the sand" and ignore a problem when it comes to giving and receiving feedback.
For example, if a manager senses by the energy on the call that people are upset about a decision they have communicated during a virtual meeting, it's really easy to ignore it and move forward, avoiding the difficult conversation with their remote team since they don't see each other every day.
Similarly, if a remote employee feels disrespected by another colleague, they may choose not to notify their manager about it in a remote environment where they would have to pick up the phone and call (vs just stopping in their manager's office). Calling their manager could feel too intimidating, or like they are making too big of a deal of what happened.
But avoiding or ignoring these types of issues on remote teams will lead to confusion and inefficiency at best, and toxicity, trust and team culture issues at worst. Remote managers have to be even more proactive and responsive than in person managers to ensure any issues or conflicts are addressed just as quickly as if your team was all under the same roof.
Here are a few tips for creating open lines of feedback when managing remotely:
Make it easy and low stakes for your remote team to share their feedback. You can do this by incorporating time for giving & receiving feedback into existing structures (e.g. add as a standing item on virtual 1:1 agendas, add plus/deltas at the end of virtual team or work group meetings, etc.)
It helps to have more difficult coaching conversations over the phone (vs video). While video conferencing is a great way to increase intimacy and connection during many remote meetings, for a more challenging feedback conversation about a performance issue, the level of intimacy of video can actually add pressure and stress to the conversation.
Seek out and provide formal feedback at least every 6 months. If your company does not already do one, consider creating an anonymous survey or 360 process to gather feedback on employee morale, support needs, team health and job satisfaction. Reflect on this data and use it to inform your goals, strategy for your team.
Model how to receive feedback for your team. Role modeling is an opportunity for a remote manager to set up a culture of feedback on their team. No matter what avenue the feedback is received, always follow up with your team or the individual to acknowledge their feedback, share how you'll incorporate it, and thank them for it.
I hope these three communication guidelines are a support for the many newly / suddenly remote managers out there. If you want to do some additional reading on the topic, here are a few other other remote management communication resources that I found helpful:
This HBR article shares a few great team engagement tips for newly remote managers:
This one offers specific communication guidelines for talking about the coronavirus crisis with staff:
This quick read from The Muse highlights helpful manager mantras for overcoming a fear of giving feedback:
About Kim Webster:
I am a facilitator & coach helping to increase leadership capacity and impact of emerging leaders and teams in purpose-driven companies and organizations. If you need support improving your team's remote meetings, need help facilitating a high impact virtual session, or seek individual leadership coaching to increase your remote management skills, please contact me at www.ownitconsulting.com or on LinkedIn.
I am currently offering FREE 30 minute consultations on remote working - from leading virtual meetings, to remote team management, to maximizing virtual collaboration technologies. Click here to schedule a consultation!