The keys to leading a remote team

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Moving to remote work in a crisis mode oftentimes is a quick Band-Aid or bootstrap — but these basics will most likely serve as a solid foundation for the long-term evolution for firms to incorporate more of a remote-workforce business model. We’ve all just gotten a very big nudge to do it sooner.

It may not feel like it now, but your future firm will reap the benefits of allowing more flexibility to staff — newer hires in a tight talent market demand flexibility. You’ll also lay the groundwork to augment your staff either with off-premise permanent hires or even short-term gig players during busy season or to add a task-specific set of skills.

But to truly make this work for your firm now and in the long-term, there is more to consider than just the physical requirements of remote work. You still need to get and keep people mentally and emotionally tied to your firm, and to have them be committed to doing the great work that you are known for. What will that take?

Let’s look at it from a couple of different vantage points with suggestions for each. First, we’ll look at what team members need from their leader in a crisis to ease their panic and stress. Then we’ll look at what you can do for your team to help create an effective remote workforce.

Be the leader your team needs

The first way to address the current pandemic crisis — our uncharted territory — is to know that people (your team members inside your firm and your clients outside your walls) naturally look for leadership, because it feels safer to follow someone during confusing times. Those followers have basic requirements of anyone they choose to follow. Those straightforward needs, based on Gallup’s Needs of Followers research, apply to any leader, whether they are leading in a crisis or not. Satisfying those needs is imperative in a crisis.

  • Trust. This is a two-way street. Give people the straight information in a transparent fashion as soon and as completely as possible. And give them a way to safely give you information back. Here’s a kicker for your executive team: Trust the individual teams to deliver. Teams that trust each other and the firm leadership are more tightly knit — and that’s a good thing.
  • Compassion. Understand what your team members might be feeling. Fear? Stress? Overwork because they are also caring for kids at home? Take some time to know each person well enough to know what they are going through.
  • Stability. What can you put in place so that your team does not feel like they are standing on shifting sands? Be specific. Ask them what would help. Let them know that you won’t just drop them on their heads. Most firms have enough compliance work to do, but your clients may very well be in a different place. Though it may seem expeditious for some of them to go immediately to a lay-off solution to address short-term profitability, we should all think about hiring and training costs if team members leave after this passes.
  • Hope. Sharing your vision and plan for the future — during and after the crisis — can give your team something to look forward to. This is where you need to be inspiring! What do you stand for? Can you even consider banding together as a firm to help others during the crisis? Step up to this.

Ongoing team connections

So those are table stakes for leaders getting their teams calmed down enough to work. But what specifically can you do to make the remote work effective? A few simple hints will help:

  • Physical readiness. Make sure that those technical pieces already discussed elsewhere are in place. Does everyone have a laptop? Did you set up a VPN? Do they have access to Wi-Fi? Is there office space at home? Do you have tech support on speed dial and available to team members?
  • Expectations. Set up clear expectations for work product. Note we said “product,” not "process." Just because you can’t see your team is no reason to start (or continue!) micro-managing someone’s process. What and when do you both agree your team will deliver?
  • Everyday communication. Establish and keep a frequent communication rhythm. One of the very best managers at keeping his team engaged worked remotely with 30 people. When asked what his magic was, he replied that he just talked to everyone every day. Not a long talk, but a check-in: “How was yesterday? Any good news to share? Anything that I can do to help you today? Let me know if you need anything! And great job on (_______), by the way. We noticed and it makes a difference!”
  • Team bonding. Make sure there is a way for the team to stay together. Block off time for a remote team lunch. Each person gets their salad/sandwich and gets on a video chat to have lunch together. Or schedule a virtual happy hour on Friday afternoons. We are social creatures, so make sure you bake some of that back into your remote situation.
  • Information sharing. Keep your team in the loop. Share information from the firm down to your team and vice-versa, and set it up so the team can share with each other what is happening. If someone needs some help, let it be OK to bring it to the team and ask.
  • Establish remote work rules. Consider blocking out time on shared calendars for specific purposes. When you can’t see that someone has their head down, and is deep in the groove of their work, interrupting that person with a phone call or text — no matter how brief — can derail their focus and delay the completion of a task. Instead, encourage your team to block off times when they don’t want to be interrupted. Develop expectations for response times to calls, emails and other messages. Just because everyone is always connected does not mean they need to be on call 24/7.

Remote work and keeping people committed to the work and your firm do doesn’t need to be tough, but it does need to be intentional. Remote leadership is different than in-person leadership, and remote management may be even more hands-on than in the office. During a time of crisis like we are in right now, your team members need and want you to step up and help them stay connected to an important part of their life and their identity — work at your firm. And cementing connections with your clients using some of the same approaches will be a bonus.

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Coronavirus Work from home Employee retention Practice management