Managing Remote Teams

In mid-March, 2020, Irish businesses experienced what the Business Post referred to as “nuclear fallout” with the arrival of the COVID-19 virus on our shores. Initially, our thoughts went to the thousands of victims globally and we then turned our attention to our own friends and family who would be vulnerable during this pandemic.

It’s difficult to pretend that it’s ‘business as usual’. On a daily basis, our teams are supporting hundreds of contractors and clients who rely on us and we needed to act.

As a people first organisation, we focused on our staff, contractors and clients who are all impacted by this global crisis.

Firstly, our team were already fully equipped to work remotely and securely, with full business continuity thanks to our sister company Auxilion. We use a Microsoft suite of hardware and software to ensure our team members are available to contractors and clients when needed most. There was no hesitation in offering the team the option to work remotely, ensuring they could look after their health and the health of their families.

Secondly, we contacted all our clients to ensure that our contractors could continue to work remotely or semi-remotely. This ensured the safety of our contractors and secured their current assignments. In tandem, our resourcing services account managers were in touch with all contractors to ensure they had all required software and hardware to work effectively.

Finally, it’s very much business as usual for us – even though our world is changed forever. This is more poignant for those who have lost loved ones to this tragic pandemic – life will never be the same again. Our goal is to continue to serve our people, contractors and clients as best we can. This will ensure our clients can continue to keep their businesses going and secures the salaries of our contractors who are particularly exposed at this time.

With the current situation we find ourselves in, we hope the following might be helpful for organisations looking to manage a team remotely or onboard a staff member.

In a previous blog post, we covered how Zapier have built a successful business with over 300 remote workers. The organisation is 100% remote. They onboard staff remotely, built a phenomenal product and are one of the success stories from the States.

They conducted a survey lauding the benefits of remote working. Their survey (US based), found that 31% of skilled workers would like to work from home but their companies would not permit it. Interestingly, 2 out of 3 workers think that the office will be obsolete by 2030 and 74% would be prepared to quit their job to work remotely. It has also become a growing trend in Ireland, with many preferring to live and work remotely. According to research in 2018, there were 216,000 workers operating remotely in Ireland.

So how do you manage a remote team?

Recognise People

Have you noticed that many of your staff message the team to say ‘Hello’ on a morning or ‘See you tomorrow’ on an evening in the group chat? We are seeing this a lot in our teams. This might be a way to let management know that they are sitting, ready to work in the morning (albeit in their PJ’s), but on further reflection, we think it’s about recognition.

Some of our contractors and staff are not used to working from home and this greeting is just a way to be recognised. A good manager will respond, perhaps make a comment about the weather (we are Irish after all!). A great manager, however, will go a step further, asking a more detailed follow up question. Think about it – working from home prevents those elevator chats, smoke breaks are no more and what about the kettle chitchat, as you wait for your fifth cup of tea or coffee? It’s even more important with the growing anxiety that is undoubtedly stirring in the air. Asking deeper questions show you care and if you don’t feel authentic via text, why not run a video call, or go old school and pick up the phone?

Transparency and Communication

When working remotely, it’s more difficult to get a handle on what is going on in the other parts of the business. Those hallway catch ups are more than just a check in on Mike’s car woes! Those fleeting chats in our offices are often used to share information about company wins across the Group or requests for help on a particular account.

This lack of knowledge share makes it tougher for your employees and contractors to offer solutions or volunteer to help out. As a manager, it’s worth making the time (even once a week), for regular catch ups. Leave the agenda loose – start with Mike’s car woes and go from there! Perhaps open the floor to the wider team and invite a representative from another part of the business? For example, in I.T. Alliance Resourcing Services, we have a morning catch up meeting that allows the team to voice any concerns that they may have and get updates. Tom (our head of resourcing services), meets with his colleagues in Auxilion and I.T. Alliance to ensure there is cross-communication and then feeds back into his team.

Set Clear Expectations

When working remotely, the same fear comes up time and time again: Will they think I’m slacking and will I have an embarrassing moment? Well, we can’t stop your dog from barking at inopportune times or your kids from killing each other in the background, but we can help with the fear of slacking (well, we think so!).

The I.T. Alliance Group has over 20 years of experience in project management and remote contractor management. Regardless of ability, technology or seniority, it’s all about setting expectations. Managers need to spend a fair bit of time first planning the goals and then working out what the expectations around this are. It might include:

Public Appreciation

It’s also great to recognise progress across all the team publicly. This is what tools such as Slack and Teams are great for. Posting updates or “cheers” across a group chat / channel is a great way to boost morale, increase transparency and boost productivity (who knows, Mike may stop chattering about his car if he sees that Angela is getting more kudos on the group channel for getting work done!).

Most importantly, reassure your team that it’s not the amount of time you spend at your desk but the amount of work you do there. (Kudos to Di Gates for that nugget of wisdom). When working remotely, it’s not about trusting that your team are seated in their kitchen / spare room/ attic, starring at their screens. It’s about trusting your team to get their goals accomplished and caring about the work they do.

Your job is to empower and trust – the rest is up to them.

But how do you measure success?

Andrew Hedges, an engineering manager at Zapier, talks about measuring either the impact your team has on the project or the number of hours they’re working. Andrew lands firmly on one side of this debate: “You get what you measure. Measure impact,” he said. “It can be a little fuzzy to measure, but the benefits far outweigh the ambiguity.”. This is an interesting view from Zapier, as the organisation maintains that this view empowers their development teams to focus on the task at hand, rather than watching the clock.

It’s also important to understand what conditions lead your team members to be most productive. If someone needs uninterrupted blocks in which to do their work, help keep that time free from meetings (from you and from others around the company).

The Hive Mind and Brainstorming

While nobody wants to create a “Borg” mentality of group stupidity (yes, I just dropped a Star Trek reference), but the “group think” is a great asset to any organisation. The Borg hive mind (aka The Collective), helped them solve multiple problems and become the main protagonist in the Voyager series. So what can we learn?

But how can you bring remote teams to the one place to brainstorm? Our offices are full of whiteboards and tinted glass (many with strange numbers, charts and the odd smiley face), so an alternative is very necessary. Some teams might use online documents such as Word online or Google Docs but others might find an online whiteboard more useful. We use Microsoft Whiteboard and Zapier have a raft of other options too.

Two final (potentially) useful links.  LinkedIn have released a free online course in the light of the pandemic. It covers remote working and can only aid those looking to upskill.  Zapier have also a whole raft of learning materials on their website covering remote working.

During this difficult time, we hope that you will heed the government warnings and the words of Spock, “”The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”  Stay home and stay safe.

On a final note, Tom Moxon and the team here in I.T. Alliance Resourcing Services hope you and your families navigate successfully through this extremely challenging time.  Wishing you health and best wishes.