When the Covid-19 pandemic began, many organizations had to pivot from working in the office amongst colleagues to suddenly working from home. For some, it was a first. Today, more people are working remotely than ever before. While the transition from the office-office to the home-office isn’t without its challenges, there are specific steps that project managers can take to improve the productivity and engagement of remote employees.
Common Challenges of Working Remotely
As project managers, we need to understand the factors that can make remote work particularly challenging. You may have noticed that some of your high-performing employees experienced a decline in job performance when they began to work remotely. In addition to a loss in productivity, there are a few common challenges that come with remote work, including the following.
Lack of Access to Information
When you’re working onsite, most of what you need is available at the office. When working from home, lack of access to information can be an issue. For example, some may have trouble accessing documents stored on a shared drive when working from home. This can also include access to other team members. What would’ve been a visit to a colleague’s desk at the office now requires a phone call or email that may not be answered immediately.
Lack of Face-To-Face Interactions
Both project managers and employees alike have expressed their difficulty around the lack of face-to-face interactions when work goes remote. Many employees struggle with reduced access to their manager’s support, and a lag in direct communication. Managers and employees both express concerns about the potential for misunderstandings, which tend to happen more often without face-to-face conversations.
Social isolation—particularly for extroverts—is a chief complaint amongst those who are working remotely. Many employees miss the informal, social interactions they had at the office. Managers share concerns that lack of social interaction seems to leave team members feeling like they don’t “belong” in the way they would if working together with each other in person.
Anyone who works from home can attest to the challenge that is distractions. Many are working with children at home, which brings with it an endless stream to interruptions even on the best of days. Others are distracted by the demands of running a home that they would otherwise leave behind for a day at the office. Project managers must expect this, and be flexible enough with employees to understand that these distractions may take some getting used to as everyone shifts to the work-from-home model.
How to Support Remote Employees and Manage a Virtual Team
As much as remote work can be riddled with challenges, there are plenty of solutions that managers can implement to help boost productivity and team morale—and keep a project on track! Building a sense of ‘we’re in this together’ may not be as easy virtually, but it can be done. As a project manager, there are a few relatively inexpensive and easy things you can do to manage your virtual team.
Establish Structured Project Check-Ins
You likely had a schedule of regular check-ins with your team and with each employee individually when working together in the office. Keep this going even if it means more virtual meetings or phone calls than you’d like, particularly if the nature of the project is highly collaborative (and most are!). Keep the check-in/team meeting schedule predictable and have a structured meeting agenda to stay on task.
These continued check-ins can do more than keep your project going. While many team members may love and enjoy the flexibility that comes with working from home, others may feel isolated and lost. Checking in ensures you’re aware of how everyone is really doing. Fostering a culture of honesty and transparency starts with you—share your challenges and triumphs during these check-ins and encourage others to do the same. You have the power to create a feeling where your team members know they’re not just working separately, but they’re truly a part of a team and a part of a project that is meaningful and worthwhile. Fostering “team spirit” can go a long way for continuing to meet project goals.
Provide Varied Communication Options
When your team is working remotely, email as a standalone communication method is insufficient. With so many options at hand, it’s important to utilize many in order to keep your project going and your team on task. Video conferencing offers many advantages, particularly for smaller group meetings or 1:1 check-ins. For situations that involve a quick time-sensitive question from an employee, chat options such as Microsoft Teams offers can be very helpful.
Video meetings are useful for complex conversations, as they allows for back-and-forth dialogue and can feel more personal than written communication. Consult with your IT team to ensure all data is safe and private before selecting the communication tools you will use.
Establish Clear Rules of Engagement
It is hard to have an “open door policy” when you’re social distancing and working from home, but establishing new rules of engagement for working remotely can go a long way in helping keep the lines of communication open while also holding healthy work-life boundaries.
When project managers set clear expectations about the frequency, means, and timing of communication for their team members, employees will better understand what is expected of them and when. One example may be “we will use video calls for our weekly team meetings, but quick questions can be addressed using Microsoft Teams.”
Boundaries are important when working remotely (who among us hasn’t been up at midnight answering emails?!). Set clear boundaries so your employees know when you are and are not available, and ask them to do the same. “I am most easily reached between the hours of 9 am – 12 pm for phone or video conversations.” The earlier you set these rules of engagement, the better off everyone is. It is important that everyone is on board and understands the rules for engagement and communication.
Provide Opportunities for Social Interaction
Many of your employees are likely missing the water cooler banter, and the ability to walk down the hall to a colleague’s office to pick their brain or have a chat on a break. One of the most essential things you can do as a project manager is to set up times for employees to interact socially while working remotely. One of the best ways to do this is to schedule a time (say once a month) for a virtual “non-work work chat.” Virtual pizza parties, weekly trivia contests, and/or virtual “happy hours” can help keep your team connected and foster a stronger sense of togetherness, even when you are apart. While these social events may feel a bit forced at the beginning, be creative and keep trying. It will go a long way in reducing social isolation and promoting a sense of belonging.
Your team members working from home will need some flexibility with their hours, particularly those who have other responsibilities at home, such as helping their children navigate school virtually or caring for a sick family member. Do your best to allow a degree of flexibility when managing your team. That said, it is important to clearly set times that will require shared collaboration. It’s okay to have “windows” in the day where everyone on the team is expected to be online, such as for team meetings.
Whether working and managing a team remotely comes easy to you or it’s a bit of a slog and struggle right now, know that it’s possible! You’ve got this. What are your best tips for managing remote employees? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.