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What I’ve Learned As A CEO Managing Remote Teams

The current health crises has mandated teams of all shapes and sizes to now work remotely. In this post, I outline the strategies we're using internally to help keep our entire group productive and motivated during these trying times.

Over the course of only a few of weeks, the world as we know it has shifted. It’s affected the way we interact, the way we shop and eat, and the way we work. No longer allowed to go to our offices, millions of people are now working from home, most for the first time ever.
This swift change has resulted in incredible disruption not only for newly-remote employees, but also for their managers. Maintaining a distributed team thrusts an entirely new set of concerns and priorities on a manager, and developing the tools to deal with them can be difficult. Maintaining morale and motivation, although always important, has become an essential priority, on par with keeping day-to-day business operations running.
While the most obvious tip for a manager is probably to hire well (it’s a lot easier to manage a team of motivated self-starters!), I’ve outlined a few, more practical, suggestions that will make working from home more enjoyable and productive for both managers and their teams.

Tip 1: Communication is key (and video helps!)

Communication is key to a business’ success even in the best of times. The recent stay at home orders have heightened that requirement. At Branch, we’ve made up for the loss of facetime by instituting multiple all-hands meetings each week, a bi-weekly team-wide standup, and weekly coronavirus impact meetings.
Furthermore, managers have been deliberate about maintaining consistent, two-way communication with their teams. One of the quickest learnings from our early days in quarantine was that taking advantage of video call services like Zoom, GVC, or WebEx, produced far better results than traditional phone calls. A huge amount of communication is non-verbal, and intentions can slip through the cracks with a voice-only call. Don’t underestimate the power of a video meeting!

Tip 2: Beware of burnout

Heading into the lockdown, some people assumed that work-from-home culture would lead to laziness and hours spent on the couch watching movies. The reality has been quite the opposite. Working in locked-down isolation blurs the lines between work time and personal time in a way that isn’t always healthy.
To combat this, it’s important to remind your team that laptops can be shut, weekends are for relaxing, and taking a break during the workday is not only acceptable - it’s encouraged. During a standard workday in the office, people take time to socialize, leave for lunch, and go for the odd walk. It’s your job as a manager to make sure your team doesn’t burn out from their kitchen table.

Tip 3: Find ways to lighten the mood as a team

COVID-19 is having a serious impact on peoples’ health, employment security, and mental wellbeing. Employees may be stuck at home by themselves, or worse, with someone they’re completely sick of. As a manager, it’s incumbent on you to create an environment that makes them feel comfortable and distracts them for other issues they might be facing.
Whether it’s something simple like creating a #quarantinememes channel in Slack, or something that requires organization like maintaining your team’s happy hour schedule (digital happy hours are more fun that you’d think!), there are lots of options to keep people’s moods up. Morale is a mercurial thing in times like these, but you have simple tools at your disposal to maintain a great culture and help people to feel their best!

Tip 4: Recreate water cooler conversations

There are two major benefits of sporadic workplace conversations that are lost when everyone is working remotely. The first is the productive and oftentimes enlightening conversations that come out of unplanned run-ins. Maybe a colleague has a suggestion on an easier way to complete a task; perhaps that new idea you’ve been mulling over to help grow the business was actually on your boss’ mind too. To combat this, I’ve found that it helps to schedule brief video chats with colleagues on your team with a small, rough agenda focused on brainstorming new solutions to present problems, or discussing entirely new projects that haven’t been tested yet.
The second benefit of water cooler conversations that is missed out on is how informed one team becomes of another team’s work. We’re still a small group at Branch, which means it’s crucial we all stay up-to-date on what every group is working on. Some of this gets taken care of through our all-hands meetings, but I recommend every team still has a weekly check-in with one another (Operations with Sales, Sales with Growth, etc.) to communicate what they’re working on and how it might affect other divisions. For example, we run a Revenue Check-in every week with our Sales and Growth team to touch base on new leads, conversion data, optimizing our sales funnel, and more. This helps each team (and team member) better understand what other folks have in the works, while also giving them an opportunity to offer outside suggestions that may not have been considered yet.

Tip 5: Focus on the outcomes

It’s difficult enough as a manager to keep track of the work everyone is doing and how much time folks are putting in while people are in the office, let alone when the entire team is working in different locations. While I’ve never subscribed to the managerial philosophy of monitoring hours worked like a hawk, for some that abide by it, these are undoubtedly challenging times.
I’ve heard from my team that burnout is a bigger problem than idleness. And I believe them, because the amount of output they’ve produced over the past month is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My recommendation to managers that are having trouble monitoring their team’s activity is: Don’t focus on guessing the amount of hours folks are logging while working at home, but instead on the output that is being produced compared to normal, business-as-usual times. You’ll be able to measure performance much more efficiently this way.

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