By: Emily Finlay
At the beginning of 2020, only about 17% of American workers worked remotely full time. By April 2020, however, 44% of employees were working from home.
Though many offices have reopened and brought employees back in-office, remote work is still a big part of every day life. In fact, nearly 27% of American workers are expected to be fully remote in 2021.
For managers, this shift requires fresh strategies. Remote work adds new challenges to the difficulties of successfully managing a team. Some of the most common challenges include:
- Dealing with distractions at home.
- Feeling disconnected from co-workers and team decisions.
- Maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
- Staying engaged and motivated.
If you’re new to remote team management, you may feel overwhelmed and unequipped to resolve these problems among your team. If you aren’t able to find your footing, your team can become disorganized, unfocused, and unproductive.
Even if you’ve been managing remote teams for years, your employees are likely facing challenges that they’ve never had to deal with before. Their partner or spouse may also be working remotely, they may have kids or other family members in their household to look after, and everyone may be under a lot more stress due to everything that’s been happening in the world lately.
In sum, any manager can use the best practices in this article to lead teams more effectively by keeping them on-task, motivated, and ready to tackle the next project that comes their way.
Challenge: Dealing with distractions
We’ve all seen the commercials that parody remote work, showing parents with their kids climbing all over them as they try to join a meeting or finish a task. Though these portrayals are exaggerated, they do hold some truth.
For many people, remote work offers endless opportunities to move focus from work to the things going on at home.
Parents may have kids playing loudly in the next room or at their feet. Roommates may not respect requests to be quiet during work hours. There might be packages delivered, laundry that needs to be folded, and a million other interruptions that can easily consume the day.
If your workers can’t reclaim their focus or have poor time- management, they may spend hours on these distractions with little to show you at the end of the day.
Solution: Create workspace guidelines
You need your employees to be consistently productive, which means finding a reliable way to shut out frequent distractions. One way to do this is to create guidelines to help your team create better remote workspaces. These guidelines might include:
- A dedicated room with a door. Creating a separate space that is used only for work can help employees stay focused and on -task. If at all possible, workers should use a separate room with a door (even if it means working from their bedroom) so they can limit interruptions.Consider offering employees stipends so they can purchase necessary equipment to set up a home office, such as a desk and chair, or an extra monitor, to make their at-home space more like an office.
- A workspace away from home. Some people can’t thrive in a work-from-home setting, either because they don’t have the dedicated space or there are simply too many distractions.For these employees, consider giving them a stipend so they can spend time at a co-working space (e.g., WeWork) so they have a more work-friendly environment.
If the distractions are schedule-based (e.g., employees need to take time off each day to pick up or drop off kids at school), you should try to work with team members to create a schedule that allows them to attend to these tasks by setting work hours that start earlier or end later in the day to allow for any necessary breaks.
With tailored work hours, employees can give their full attention to both work and personal tasks without feeling like they have to make sacrifices in one area or the other.
Challenge: Feeling disconnected
Feelings of isolation take several forms for remote workers. Some people report feeling lonely and experiencing social isolation. Others are frustrated when they feel that they aren’t included in team decisions, such as setting goals.
You may also have workers who are unable to build relationships with their coworkers due to differences in time zones and/or schedules, which can affect remote team collaboration.
Solution: Foster stronger relationships
First, evaluate the tools and policies you have in place for communication. Can everyone reach out to chat with each other easily? Are you including the right people in team decisions, or just sending out the results?
Look for any gaps that may hinder collaboration or leave people feeling left out. If you’re lacking the right tools, find a suitable option, such as a chat or collaboration tool, to enable your team to easily communicate with one another.
Once you have a better idea of what your team needs to feel more connected, create new policies to encourage better connections. If you don’t have one scheduled already, bring your team together for a weekly meeting to discuss important news and make team decisions.
You can also meet with each person separately to see how they’re doing and get their feedback and suggestions on ways to improve team camaraderie and collaboration.
Lastly, consider scheduling social events to help ward off feelings of isolation and disconnection. These can take many forms (e.g., virtual happy hours or escape rooms, or some type of multi-player game), but should always work to bring your team together.
You need full participation for these gatherings to be effective, so try to find options that everyone will enjoy.
Challenge: Maintaining a healthy work-life balance
When you work in an office, it’s much easier to maintain healthy boundaries. Work begins when you arrive and ends when you leave the building. At-home workers, however, don’t have the same clear markers.
Even if your team follows a typical nine-to-five schedule, they never physically “leave” the office. This makes it easier to work late, check emails during personal time, and spend too much time thinking about work obligations.
Along with blurring these lines, an unhealthy work-life balance can lead to burnout. Employees, especially those who are lonely or disconnected, are more likely to experience mental and physical issues that affect their well-being. You may also see a decline in their work performance.
Employees may be hesitant to set better boundaries because they may fear looking like they’re not working as hard, and so they may feel trapped in an unending cycle.
Solution: Set and enforce better boundaries
When you manage remote workers, you’re responsible for creating an optimal work environment. Even though you’ll never be able to address every stressor your team experiences, you can create and enforce clear boundaries that minimize the impact that day-to-day work has on their mental and physical health.
Tips for setting and enforcing boundaries include:
- Communicate expectations about after-hours work. Do you expect workers to answer emails outside of work hours? What is the policy for projects that require after-hours work to meet deadlines? Determine your expectations for these situations and communicate them clearly to your team.
- Model the importance of work/life balance. Set an example for the rest of your team by not sending after-hours emails or working on projects on weekends and by taking regular personal time off (PTO).
- Consider implementing policies such as “no work emails on the weekend,” or “no meetings on Mondays” to set clear boundaries for your team to adhere to, rather than expecting them to set those boundaries themselves.
- Check in regularly with team members. During your weekly one-on-ones, ask employees how they’re doing and if there’s anything you can do to help them better balance work and personal tasks. You might consider sending out an anonymous survey to your team if you really want to get honest feedback so you can identify areas for improvement.
Most importantly, make sure you always communicate expectations clearly, as certain situations may call for adjusting existing boundaries.
For example, there may be times when an urgent project requires “all hands on deck” for several days, and most employees need to work a bit late.
In this case, let your team know that this is only temporary, and when the project is over, communicate that everyone should resume their normal working hours (you might even consider giving people a day off as a reward).
Challenge: Staying motivated
Even under the best of circumstances, your workers may struggle to stay committed to their work. Some remote workers may not be used to the lack of structure that at-home work features, while those who thrive on in-person communication may struggle to get things done without consistent feedback and social stimulation.
As a manager, you’re likely to see this lack of motivation reflected in both personal performance and team results. Workers who struggle to meet deadlines and perform as expected will also slow the rest of the team down. If employees can’t meet their job expectations, you may be forced to let them go.
Solution: Find creative ways to motivate your team
This solution may seem overly simple, but it can be powerful if you use it right. Start by asking your team what motivates them. Do your employees work best under pressure? Adjust your workflow to include shorter deadlines and work cycles.
Do some employees prefer to work independently, while others prefer to collaborate on projects? Try to delegate projects accordingly so that every team member is working on the types of projects they enjoy most, in the way they enjoy most.
Another way to incentivize employees is to gamify certain work tasks. You can create multiple ways to reward progress, such as giving points for meeting deadlines and solving problems. At the end of the week, you can offer prizes to those with the highest scores.
In addition to providing motivation, gamification adds an element of fun to what can be mundane everyday tasks. No matter what solutions you come up with, just be careful to choose options that won’t add additional stress or distractions, or more work to do.
Managing remote teams can be a challenge for even the most skilled people manager. But by implementing some of the best practices outlined above, you can begin to solve some of the most common challenges remote managers face, resulting in a happier, more productive team, and ultimately making your job easier.