Challenges for Remote Teams During Coronavirus—and How to Overcome Them
Social distancing has suddenly brought a trend of the future—working from home—into the present. It’s a situation that, in good times, organizations would plan for first. We don’t have that luxury now, but good advice and best practices can help small and large enterprises ramp up quickly.
After the financial crisis that peaked in 2008, my company had two choices: drastically cutting overhead, or dissolving. We chose to move to a remote work platform, and never looked back. Were there hiccups and bigger challenges? Oh, yes. Can they be avoided or managed now, during an arguably greater crisis? For sure.
During the first weeks of coronavirus awareness, when some businesses were testing out remote work, the “challenge” we heard about was loneliness, isolation. A lack of social interaction now seems quaint, as far as problems go. The larger sticking points for enterprises looking to remain viable are how to communicate effectively, work as a team, and stay positive. A supportive company culture will help us get through this trying time.
The biggest lesson my team learned after leaving our office space was that long-distance communication uses the same building blocks, but the structure looks different. In fact, that should be the rule for emergency plans of all kinds: use your trusted tools; just accept that you’ll use them differently.
For us, that meant getting a network system in place so we could stop playing one-on-one phone tag. An integrated system like Slack offers both all-staff and project-based text, chat, audio, and video communication channels. There’s a free version for folks just starting out; or you can use Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger, as well as Google Drive or Dropbox for file sharing.
But our first real solution was to take some transparency steps, to better prepare us to find and share accurate information and people contacts from many locations. These included posting and allowing access to need-to-know details; learning each staff member’s role and job goals; and revamping our meeting protocols to make them more effective. If you spend a little time on these issues now, you’ll save more time and frustration going forward.
With those ducks in a row, your team will be set up to work together. It might be rocky during the learning curve, but you will likely find your teams performing in greater sync than they ever did in a physical office. The key is to remain accessible and accountable as the work flows—and to overcommunicate, particularly if you are leader.
By refining our meeting hierarchy and knowing what each coworker does and why, we can now call together the relevant players and get them prepped to contribute at a moment’s notice. Give your people a visual or verbal clue to let them know whether their presence is optional and what their part in the proceedings will be. You could use color coding; we used nicknames to indicate meetings of varying urgency:
- “Cockroach”: company-wide, optional meetings of low urgency
- “Tiger team”: project-oriented, invitational meetings of medium urgency
- “Ostrich”: need-to-know, information-dump meetings of high urgency
Now when we announce a conference, everyone knows when and whether to attend, how to prepare, and what the focus will be. To facilitate video conferencing and avoid problems with attention span and staying on task, we start on time, tolerate no multitasking, and end early. Everybody’s productive, and more important, everybody’s happy!
That brings us to the last, magical tool that can really help working teams weather any storm: a culture of positivity. Employees are creatures of habit, because routines save us time and energy. But that love of status quo creates an aversion to change. Many people will view a big, sudden change—like moving to a remote platform—as a problem. Instead, leaders should make clear that they see, instead, opportunity.
Our company learned that going remote, while it entailed some adjustments, was incredibly freeing and a means to vastly increase efficiency. We were forced to rework old policies that found much improvement. We had no choice to but to learn to rely on one another in ways we didn’t need to do before. This atmosphere of trust and positive change permeated our culture. It gave us an energy that we could apply to daily challenges, and a confidence that allowed us to stretch and grow.
Our sales numbers doubled in a few short years, but more significantly, our approach to problems and uncertainties changed for the better. We adopted techniques, such as appreciative inquiry, that let us unravel any snarl and come out ahead. A positive mind-set has to come from the top. But it’s definitely contagious, in a good way.
The ability to stay connected and work together safely during an unprecedented crisis isn’t just sound for business—it’s what people need right now. Shared purpose works wonders to create unity. And loneliness? There’s an app for that. Caring coworkers are just a click away.
Leadership speaker Chris Dyer is a recognized performance and company culture expert, as well as founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a leading background check company. He has channeled what he has learned in his business and research into his best-selling book, The Power of Company Culture (Kogan Page, 2018).