One couldn’t possibly list all the challenges that we have to cope with right now. To put it short, we have been facing commuting limitations, concern for our family’s health and our own, social distancing and, on top of all that, we must learn how to work in a new environment.
While helping our clients beat this transition time, we have noticed a few particularities that apply to people holding leadership positions. Is that your case? Well, help is here! We collected input of experts from our Knowledge21 team on this subject. Allow us to step in and share our experience on the matter to assist you with your corporate needs.
We pulled together practical learnings on management challenges faced by those who have to handle distributed teams, which is probably the reality you are facing right now at the company level, and maybe even in your personal life, too. Let us tackle the issue in 4 main topics:
- Team organization
- Caring for people
First, let us take a look at the problem.
The current global pandemic struck our usual ways of living and working in an unprecedented manner, forcing us into social distancing. This crisis, like any other, has been pushing us to change and placing intense demands on our adaptation capabilities. Those who weren’t yet entirely convinced that responding to change is more important than following a plan, well, they’ve just had a practical masterclass on it over the few past months, haven’t they?
Among the many current challenges, one is shared by nearly all companies: the need to work from home. Suddenly, many of us had to adapt and adopt distributed work models. Who is in charge of handling this challenge? That’s right: management is.
And, since we are talking about management, we want to start by reminding that everyone is responsible for crisis management! What do we mean by that?
The traditional management mindset leads us to believe, even unconsciously, that the responsibility for crisis management is in the hands of those holding leadership positions. And what is the result of that? Those people end up bearing the burden of responsibility on their own, while others just sit and wait for problems to be solved.
Was that easy when all work was office-based? No. Well, imagine now that everyone is working remotely. It has become even more difficult! And here goes our first tip: regardless of your position, take your share of responsibility for overcoming present-time challenges together with your team.
Be wise to share information in the best way possible (decontextualized data, for instance, can cause panic instead of evoking a sense of responsibility). Try and provide as much guidance as possible to people, because only then will they be able to accomplish what is expected from them in a moment that demands so much adapting from us all, already.
Let us take a look at a straightforward example. Here at Knowledge21, once quarantine was declared, we created an internal communication group called “Turning a threat into an opportunity.”
Anyone from the company was free to join the group. The only agreement is that this channel is aimed at discussing ideas not only to overcome the crisis but also to identify opportunities that, given the new scenario, will potentially generate results that we never even dreamed of. Based on the ideas that arise, we will form new groups to put those insights into practice.
Even if unstated, the main message was, “We are all responsible for managing this crisis. You don’t have to wait. Just share your idea and ask for help to put it in practice.” It was the fastest and most efficient way to make everyone feel responsible for crisis management.
Shared management — practical examples
To talk about management challenges during remote work periods, we highlighted four topics:
- Team organization
- Caring for people
1. Team organization
Team organization is the most perceptible challenge while working from home, and, therefore, we will tackle it straight away. We need to ensure that all of the team’s processes will work well, no matter where people are located.
Right now, we must pay closer attention to this since most of us are working from home due to a global health crisis. These are the four most important points to ensure proper team organization:
I. Having short-term goals
Here, the main problem that we intend to address via such short-term goals is the loss of focus. During times of crisis, resources become even more scarce. Having a sharp perspective on results becomes mandatory. Main tips:
Adjust the team’s goals
We need to engage in the exercise of revisiting our goals (aspirational, short-term, and long-term) and adjust them if needed. Make them as straightforward and clear as you can. During the crisis, do not be surprised if you need to change your short-term goals regularly. In such a scenario, having a clear perspective on the business metrics is critical to plan your actions appropriately and keep things on track. This will make all the difference in the survival and prosperity of your business.
Here at Knowledge21, for example, in 3 weeks, we changed our OKRs twice. Our OKRs are the tool we use to define our goals and measure results. The first change was a major one, and the second change was a refinement of our journey based on our learnings. Curious about OKRs? Find out more about them here.
Weekly planning meetings
Hold planning meetings every week, engaging your team. A great idea would be to highlight the main goals of the week, thus ensuring more focus on the most important deliverables. One reverse standard that takes place quite often among teams is to neglect those meetings based on the belief that the team will organize itself organically. Do not sit and wait. Call for those meetings.
Shared Task Board
A single, shared task board used by the entire team helps to maintain focus and follow up on the deliveries. Make sure that this board gets updated regularly. Many digital platforms offer such services, such as Trello, among others. Check out this post to gain insight into some of those tools.
A shared board helps to remind people that, even if they are working remotely, they are part of Something bigger (a team, a company). This strategy also avoids having people “stepping on each other’s toes.” Other than that, a shared board avoids a waste of time, that is, having two persons covering the same task, or that an essential activity ends up being forgotten.
II. Coordination meetings
Have you ever felt like someone was undoing Something you had just finished doing? Well, sometimes, this is not just a feeling. When working online, realizing this may take longer, but also may occur more often.
Having short coordination meetings avoids this issue and enables people to identify synergy opportunities. Tip: holding daily meetings. Keep those meetings short. 15 minutes is enough. Use this time to make sure that everyone is working towards the most important goals, and also to see if anyone needs help.
Attention! Be extra careful not to transform the “daily 15-minute meetings” into a “call meeting” or a “status report meeting.” Such behaviors do not guarantee result delivery. They just reinforce a negative culture based on command, control, and fear.
Leadership needs to create trust bonds among leaders and those who are led, so that they may ask for help whenever needed. We are facing many challenges while undergoing all the adaptation that must take place right now. Living with such challenges without asking for help is a massive waste of energy and productivity.
In this link, you will find tips that will prove to be useful for your next meetings.
III. Explicit agreements
If anything is not stated explicitly, one cannot assume that this information will be obvious to all. Making team agreements clear to everyone increases the chances of accomplishing team goals.
Since people must work remotely and away from one another, agreements are now more critical than ever. Such agreements may apply to business hours, meeting times, team communication, or even to other company divisions.
Check out a handful of really functional agreement examples held by all teams here at Knowledge21. We use these tips not only during moments of crisis, but whenever we are talking about distributed environments.
“Is there a misalignment? Make a call”.
In critical moments, communication via chat may create misunderstandings since written text requires interpretation. They may even lead to tension build-up among team members. If you feel that a communication issue may be happening, pick up your phone and call. That simple!
This is the name of a channel that we have. Everyone in the company participates, and it is meant just for us to relax and enjoy ourselves. In this channel, we discuss many subjects, work-related or not, always informally. The main agreement? NEVER to use this channel for solving work-related problems! Keep the informality where it belongs.
We chose Telegram as our official work tool. Our goal, thus, is not to use other communication tools to talk about work, even in an attempt to respect everyone’s private lives. If we are expecting a work-related answer, we will use Telegram. Keep business talk where it belongs.
Respecting working hours
Specific teams restrict their working hours and, sometimes, even messaging hours. Yes, because merely receiving work-related messages after business hours may throw us in a state of preoccupation and engage us professionally during our rest time.
“Out of service/Out of Office” — Whenever someone is off duty, for a whole day or even just for a few hours, it is important to make it known. This means that this person won’t be replying during those hours, which helps in managing expectations for people who may be waiting for an answer. An effortless way for one to indicate OS/OOO times is by changing their profile picture. There is also a shared calendar where we can indicate longer absence periods, such as days or weeks in which you will be OS/OOO.
Is it urgent? Make a call!
Yes, we make heavy use of asynchronous communication, as you can assume, based on the tips shared above. However, on certain occasions, we must minimize the time between asking the question and having the answer. Making a good old phone call is still the best way to handle this. “What if the person cannot answer?” Make it a standard to reject the call. If you have this agreement in place, as simple as it may seem, it conveys unspoken messages such as “Something important is happening. What can I do to help?” or “Ok, even if it is important, I can’t join. Solve it without me. Thanks for trying to involve me!”
IV. Be present
More than ever, your team needs you. Being present is vital, even if remotely (online). People need to know where to go to get answers to their questions, where to address their challenges, and, most importantly, which goals to follow.
While working on office-based settings, we eventually bump into each other here and there, and exchange a couple of words about everyday matters. Little by little, this consolidates good conviviality and enables experience-sharing moments.
A positive work environment is excellent both for leaders and those who are led. Do not allow your team members to become isolated, and make sure that you, as leadership, is not isolating yourself. Find ways to be together virtually, either as a group or through one-on-one sessions. The next topic brings up important tips to assist in that sense.
Working with distributed teams requires us to excel in communications. Communicating is often a challenge even in shared physical spaces, and working remotely makes it even more tricky. We will need more discipline, enhance our information-filtering capabilities, and chose our communications channels wisely.
Here are a few tips on communication in situations involving distributed work:
People need to have clarity on what is going on. Encourage everyone to communicate information that may affect the work of more than one person in team chat rooms (or even company-level chat rooms). Do not go for “today I did this, and tomorrow I’ll do that” kind of communication.
Focus on communicating what may impact the lives and work of others. Before actually engaging in communication (either via e-mail, task-control platforms, or meetings), think with yourself, “Who needs to know this?” or “Who may be affected by not knowing this?” — if no one came to mind, then no need to communicate. It makes people feel engaged.
Make sure information is flowing. For those of you in leadership roles, be active in disseminating information stemming from the company’s strategy division. The world is changing, so why shouldn’t our strategies change as well? Hone your strategy and reach out to everyone in your team.
Transparency is a key factor in generating trust and engagement. At Knowledge21, for instance, the Crisis Strategy Committee communicates with the whole company on a daily basis.
Remember to involve all relevant stakeholders in the decision-making process, just like it would be if everyone were physically present in the company’s office. A typical reverse standard that arises when people migrate from office settings to home-based settings is reverting to isolated decision making. Engage people. Try and use video calls as much as possible. Non-verbal language is essential for good decision making.
Create different communication channels for team and company communication. Is it important to have channels where people can just interact in an informal, friendly way? Sure! But other channels have to be business-focused.
Being informal in official channels may endanger the communication of important information. If informality becomes predominant, team members may overlook specific channels completely, thinking of them as a source of spam. Consult your team and, if necessary, create different channels for particular purposes.
If productivity is already a major challenge for management staff in office settings, what to say about dealing with productivity in the context of remote work? How can we measure the team’s productivity and ensure that the desired results are being reached, even though the team must work in a distributed manner?
It could be worth writing many posts on this matter, but we will highlight three key topics right here for you:
I. Focusing on results instead of working hours:
Measuring your team members’ occupation rates does not guarantee that the desired results will be timely delivered. It does sound counterintuitive, but have you ever taken part in a project where all the deliverables were turned in, and, yet, the business result never came about?
As Henrik Kniberg stated, “The result of managing occupation rates is finding out that you will have a bunch of busy people” (in free translation) and, might I add, less value being delivered, possibly. Guaranteeing results is the most crucial aspect, especially during crises. Besides, it is not difficult to tamper with occupational rates’ calculations, especially in remote work contexts.
Tip: Ensure that the focus lies on measuring results. Measuring occupational hours should only be considered when this aspect is essential for the results; for instance, the opening hours of a doctor’s office. Otherwise, focus on what matters — Results!
II. Visibility: Yes! Micromanaging? No.
While working online, one of the first questions that arise is, “How can I, as a manager, ensure that my team is working as it should?” It is a valid question, for sure. The issue is what motivates it.
If the only motivation of the manager is to ensure that all team members are working the number of hours corresponding to their working hours, this is a major problem. Micromanaging, or “over the shoulder” management, is already failing at office settings. Why insist on it in remote work realities? The explanation of why this approach does not work is rather simple: having people busy is no guarantee of results delivery.
The right motivation behind productivity is to ensure visibility. The more visibility a team has on what it has been working on, the easier it will be to follow up on results delivery and re-route, if necessary.
Tip: Focusing on follow-up is key. The questions asked by team members (and mainly by the manager) should focus on the delivery itself, not on the person working towards this delivery. Tips on best practices for daily meetings should be adopted to guarantee this result.
III. How to measure productivity?
Productivity can be measured based on efficacy and efficiency metrics. However, for crisis contexts, it would be interesting to highlight the efficacy metric since it is directly associated with results. After all, a team that does not deliver results is on the way to extinction, right? Let us consider a few examples.
Revenue, Income, Sales, or Conversion
Find out which of those metrics is more important to guarantee the financial health of the company. Make this clear for all the teams that may help to enhance it. In times of crisis, invite people to experiment and contribute towards improving those figures. Get prepared to listen to ideas and to teach your team to think more about the business itself and less about their work.
Base Maintenance, Active Clients, Use of Products, and Services
Find out which metrics indicate that your clients may no longer be using your products or services. Instruct the relevant teams to observe and investigate in case this metric worsens. Sometimes, your client will be leaving you because a competitor is offering a better deal, or maybe because your product no longer fits the client’s original purpose. In this case, the teams must be ready to test adaptations of the product/service so that those purposes (be them new or old) get reached. You will then be able to put together a base-defense strategy.
Team throughput vs. average waiting time (AWT)
This indicator expresses the number of tickets that are closed vs. the average time that the client had to wait for an answer. Here, a peculiarity applies. This metric focuses on results when the request flow is directly connected to the core business. Other than that, it becomes an efficiency metric.
We are used to measuring delays, absenteeism, etc. But are those really the best technical indicators? What about measuring the impact of those delays and absences? That is why we use “downtime” as an indicator to estimate for how long a specific service remained unavailable. Your client does not care about whether a particular employee is at work or not.
All that matters to the client is whether the service is available, and the operation that is needed will be performed. Measuring for how long operation was out of service is more important than knowing exactly how long a team member was idle. Before considering the efficiency of the team, we need to ensure the efficacy of the product/service.
4. Caring for people
Last, but not least… people! A great challenge faced by leadership when managing distributed teams is caring for people, especially during the current social-distancing scenario. When we are all together at the office, many indicators help us assess how people are feeling. However, when the team is working from home, gauging everyone’s moods becomes more complicated — and, often, such assessment may end up being overlooked.
Keep in mind that we are not talking about regular situations of remote work. In our current situation, people are home with their families and need, therefore, to manage many factors throughout the day, including during their working hours.
Considering the current scenario, to maintain good productivity going among our teams, we need to care for people more than we ever did. Let us take a look at how to care for people in a distributed working context:
Take moments throughout the day/week and bring the team together to discuss anything BUT work. Virtual coffee-breaks, remote happy-hour sessions, or even online interactive gaming… anything goes! Take the initiative and schedule a virtual decompression moment with your team.
Team meeting times
Talk with people and get on the same page regarding meeting times, considering what would be best for them. Some of your team members may need to care for their children, their homes, and even themselves. So, maybe the usual meeting times you had back at the office won’t work that well anymore. Always keep in mind that we have been living through an unprecedented time in which nearly all of us must work from home.
Agree on availability windows throughout the day, during which every member of the team must be available and online at the same time, no matter what. For many tasks, synchronization is key. Except for this time window, allow people to organize their working hours as it suits them best. They will feel cared for and even more motivated! Here, at K21, we opted to be fully transparent and make everyone’s calendars visible to all. In case you become unavailable due to family matters, such as caring for your little ones, go ahead and block this time in your calendar.
How are people feeling? Is this affecting the team’s new ways of working? Bringing this topic into the spotlight may assist us in helping people feel better. We can do that in retrospective meetings, where everyone will be online at the same time, or through forms (sometimes even anonymous forms, when necessary).
Crises bring about many challenges and problems, for sure, but we also need to focus on the valuable learning opportunities that we would never otherwise have. It will be worth your while! One key positive learning point from this period may have been how we deal with working from home. Our views on remote work have certainly changed for good.
Working from home is not just about adapting to this current situation. It is a solution to many of our day-to-day problems. We have before us the chance to break a paradigm when it comes to commercial business hours.
Remote work solves several issues that may be faced by many of us at different points. Let us use this possibility in favor of our teams. It may turn out to be an extremely positive resource, even after we overcome the current global challenges caused by the pandemic.
Seize the opportunity and enjoy the best that distributed work models have to offer. The more we expose ourselves to new trends, the more expertise we gain. The more knowledge we have, the more mature we become.
We are all evolving together! Keep in mind that the current challenges are demanding to all of us, whether we are beginners or experts in remote work.
What about you? What challenges have you been facing? What are the solutions that you have been using to adapt to the current moment? Please do share! Don’t leave us hanging. We are curious by nature! We’ll more than love exchanging expertise with you. Use the comments section, and the world will be listening!