A few years ago, one of my management peers told me that there was no way to effectively manage a team that wasn't physically present, and that the concept of working from home would never catch on. I wonder how he's coping with the post-pandemic, work-from-home world of 2023?
Despite the prevalence of this new normal of remote work, I know many managers who struggle with the best way to lead their teams when everything is done through phone or video conferencing. I've had the advantage of leading distributed teams for many years, significantly predating the shift driven by the need to isolate due to COVID-19. There are some key things to keep in mind, but working within a remote support environment is possible and effective.
There are a couple of caveats first, however. Not all support roles can be effective in a work-from-home scenario. For example, teams that have to physically support or maintain equipment must still be present in person. Some organizations prefer to have their leadership in a hybrid role, working from home but also in the office on designated days to facilitate collaboration.
However, working from home is perfectly viable and effective for many in IT service and support roles. So let's look at some best practices to effectively manage a distributed workforce.
A primary concern of many supervisors is not being able to “manage by walking around.” It can be disconcerting when faced with leading a group of people you can't see. This is why the first best practice is setting clear expectations.
Everyone on the team should have a clear understanding of what their roles and responsibilities are and how management will measure them. Managers should be transparent on how everyone will be measured, and they need to regularly communicate reminders during team meetings and one-on-ones with individuals. If an employee reaches their annual review and is shocked or surprised by their performance evaluation, the manager has not done an adequate job throughout the year.
The isolation from the recent pandemic led to a quick rise in video conferencing solutions. That leads us to the next best practice – using technology effectively. Make sure that everyone on the team has the equipment and infrastructure to take advantage of all of the hardware and software tools needed to facilitate collaboration. This technology should be used by the team and by leadership to promote good, frequent communication.
If the technology is in place, it can drive another best practice – encouraging collaboration.
This is another concern I have frequently heard from managers, that a distributed team can't collaborate like one who is physically together, but there are plenty of tools designed to overcome this. For example, in a support center environment where everyone is working remotely, set up a team chat that everyone can use to ask questions of experienced coworkers. Team meetings should be as frequent as possible and mandatory for everyone to attend. Plenty of material is available for creating virtual team-building events or social gatherings. The key is getting as much direct communication going as possible via the available technology to offset the lack of in-person interactions.
This interaction includes the team's leadership. Managers should have regular one-on-ones with each individual on their staff. This is also a best practice – providing support and feedback. To do their job effectively, everyone must understand how they're doing. Managers should always address performance issues, but these feedback meetings should not simply focus on what's negative. If an employee has displayed good qualities such as innovation or a willingness to share knowledge, let them know it's appreciated. If someone receives good feedback from customers or other teams, publicly acknowledge that during team meetings (though be sure to check with the employee first to ensure they're OK with public recognition).
All of these things lead to the next best practice, and it's particularly challenging – fostering a positive culture. Building a common culture is much easier if everyone is physically together in an office. Moving to a distributed workforce can cause an established, excellent company culture to degrade. Adapting cultural values from an in-office environment to a remote work situation can be effective, provided leadership embraces the other best practices mentioned above. Great company cultures should include transparency of communication and actions, and inclusivity in the sense that everyone should be willing and able to speak up and offer feedback to leadership. This will drive trust, which is critical as the team must feel they have the support and resources to do their jobs effectively. Recognition and celebrating success is also a vital part of a great culture.
Finally, we all know that working in a service and support environment can be stressful. Everyone needs an opportunity to decompress, which leads to my last best practice – a good work-life balance. Working from home can create difficulties in setting boundaries between work and home life since the office is in the house. Leaders should encourage their teams to establish routines, take breaks, and prioritize self-care. Workforce management can help show when employees are expected to be at work and when not. Many companies offer mental-health benefits, and managers can promote and support everyone taking advantage of this to maintain their well being.
Leading a distributed workforce is the new normal. While challenging, it can be both practical and rewarding with the proper best practices in place.