Remote Team Setup: Advice from TorchLight’s Chief Culture Officer Julie Lowe

The work world (and the world in general) may change forever as a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). In addition to travel and event bans, school closings and even the quarantine of entire countries, remote work has become a reality more than ever before. Many of you may be forced to move to a remote team setup very quickly which can be stressful for managers and employees alike. While you may have had 1 or 2 remote employees (or team members who work remotely a few days a week), you may not have considered how you would manage a fully remote team (or even department) before. TorchLight’s employees have worked 100% remotely since our founding in 2012.  We want to share our experience on important aspects of setting up and managing remote teams and individual employees that we’ve learned over the years. We hope this will alleviate at least some of the worry and help you get your remote team setup working well and running FAST.

Technology and Tools

  • First, you may need to consider equipment and software. Many of your employees may even be using desktop computers and you’ll need to find a way to get them quickly set up with laptops (or move their desktops home) including user credentials, email accounts and necessary software.
  • Another important item you may need to address is your VPN setup as it can often be highly stressed with the addition of a higher volume of remote workers. This can be crucial for employees who may need to access secure systems and documents inside your firewall. Others may simply need ways to retrieve and save documents that aren’t highly sensitive. If you have a file sharing system like SharePoint set up, that will likely suffice for most situations.  DropBox and Google Drive are fast, easy tools to get up and running if you don’t already have an enterprise solution.
  • You may also need to think about how employees can best access tech support from home. You may even need to put together some employee training on new tools to ensure top productivity and employee comfort with their new setup. Here are some additional recommendations on remote work tech and related tools to help out.
  • We also recommend establishing a video conferencing tool, if you don’t have one set up already. If you’re lucky, your company already uses something like Microsoft Teams so this won’t be a big transition. If not, there are some free tools like Zoom or Go to Meeting. These usually have some limitations, like numbers of participants allowed or length of call. Many people use Slack as a very affordable collaboration and communication tool, and you can use it to connect to various other tech tools you have (like Zoom and Dropbox) to centralize team access to all platforms. Google Hangouts is another one to explore. Luckily, several companies (including Zoom and Google) are currently offering free access to their enterprise remote tools including Microsoft, LogMeIn and Cisco WebEx. Check out this article from Inc. for more details.
  • Phones and high-speed Internet access are obviously another important aspect of remote work. Most, if not all, of your employees will be able to use their mobile phones (and, if possible, forward their landlines to them). If employees don’t have unlimited calling and need to use their mobile phones vs. video/audio calls on their laptop or desktop, Google Voice enables free mobile calls, as does Skype and obviously Facebook. Regardless, you may need to consider what you will reimburse for mobile and upgrades to Internet service during this time and set the policy prior to going to fully remote.

To make sure the technology and tools for remote team setup are ready, we suggest you schedule an immediate powwow with IT (if you haven’t already) to understand what remote tools they already have and what else you may need to get in place.

Keeping the Team Connected

  • Keeping your employees connected is a key part of remote team setup. Since you won’t see each other every day, you can set up regular team check-ins to stay on the same page and monitor progress. On top of the many individual conversations that will need to occur over phone, video or email, consider scheduling at least one video conference a week for small departments (10-15 people). Larger departments may need to break up into smaller project or specialization-based groups for weekly calls. Try to have everyone on video if possible so that you get important face time but be sure to have a dial in as backup. As you can imagine, tech issues often come up so be prepared to do your meeting over the phone and distribute important docs beforehand.
  • As with your in-person meetings, an agenda can keep the meeting tight (no longer than one hour). Table topics that take you off track for a later discussion. You may also need to make sure that all employees have a voice in a remote work set up. More introverted employees may be even less likely to weigh in, either in meetings or email, so you’ll need to make sure to do a round robin approach in meetings and elicit everyone’s feedback and make sure all employees who contribute in email discussions are heard.
  • To help team members stay connected on a daily basis, encourage them to pick up the phone or video conference vs. simply relying on email. It’s important for communication, staying connected AND productivity. How much time have you wasted on email trails that go back and forth 8 times and still don’t resolve the issue at hand?!?!? Or have you misinterpreted someone’s email tone as more aggressive than it was meant to be?
  • And if you aren’t officially quarantined, maybe you can schedule a group outing to a local coffee shop or even lunch once a month for those willing to venture out. The face time is well worth the effort and expense and goes a long way to keeping up team morale and cohesion. If you are quarantined or if it’s simply too complicated to get together in person, you could try a virtual coffee hour, online team games or even a photography contest!  There are many interesting and fun remote team building activities out there to try. Here are some suggestions from a remote company that does a lot of unique online team building to help you get started.
  • Just like your team, it’s helpful to set up a weekly meeting with each of your direct reports and check in periodically throughout the week either over email, phone or video. If you already have a weekly one-on-one, try to keep the same format going. This provides great continuity for you both and ensures that you continue to maintain rapport.

The Role of Trust

Probably the most important aspect of remote work is trust. It’s important to trust your employees to get the job done until proven otherwise, so remote work can be difficult for those used to being a micromanager or even those who aren’t!

  • If you have tendencies to overmanage, think about what you’ll do to show you trust your employees while also keeping a pulse on what they are doing. Believe it or not, studies have shown that employees are often more productive and engaged than they are in the office because of fewer interruptions and flexibility. Check out Gallup’s recent report with important stats on increased remote employee engagement and overall business performance. If one of your team members isn’t immediately available, try not to assume they are taking a nap, sitting around or otherwise not working.
  • Your team members may be getting used to working at home themselves, which is not always easy. This includes setting up their new workspace, dealing with interruptions and  learning new software and tools related to remote work collaboration, project management and other important programs. This can be especially true if your team members are dealing with school closings and have their kids home all day.
  • Given all the fear and panic out there, your team members may be more anxious than usual which can sometimes result in different or unusual behaviors and responses. Flexibility and support can go a long way to helping your employees make this big shift to remote work.

Building trust can take time but we’ve found it’s well worth the effort. It doesn’t mean you stop monitoring and managing employee progress—but it does mean not micromanaging employees to death and looking at outcomes rather than the immediate mistake someone may have made. Here’s a recent Forbes article with advice from top CEOs on how to build trust with remote workers and teams.

We know that remote team setup and all that comes with it — changing team locations, new tools and communication and a different management approach — can be daunting.  At TorchLight, we will continue to offer our guidance, recommendations and best practices in several upcoming posts, including team and individual time/project tracking tools for managers, virtual meeting best practices and many other key topics to drive you and your remote team’s success. If you have any questions or are interested in exploring other remote work topics, please email us at info@torchlighthire.com and we’ll get back with you asap.

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