Staying connected while working apart

Mar 26, 2020

How can leaders stay connected to their teams while working remotely? Communication and understanding, explains Patrick Gallen, is key to successfully navigating these uncertain times.

The current global pandemic has the majority of us working from home and, for some, this is a new practice. However, remote working has been around for years in certain sectors, and those leaders have learned lessons, sometimes the hard way, about what works and doesn’t. How can we fast-track our development to quickly adapt our remote leadership skills to lead in the current situation?

Adjust your mindset

First, it is important for leaders to adjust their mindset, and resist the temptation to rule out certain activities just because you can no longer see your team in front of you. Do you normally have a quick morning meeting in the office? Don't cancel it – use technology to connect virtually instead.

We all know that a lot of interaction in the office happens at the coffee machine or staff kitchen, so a leader has to think differently about creating opportunities for informal check-ins, as well.

Acknowledge the change

With schools out, many team members will be juggling work and parenting responsibilities, so make it clear that it’s OK to have some evidence of family life during your calls. This could also be a topic for informal discussion – sharing tips on home schooling, exercise, and keeping sane during this crisis! Sharing hobbies and activities can inject some fun into team discussions.

Accommodate flexible time schedules

Asking your team about the best time to schedule calls is also a consideration – working patterns have changed in response to this situation, so the regular nine-to-five is no longer the norm. A leader who has spent time thinking about what their team are going through will be much more considerate and accommodating.

Understand the tech

Those who have been leading remote teams for years know that the technology is critical to their success. Firms that have invested in the tools to connect virtual teams before this crisis are certainly a step ahead of those that are reactively scrambling to try new systems. If you have easy access to Teams, Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or other collaborative tools, then use them!

Give business updates

A quick check-in and update from everyone on the team helps to avoid duplication of effort, and keeps the team on track and connected with projects. A business update from the leader can also be very reassuring for the team during this time of uncertainty. People are worried about the state of the economy, the business, and the impact on their jobs, so a leader needs to inform the team about how the organisation is coping, provide client updates, etc. An optimistic and honest response is best.

Keep it short and sweet

To keep everyone fully engaged during virtual team meetings, you may want to keep the meeting shorter and to the point, and vary the speaker. Turn on the webcams, if possible, so that people are not tempted to ‘multi-task’ during the meeting. And, while it is great to connect the entire team, don’t forget about one-to-ones during this period. Having a check-in with each member on their own is very important and provides an opportunity to listen, so that communication is not only one way.

Communication is key to successful team working, and this is still the case while working remotely. This takes extra effort on the part of the leader, but will pay dividends to get through this crisis – and you may just find that many of the new ways of working are worth continuing when we eventually get back to a new normal.

Patrick Gallen is Partner of People & Change Consulting in Grant Thornton Northern Ireland.