Adopting a fully remote or hybrid work model can mean a drastic shift in team dynamics for many companies – and specifically, for managers.
One of the most common "trade-offs" of a remote work model is that you don't necessarily have the same tools for "reading the room" as you would in-person.
If you’re managing a remote team, you’ve probably asked yourself:
- How do I create a sense of community and belonging in my team?
- How do I onboard my team properly as soon as they join the company?
- How do I help my team stay motivated?
You’re in the right place. Here are some of the most successful strategies used by top HR managers to create community and culture, help their team stay motivated, and onboard all direct reports without missing a beat.
Before we get to the strategies, do you know why fostering teamwork in remote teams can be challenging? Because your team is no longer working together in the same physical space, you may encounter a number of hurdles, such as:
Your Direct Reports Can’t Get Enough Visibility
Did you know that important non-verbal cues are easily missed on Zoom calls? These are the cues that give hints about a person’s well-being, mental health, and physical condition.
You can’t tell if they’re motivated or tired just by looking at the top half of their body on a screen.
You can’t tell what’s happening after the person leaves the call.
Another critical part of visibility that’s missing is the opportunity to casually interact. Within these moments, your team can easily ask off-hand questions. Questions that only pop up when they talk about random topics. And those questions often help someone work better or bond closer with another.
When you’re working remotely, those random opportunities for casual conversation disappear. What’s left are work-centric meetings with specific agendas and expectations.
Creativity Goes Downhill
Ever tried brainstorming on Zoom? How does that feel compared to brainstorming together in your office?
If you noticed your team is much quieter or the quality of the ideas has dropped when brainstorming remotely, there’s a scientific reason for this.
Brainstorming in the office takes place when everyone gets out of their cubicles and enters a new environment (i.e. meeting room). Experts in work psychology said, “Creativity and innovation happen when people change their environment.”
But when we’re working remotely, we may work, brainstorm, and have calls at the same place: our desk. That means a lot of us may hardly move around.
Motivation Momentum Slows Down
Why is it more difficult to keep your remote direct reports motivated than their in-person counterparts?
It’s because of how we’re wired. You’ve heard that humans are social animals. What makes us social is that we feed off of each other’s energy.
You may have experienced this in different ways. When a presenter is super excited, you feel better than before the presentation. When your peers look happy and share good news with you, you feel better. When your direct report smiles at you and you smile back, you feel better.
It’s the same when someone close to you feels down, somehow, your mood shifts as well.
When we’re working remotely, we’re alone physically. This may mean that the external positive energy that they receive becomes more limited. They have to depend mostly on self-motivation, which may deplete in time. People who love being around other people may take this hit the hardest.
Everyone Has Different Work Processes
Back in the office days, onboarding was done in-person and new joiners learn by imitating. They look at how other people do projects, what kind of documents they need, how they speak, how they act, etc. This is how company culture is passed down. Just like how parents pass down their teachings to their children.
When working remotely, it’s more difficult to see how other people do things. We only see what’s happening on the calls. But most of the work is done outside of meeting time.
Soon, new joiners start to devise their own working process based on what they’ve seen and their experiences.
This can lead to different ways of communicating, documentation, reporting, and more, thus tearing structure apart and giving you more work.
Remote Employees May Feel They’re Treated Differently Than Their In-Person Counterparts
In a hybrid environment, it’s almost inevitable that managers unconsciously treat in-person employees differently than remote ones.
The managers might allow in-person direct reports to be slightly late to meetings because they’re stuck in traffic whereas remote employees may be penalized.
Or there may be a bias from managers giving better performance grades to their in-person employees because they can see how hardworking they are in the office.
Mistakes To Avoid As A Remote Team Manager
If one or more of the challenges above feel familiar to you, you probably have executed a few strategies to keep you sane and your team productive. But it’s even more important to know if what you’ve done could make things worse.
These are the 3 mistakes that many remote team managers have made unknowingly:
1. Assumes Everyone In The Team Is On The Same Page
“Oh, I set the expectations for this role on day one. They’ll be alright,” is a dangerous thought.
Yes, you have set your expectations once with your team, but do they know what’s expected of them today and beyond? Have things changed?
Can you confidently say they’re on the same page 100% today?
If not, Strategy #2 can give you ideas to help you over-clarify expectations (it’s better to default to this rather than under-clarifying.)
2. Assumes Everyone Is Okay Unless They Speak Out
Most managers stop at “how are you” and expect their team to be sincere.
However, if a direct report tells you they’re okay, it may not necessarily mean they’re REALLY okay. Some people may not speak up because they think their voice will not be heard or fear doing so may backfire.
It might be a good idea for managers to take this moment as an opportunity to truly check in with their direct reports.
Ask yourself, is each person in your team really okay or you’ve sensed something going on underneath?
3. Assumes The Working Norm Is Implicitly Understood
“I don’t need to document how to communicate, how to treat each other, how to update, etc. They should know what to do,” is another dangerous assumption.
Each person in your team has a different background, culture, and creed. What’s common to you may be uncommon to your direct report.
Without a shared working process, misunderstandings and confusions are bound to occur.
5 Strategies To Help Your Team Work From Home Together Effectively
Here’s the fun part where you’ll re-learn strategies for managing a team when they’re not together physically.
Strategy #1: Create Team Rituals
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times but we’re here to offer a different perspective.
Team rituals are effective to bond people together because it enhances the meaningfulness of work, which is a critical factor to increase motivation, improve well-being and work performance.
But many managers may struggle with creating team rituals because they may be too busy, for example. Here are two realistic options we suggest:
Option 1: Delegate this task to a team lead or direct report. Encourage the creation of team rituals, but don’t take this all on your own.
Option 2: Don’t overthink. Start with something simple. Pick one of the ideas below and start implementing. Observe the team’s reactions and go from there.
Here are some practical team ritual ideas to get you started:
- At the beginning of each team meeting, do a colored mental health check (i.e. green, amber, and red.)
- 1 minute deep breathing or meditation before the meeting starts
- Share wins at the end of the week. Allocate 1 - 3 minutes for each person to share their personal and professional wins.
- Make the first 2 minutes of the meeting “shoot the breeze”. This period is for anyone in the meeting to talk about non-work related stuff. Let them catch up with each other.
- Start the meeting with a light, fun icebreaker question like, “If you had to make a living from your hobby, what would you be doing” or “What did you want to be when you were a child and why”. And timebox people’s answers to 1 minute.
Strategy #2: Over-Clarify Expectations
How to succeed, how to communicate, how to treat each other, how to report, how to run projects, and other work-related processes need to be documented and communicated across the board.
They may sound “simple” but not everyone gets you what you need.
The best way to over-clarify expectations is to write all of them down, document in a shared folder, and verbally communicate to each person in your team.
If you’re constantly dealing with team issues caused by misunderstandings or confusions, this strategy is for you.
Strategy #3: Check In Deeper
A simple “how are you” question will give you a simple “I’m good” answer.
If you want to dig deeper and find out how your direct reports are really doing, do better than “how are you”.
Say something like, “I want to allow some time now, before we dig into the rest of the agenda to really check in with you on how you’re doing at the moment. I know it’s not been an easy time.” Then stop talking and let the other person say what’s on their mind.
Refrain from trying to fill in the quietness. We get you, but your direct reports need the quiet to speak their truth.
We know there’s a lot to digest here. Feel free to bookmark this article and come back to it whenever you need.
If you were to forget everything you’ve just learned, just remember this:
Be as proactive as you can to be inclusive and build connection and community with remote folks.