Managing Teams Virtually During COVID-19

There is one mighty online professional experiment underway, courtesy of COVID-19. For millions of employees worldwide, remote working from home is our new daily reality. Our new co-workers are partners, children and pets. Our scheduling and space are subject to different distractions and disciplines. Our commutes aren’t long enough for our favorite podcasts.

How do managers manage the transition to remote working without losing valuable team culture?

It all adds up to change. And this change has been an adjustment. We’ve lost a lot of what is familiar to us, including our most basic social structures – broad human interaction. Much as your loved ones are loved, when we’re living with narrower boundaries and domestic stresses, it can be hard to maintain your equilibrium. 

For managers, there’s additional pressures. How do you stay on top of business when your team are remote? How do you maintain the work ethic under domestic pressures? And how do you maintain your invaluable team culture when you can only engage virtually?

We are all learning how to do things differently. Here at Brunel we’ve got some really creative thinkers and leaders who have been testing ways to maintain our Brunel culture, while we are all working remotely. 

Brunel’s tips to maintain your office culture, virtually

Acknowledge that this is hard. And that it can be scary.
Ensure you are visible to your team and communicate on a regular basis via phone calls and text messages. Check-in both on a professional and personal level. “Communication is key” says Lisa Matthews, Operations Manager. “Encourage people to talk about their challenges and provide support and resources where you can.”

In the current situation, no one has all the answers. There are changes daily as we navigate uncharted waters. “Kindness counts” explains Lisa Matthews “be kind to one another, listen more and support your colleagues during these challenging times.”

You can maintain a corporate culture through online tools and remote working. 

Brunel had an advantage here as we are a truly global organization with individuals spread around the world in every timezone. We were already familiar with virtual relationships, and are supported by a world-class IT infrastructure. That’s not the same for everyone.

Start with the immediate IT issues (“try turning it completely off, and back on again”), get more advanced help from your IT team if you can and google the problem if you can’t. Then focus on transitioning your team mantra from “in-person” to online. 

Even with an established team, it’s worth re-establishing meeting etiquette – should video be on for this meeting, or off? Maybe not in every meeting, but occasionally it’s good to see familiar faces. Ask your team what they prefer, and agree upon some appropriate boundaries (clothing is required people!).

Lisa Matthews explains, “Structure is important: provide an agenda and follow it, allow enough time for all participants to contribute”. Maintaining structure outside of meetings is also important: Encourage your team to adhere to a daily routine that incorporates a start and stop time, as well as breaks throughout the day for healthy a work-life balance.

For teams that are newly forming, or when new team members join, video can help in engaging your people. Without video, there are no visual cues that allow your team members to indicate they have something to add to the discussion. Do you ask your team to use the chat sidebar to raise a question? Or are you ok with interruptions via audio?

Explain your expectations ahead of time. If you ask everyone to join on mute to minimize background noise and use a separate chat to ask questions, let everyone know, so that they can engage confidently from the start. And agree that everyone will say “I have no questions” when asked “does anyone have any questions?”. Without the energy in the room, engagement needs a different style and managers want to know they have been heard and understood. 

Remember: silence kills a relationship (it’s called “ghosting”. Just ask a millennial). 

Use all the tools to be creative in your engagement.

Without the water cooler or cafeteria chat, it can be hard to maintain the wider culture beyond your immediate team. Individuals should be creative in maintaining and developing relationships online.

Great leaders will allow the space for this to happen.

You could try a “Way Back Wednesday” - invite everyone to post a photo a graduation photo, or a picture of themselves as a child. Maybe next week invite everyone to post a photo of their new “coworker” or the new view from their “office”. It helps everyone appreciate the different situations we are in (plus you’ll get to see some cute pets). You could try a virtual happy hour at 3pm to check in with colleagues in a more informal way. Suggest dress down (or dress up?) themes to reinforce the visual difference between informal versus formal meetings.

Be open-minded, invite suggestions from everyone. And if it doesn’t work, try something different. This is unknown territory, there’s no map to suit us all.

Just imagine if you were a teacher?

Spare a thought for all the teachers wrangling their entire classes online. I saw my 3rd grader’s teacher wrangle 24 8-year-olds on one video call this week. She did a masterful job of holding their attention, attending to their IT issues (I can’t hear you, are you on mute?), while engaging each of them in a conversation. She even had them putting their hands up to ask a question.

Maybe we should all be trying that? 


Related: Effective Remote Collaboration