How to Manage Remote Teams Through COVID-19

Posted by Matt Stolpe

As businesses around the world are feeling the effects of the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, many organizations are responding by telling their teams to begin working from home. 

It's a move that hopes to stymie further outbreak by “flattening the curve” while the nations of the world attempt to contain a virus the World Health Organization now classifies as a pandemic. 

As you contemplate making the same decisions for your own workforce, keep in mind that this will not be a seamless transition. Remote work comes with its own unique set of challenges, which will be acutely felt as your team transitions to a new work experience.  

Remote workers are already prone to increased feelings of burnoutsocial isolation and disengagementThese issues are only going to compound by sheer virtue of the fact that more employees than ever will be telecommuting — all while the world is adjusting to their new normal 

It’s for this reason that we’ve compiled a list of suggestions for managers to reduce the turbulence of this transition. Though we do not know how long remote work measures will be needed, we hope the following insights alleviate friction for your teams in this uncertain time. 

What Managers Should Know 

  1. Your employees are victims of COVID-19 too

As you monitor the news for updates about COVID-19, remember that the people afflicted by the virus are not just numbers on a screen. They are people, and some may very well be your employees, their family or close friends.  

Moreover, becoming infected is not the only way to become a victim of the disease caused by the coronavirus. We’re already seeing mass disruption of the global markets (and it’s going to get worse). People — your employees — are not just worried about their health, but their life savings and their futures. 

All of this is to say that a pandemic already places a heightened emotional strain on employees before you make the decision to disrupt their work rhythms and have them go remote full time. Though everyone may be feeling the pressure to keep the trains running on time, bear in mind that our emotions hold a strong influence over our work performance. It is challenging for just about anyone to be their best selves at a time like this. 

We believe it is incumbent on the executives and managers of the world to respond accordingly with patience and empathy. Studies show the most successful managers of remote teams make the time to check in frequently and regularly with their remote employees. This will almost be a necessity considering the emotional weight bearing down on the workforce. Make an effort to understand the struggles your team is going through. With so much uncertainty in the global climate, one of the things your employees need most is to feel security in their work situation and the support of their leaders. 

  1. Anticipate a decline in productivity 

There’s plenty of research to suggest that full time remote employees can be more productive than their onsite colleagues. One recent study, for example, claims experienced hires achieve 4% higher outputs under Work From Anywhere (WFA) arrangements. If you’re familiar at all with this research and think your transition to a remote workforce might be a boon to productivity, we kindly ask you to reconsider.  

This will not be as simple as sending your teams home and going about business as usual. Simply put, a pandemic does not allow for the perfect remote work conditions. Employees who have never worked remote for prolonged periods of time will need time to adjust to their conditions and find new work rhythms. Loneliness is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of remote work, and your team is likely to struggle as it develops new socialization patterns to accommodate for increased barriers to communication. 

Another factor to consider is that your remote employees are likely to encounter more distractions at home than usual. As of this writing, thousands of schools all across the nation have closed, and some will not reopen for the remainder of the academic year. Like it or not, many of your staff will have to watch their children at home while they are expected to work remote. Even the most disciplined employee will struggle to maintain pre-outbreak levels of productivity as they parent their child while they work. 

In the coming weeks and months, COVID-19 is expected to disrupt global supply chains even more than it already has (75% of U.S. businesses have already been affected according to Axios). This will have a trickle-down effect on our daily lives. While COVID-19 may presently feel like a particularly annoying inconvenience to some, with each passing day the scope of its impact balloons.  

People will be laid off (it’s already happening), food and household essentials may be more difficult to obtainand families will struggle to make ends meet. None of this is occurring in a vacuum, as the very nature of this virus being a pandemic proves. These pressures will weigh on employees and likely depress productivity and output for longer than you might expect from a transition like this. 

  1. Communicate with every employee as if they were remote

One common response to the COVID-19 outbreak we’re seeing is organizations keeping employees with “essential” roles onsite, while moving the rest — the “nonessentials” — remote. This is an arrangement that will simply be unavoidable for many businesses, but if it is not managed appropriately, it can easily create a stratified work experience for remote staff. 

Remote employees already report feeling as though managers give preferential treatment to their onsite colleagues under normal conditions. The essential-nonessential labels that are arising as a result of this crisis do us no favors.  

Though for the manager it may just be an innocent case of “out of sight, out of mind,” it nevertheless leaves remote employees feeling inherently disadvantaged and more vulnerable than their “essential” peers. One survey shows remote employees frequently feel out of the loop and even scapegoated at times.  

  • 67% say their colleagues don’t fight for their priorities 
  • 64% say colleagues will make changes to the projects without warning them 
  • 41% say colleagues will say bad things about them behind their back 

Entire teams need to adjust their communication styles when they have even just one remote employee. If it’s true when there isn’t a crisis, then it is absolutely true now — especially considering this transition will raise even more communication barriers between a larger share of team members. The only real way to level the playing field here is to start treating all employees as if they were remote. 

Team communication should occur in visible digital spaces, even if the employee you want to reach is sitting right next to you. No one should feel out of the loop and all employees, no matter their location, should feel appropriately aware of important information concerning their teams, the company and their work assignments. Non-work communication matters too. Some light small talk at the top of a meeting or a virtual happy hour at the end of the week will keep camaraderie between essential and nonessential employees alive and well. 

One last point of note, face-to-face communication matters a lot and you don’t need to stop seeing your team’s faces just because they are no longer in the office. Research shows remote employees (well, everyone really) find it easier to engage in meetings when they’re on video calls. The visual stimulation of being able to actually see your colleagues’ faces and their nonverbal communication cues makes it much easier to stay on the same page. Our recommendation? Make it so that every employee in a meeting — essential and nonessential — joins the video call so everyone’s smiling faces are accounted for. 

Looking for more ways to stay connected to your workforce in these unprecedented times? Download our infographic Motivating and Rewarding a Global Workforce. 

Topics: Engage Employees