Leading Remote Teams in Times of Uncertainty

Jason Brucker, Managing Director Technology Strategy
Kim Bozzella, Managing Director Technology Strategy

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt business activity across the globe, organizations are reacting to unexpected challenges and adopting new business practices to align with social distancing, school closures and other public health measures. While the long-term impacts of these changes are unclear, the rapid shift to remote employee working arrangements has emerged as a major trend that is likely to result in lasting changes in business processes and interaction models. 

For all organizations and industries, this disruption presents a substantial opportunity to realign work practices to better manage teams and develop flexibility as executives, management and rank-and-file employees all work together to address unprecedented and unpredictable events that upset not just the workplace, but personal lives as well.

The People Side of COVID-19: The Ultimate Test of Resilience?

We have compiled leading practices on managing remote teams, from within our organization as well as our experience helping clients, in the U.N.I.T.E. checklist below. These practices can be readily applied to optimize program execution and other business operations in times of uncertainty when working remotely becomes a requirement and can be of help to both team leaders and team members across companies of all sizes and industries.

The U.N.I.T.E. Checklist

UTILIZE Collaboration Tech

Modern collaboration and telepresence technologies provide companies with an unparalleled set of tools for working across large distances. To realize the full benefits of these tools, project leaders and teams need to be aware of their routines and working styles and understand how the technologies can be adapted to support them. For example, brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions are activities traditionally held in on-site conference rooms to cultivate camaraderie, collaboration and ideas. This same environment can be enabled through virtual meeting rooms and collaboration technologies, but it is important that the technology utilized maintains the same level of engagement and presence of each team member as an in-person session. Some suggestions on how to achieve this engagement include:

  • Embrace a “videoconferencing first” mentality with your remote team members. Video meetings allow teams to pick up on visual, non-verbal cues to make conversations feel more natural while also keeping attendees focused on the conversation (minimizing the multitasking that is prevalent during traditional teleconferences). Teams will likely need some encouragement to use video at first but communicating relaxed dress codes and assuaging fears about video background activity can help greatly in making this transition.
  • Replace the quick phone call or email/text/instant message string with a video chat session. This creates a face-to-face experience that allows for better connection and more organic conversations with peers and teams.
  • Leverage tools like Microsoft Teams, Google Apps or Confluence to manage project or documents collaboratively. These tools eliminate clumsy hand-offs of locally managed documents via email and the need for strict or complex version control.
  • Move project plans out of locally managed spreadsheets and onto more collaborative cloud-based tools like Google Sheets, Microsoft Teams or Trello. In Teams, project managers can establish an easy-to-use Kanban board (by adding a Planner channel) to enable agile project management with increased collaboration and real-time reprioritization of tasks.

A word of caution: Even though circumstances may call for urgent solutions, organizations cannot forget about data security when adopting new tools and technologies on the fly. Security teams should always be consulted to make sure the new collaboration or cloud tool is sanctioned. Remote environments should be patched and updated regularly with the same diligence as onsite environments. Employees should be given guidance and training on how to update their laptops, phones and other devices used to do remote work.

NARROW the Planning Window

Times of rapid change and uncertainty require a more agile approach to planning and project management. Engaging team members to plan in short cycles with re-planning at regular intervals (e.g., weekly), allows teams to pivot their activities quickly to address changes. The following practices are derived from the Agile methodology framework and can be considered:

  • Establish weekly or bi-weekly planning sessions to review and reprioritize tasks and responsibilities. (These should be separate from the routine status meetings typical for most organizations.) Given the current uncertainty, organizations should anticipate changes in their capacities, the availability of their employees, the business environment and the needs of their customers. It is important to reflect on priorities at frequent intervals to make sure teams stay focused on their key goals and are meeting key milestones.  
  • Establish regular retrospective sessions with your teams including key internal and external partners, to examine and improve management practices. Take the time to listen and learn from colleagues and together determine the best way to navigate and course-correct in times of uncertainty.
  • Maintain a current, prioritized list of key activities – a backlog, in Agile lingo – in a shared location that is accessible by all team members (leveraging collaboration technologies, as noted above).

IDENTIFY a Dedicated Workspace (and Time)

When people work remotely, ideally they have a dedicated workspace that is both comfortable and productive. But this may be a luxury for some employees, especially when they are required to do so on short notice. Maintain a sense of humor and empathy for those with small children or pets who may be subject to those distractions even as they try to maintain a sense of professionalism. Here are some tips for making a remote arrangement as productive and professional as possible:

  • A distraction-free workspace is especially important when the work is customer- or client-facing. To the degree possible, try to establish a home workspace that looks and feels like a work environment, not a temporary clearance in the midst of home living. As social distancing becomes the new normal for the foreseeable future, the dedicated home space will be the workspace remote employees share with their team members and clients, and they should treat it as such.
  • Companies need to ensure employees have the right hardware and peripherals (e.g., monitor, laptop, headset), consider home internet bandwidth limitations and provide technical enablement capabilities for remote work such as connectivity (e.g., VPN capabilities, system uptime). Organizations should also review device provisioning policies and review and plan for increased connectivity capacity as more remote workers are utilizing resources.
  • Plan, communicate and respect the limitations of defined office hours for yourself and others. As organizations embrace remote work arrangements, the lines between personal and professional time can blur.  Understanding and respecting the working hours of others while allowing for flexibility where needed is also critical for successful remote work arrangements. Often, a traditional 8-to-5 schedule may not be feasible for employees. Communicate clearly an understanding of this and encourage focus on projects and responsibilities versus rigid hours or schedules.

TRANSFORM Your “Water Cooler” Conversations

Face-to-face, in-person interactions are unquestionably valuable to any group of people working together. With remote work arrangements, these interactions become much more challenging since people lose the ability to walk over to someone’s desk or step out for a coffee break. Instead, organizations and teams need to become more diligent in planning these interactions to maintain a sense of personal engagement and team cohesiveness. Some remote engagement approaches to consider include:

  • Make a list of key colleagues and other stakeholders (including customers) with whom you interact regularly. Schedule regular informal check-ins with your key contacts, utilizing video and collaboration tools.  Consider whether a group virtual meeting, agile-style standup or a one-on-one conversation will be most effective.
  • Verify the preferred contact method for each person: text, chat, phone, etc. Also make sure employees have permission to use these methods, and there are no security issues.
  • For managers, engage with employees to provide guidance and listen to their concerns. It is of utmost importance that leaders set aside time to listen to their teams, especially as they address new stressors and concerns. Employees may need clarifying guidance on what necessary actions to take and how to maximize their impact while unable to be present in person. 

ENGAGE in Value-Focused Conversations
When working remotely, it is easy to fall into the trap of “out of sight, out of mind” with both co-workers and customers. This is especially true in times of crisis, when everyone is being pulled in multiple directions at any given time. Organizations and teams must continue to be proactive in finding ways to keep employees engaged and drive their core missions forward while avoiding the temptation to wait for new developments. It is incumbent upon executives and management to ensure that the company continues to deliver value in accordance with its mission. Some key practices for proactive value delivery include:

  • Adhere to the planning and prioritization discussions (as noted in the “Narrow the Planning Window” section above) and engage all team members in the process. This will help to maintain focus and will allow all team members to drive and demonstrate value on a regular basis.
  • Schedule checkpoint discussions for key program or project milestones as early as possible in the project lifecycle. It is okay if these need to shift as the work progresses, but having the placeholders helps ensure these checkpoints will not be missed or forgotten.
  • Leverage internal communication networks to recognize the great work of employees and teams and celebrate successes. Managers may want to even schedule a brief block of time each week for recognition across their various teams. Recognizing great work during a videoconference is a great option and an important step in keeping employee morale high under trying circumstances.

While disruptive events like the COVID-19 global pandemic are almost never expected or easily managed, organizations can leverage focus, flexibility, transparency, empathy and technology as the tools to enable effective remote collaboration. The practices and tips shared above provide a foundation for each of us to become more effective in our remote work arrangements. We look forward to expanding on this list as we all gain more experience with this “new normal.”  Let us know how your organization is managing, in the comments section.

Joe Breithaupt, Managing Director with Protiviti’s Transformation Program Execution (TPE) practice, contributed to this content..

2 comments

  • With regards to this statement
    “Establish regular retrospective sessions with your teams including key internal and external partners, to examine and improve management practices. Take the time to listen and learn from colleagues and together determine the best way to navigate and course-correct in times of uncertainty.”
    Curious to know of any companies who are actually already practicing lessons learned sessions? Can you share some names?

    • Hi Romella – We have seen the retrospective model successfully applied in multiple organizations and environments. This includes technology organizations (which are often the first to adopt agile principles) as well as other business functions like finance and audit/risk management. We have also seen applicability across almost all industries (energy/utilities, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, retail/consumer products, technology/media/telecom, transportation, etc.). Since retrospectives are about people and process, we have found this to be a fairly easy transition for many organizations to make. Retrospective concepts can be integrated into and/or replace other concepts/practices like continual improvement and traditional “lessons learned” exercises.