Managing a Newly-Remote Team
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
I am a team lead at my regional division and we have been working completely remote since March. I've been the manager of my team for 4 years and have never had any issues that I couldn't resolve while we worked in the office together. However, working remotely is proving more challenging. I have always treated all my team members equally, but now some are clearly working just as hard as they would while in the office, and others seem to be taking advantage of the "freedoms" of working from home. This is creating animosity between team members. Some feel like they are pulling all the weight while others are acting like once they turn the camera off they are on vacation. How do I motivate my team to stay on task remotely without being seen as a "controlling micromanager”?
I want to tease apart two different elements that may underlie some of the complaints you’ve received:
· face time, which is how often given employees appear to be “at work” in front of their computers and available to interact with colleagues spontaneously, and
· actual productivity, which is how productive given employees are at acceptably performing the work assigned. Note that some people may not perform at the level of productivity before COVID-19, but may perform acceptably—though not brilliantly--now.
Research on remote work during COVID-19 has found that, in general, employees are performing at least as well as they did prior to COVID-19. However, they may not be “at work” for the standard work day. If they have children at home or other pandemic-related obligations, they may work only some hours of their usual workday, and then have another stint at working in the evenings. For such employees, they are not having face time because they are unavailable for chunks of the work day (which can be frustrating for colleagues) but they are as productive about their work as they were previously.
Another possible factor here is an inequity of home-office resources. Do all the folks on your team have adequate technology, internet bandwidth, and home office setup? Some employees may have their own room to work in (with a door and privacy) with a comfortable set up, whereas others may have to share space and work from a position that is uncomfortable for long periods of time. Some employees have good internet bandwidth, others not so much, particularly if they are sharing wifi with other people in the home, which slows things down. Some people can be experiencing mental health, health, or other personal or family challenges as a result of the pandemic or its consequences.
Thus, it may make sense as a first step to address the situation is to get more information. For instance, ask the people who have been complaining about others about the specifics of their complaint. Is the issue that their colleagues aren’t available for spontaneous chat or calls for clarification or collaboration on projects? Why do these employees feel they are carrying more of the work load? Are they correct, or is it just their perception?
Then get information from the people who are being complained about. Are they able to do the work within the given timelines? If so, then there’s isn’t a productivity problem but rather a perception problem among the people complaining, and your task might be to understand how they came to have that incorrect perception that they are doing more than their fair share and recalibrate them.
If your team is equitably resourced and you agree that some people are carrying more of the workload and that the others are not being as productive, it can be helpful to talk to the “underperforming” employees to find out why. What is their work-from-home situations? What work do they think they’re capable of doing, which may fluctuate over time, and what work—or deadlines—are too challenging. Did they agree that they could follow through on the tasks assigned to them with a specific deadline, or were those assignments made without any opportunity for them to raise concerns about the load? Ask those employees how you and the company can help. It may be that they’d welcome being micro-managed, or at least more frequent contact with you to help them prioritize.
Remote work during a pandemic has increased the load on managers because there are so many more things to “check in” on with your team. But doing so helps everyone function better and creates a sense of belonging within the team.
Finally, because the pandemic is a marathon with a finish line that keeps moving ever further back, many employees are feeling some level of burnout. Some companies are shutting down for the Thanksgiving week or making people take their vacation time (rather than accrue it) as a way to help refresh their employees. Could it be that some of the folks on your team (either the people complaining or the people who may be underperforming) are getting burned out?
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.
If you have a specific type of situation you’d want us to publish, send in your questions to DearRobin@LiveInTheirWorld.com. Your submission may be published in an upcoming column, but rest assured, we will not publish your name, location, employer or any other personally identifiable information.