Wherever you live in the world, the chances are that you and your team are experiencing a lockdown, a situation having a huge impact on personal, social and working lives. The country or countries in which your business operates will determine the stage reached thus far in combatting coronavirus, and this in turn will dictate how much longer this forced isolation will last.
Even before being obliged to work remotely, there was a growing trend for employers, together with an increasing desire amongst employees, to move to remote working. Even if they had already been contemplating the change, for many organisations the shock response aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus has meant the time to adapt and fine tune methods of management has been short, or in some cases non-existent.
For those who had not already given thought to the challenges of remote working, the form they take will probably now be clear. No doubt familiarity with the following will be commonplace:
- Managing your team when not sharing an office requires a different approach. Most of us are accustomed to managing face-to-face, picking up visual cues when engaged in discussions, and being able to do this presents a challenge in the current circumstances. One of the greatest fears of employers when considering the introduction of remote working has always been a fall in productivity arising from an inability to manage in the “normal” way. Actually, evidence suggests that workers who choose to work remotely are in fact more productive. This may not be the case now, where that choice no longer exists, made worse when combined with a lack of time to prepare, to check that systems, equipment and, not the least important, morale and motivation, are all present, correct and working efficiently!
- Loneliness, isolation and feelings of being left out will have an impact on productivity, the likelihood of which has to be considered individual by individual, with working practices adapted to ensure the consequences of such emotions are kept to a minimum.
- Working from home presents many distractions, particularly when what can be a relatively small space is shared with the rest of the family, a group of people being forced to stay “indoors” with the frustration that undoubtedly brings, particularly for children.
- Working in an office, alongside colleagues, means everything is at our fingertips. Working remotely requires alternatives to be put in place when, for example, it comes to sharing documents, being able to informally chat through progress and problems and generally to experience the bonding within a team that occurs in a shared workplace environment.
Everyone has their own way of managing and views on how their different methods need to be adapted to suit current needs. Things it might be helpful to consider when making plans to overcome the challenges of remote working include the following:
- Establish a structure – lines of reporting, responsibilities, methods used and timing of communications – these are all things that would have been explained and understood by workers sharing an office. Any gaps in that knowledge are normally filled through observing the actions of colleagues. No longer possible when working remotely, a clear statement as to how things will work from now onwards, and what up until now has been considered the norm is required to change. Simple things such as how and when you can be contacted, what to do in emergencies, which communication methods need to be used under what circumstances, all need to be shared.
- Leadership – now more than ever workers will be looking for consistent, confident and reliable leadership – they will be looking for an example to follow. Remember that stress is contagious, and so a “can do” attitude should be projected at all times. Showing appreciation in the face of the current challenges will be welcomed, more now than ever!
- Team sizes – experience suggests that small teams are more productive when working remotely, although they still need to be managed. Fewer people working together often means less bureaucracy, more engagement, productivity and accountability. Smaller teams can overcome the feeling of individual contributions being less valuable – the effort of individuals goes up as team size falls, with communication and collaboration increasing.
- Workloads – smaller teams can however lead to increased workloads. Careful monitoring of tasks will be needed to avoid workers being overwhelmed when working remotely, such a situation aggravated when there is a feeling of not now being able to discuss matters as easily as before.
- Micromanaging – care needs to be taken to avoid restricting autonomy. Continual, repetitive contact, asking how things are going, should be kept to a minimum if possible. Tasks need to be set, expectations and timescales made clear and regular, planned communication used to ensure progress is made according to plan. Ownership and accountability are still as important when working remotely and must not be undermined by micromanagement.
- Testing – bear in mind, especially for those not used to managing a team remotely, things don’t always work first time. Different techniques, different ways of doing things, will need to be tried and tested. By adopting that mindset, within a relatively short time, through a process of trial and error, imperfections can be ironed out.
Although second nature for those already used to managing teams in different locations, for many, particularly those running smaller organisations, the importance and methods of communication should not be overlooked. With this in mind, it may be useful to look at the following:
- Methods of communication should be specified, i.e. what is to be used under which circumstances. For example, will email suffice for daily reports and when will calls be appropriate? Video calls should be used whenever possible, especially to pick up those visual cues, and can be particularly valuable when discussing complex topics. With the prevalence of email, with remote working along with the need for groups of people to work in unison, now may be a time to consider collaborative software.
- Engage often, making contact with team members once a day, maybe with a daily check-in at a set time, whether by email, IM, phone or video. Organise regular team meetings, avoiding cancellation unless absolutely necessary, and encourage communication between colleagues. Make sure you have an open door, where team members won’t feel they are causing a disturbance by making contact at other than scheduled times. In an office people can easily see who is in a meeting etc, outside there is no way of knowing. If you are unavailable and a message is left, make sure a quick response is made.
- Social interaction is important and more challenging when done from a distance. Many tools now exist to create online events, including both visual and group chats. Try to develop a feeling of community amongst team members. Introducing a structure for non-work subjects to be discussed will help to achieve this, maybe through the use of informal chat groups, using WhatsApp for example, or a social Teams group. The importance of meeting around the water cooler or in the kitchen should not be overlooked.
- Involvement in visions, plans and objectives is even more important to individuals when working remotely, helping to alleviate feelings of isolation or being left out.
- Build rapport with team members. It is likely that some team members will need emotional support. Working remotely is a significant change to come to terms with, particularly for those who prefer an office environment and on whom this change in circumstances is not made through choice. Small talk, chit chat and getting to know people is important. Understanding how they feel by asking questions is essential, prior to launching into work related business. Emotional support and encouragement will be required, and only by listening to concerns and anxieties will an insight be gained as to the extent this is needed for each individual.
- Employee surveys, whether formally or by way of a telephone round up, may also be useful when trying to grasp how people are feeling, what is working and what changes need to be made.
Fortunately nowadays there exist many tools that enable us to keep in touch. These range from telephone, VoiP, face-to-face (e.g. video conferencing, Skype, Teams, Zoom etc), chat, instant messaging, discussion groups through to email.
To establish some order, setting guidelines on the circumstances in which each should be used will improve the efficiency with which a team collaborates. When doing so, take the opportunity to consider whether training is necessary to use the various tools effectively. Whilst many are already widely used, some have valuable features that may be overlooked by the casual user.
Regarding technology, and probably the most important to consider, team members need to fully aware of safe practices in order that security standards are maintained at the highest level. The use of unauthorised tools should be forbidden. For remote working to be successful, the right tools must be provided by an organisation if it is to maintain productivity, and at the same time ensure secure access to data and systems. Training, a culture of confidentiality and awareness together with a restriction of access on an only-if-necessary basis will lower the risk of security breaches.
Managing teams remotely is challenging, particularly in a suddenly imposed, lockdown environment. However, many aspects do remain the same as before. Understanding the unique challenges remote working presents and then overcoming each in turn will be necessary, achieved by introducing new methods of working, and crucially by maintaining the morale and motivation of the body of people that is actually what makes a company. By doing so, productivity can be maintained and hopefully we will all emerge even stronger once this present phase comes to an end.
A few words about CompassAir
Creating solutions for the global maritime sector, CompassAir develops state of the art messaging and business application software designed to maximise ROI. Our software is used across the sector, including by Sale and Purchase brokers (S&P/SnP), Chartering brokers, Owners, Managers and Operators.
Through its shipping and shipbroking clients, ranging from recognised World leaders through to the smallest, most dynamic independent companies, CompassAir has a significant presence in the major maritime centres throughout Europe, the US and Asia.
Our flagship solution is designed to simplify collaboration for teams within and across continents, allowing access to group mailboxes at astounding speed using tools that remove the stress from handling thousands of emails a day. It can be cloud based or on premise. To find out more contact us at [email protected]. If you are new to shipping, or just want to find out more about this exciting and challenging sector, the CompassAir Shipping Guide might prove to be an interesting read.