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This article was originally published on March 13, 2020 under the title “5 Tips for Managing Remotely During COVID-19.” 

Is it just us, or is it harder than usual to be a manager these days? (2020, you make us miss 2019!) Like many other leaders, you’ve probably already taken some actions to protect your staff, members, volunteers, and clients from the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to work remotely, you might have questions about how to handle the transition. Managing remotely for the first time can be daunting. It’s even harder when the shift is prompted by a crisis. In this article, we share our five best tips for getting results while taking care of your people.

1. Manage your expectations.

There are tons of articles floating around with tips, tricks, and tools for getting the most productivity out of a remote set-up. Some of these are great (and we’re sharing the most helpful ones we’ve found). What many fail to acknowledge, though, is that disruptions in life and work are par for the course during challenging times.

Here’s the hard truth: even if everyone on your team becomes a Slack wizard or finally figures out how to use the mute button on a conference call, it will not be business as usual.

This situation is an extenuating circumstance that might raise anxiety, cause hardship for you and/or your team members, and have real implications on your work and results. This doesn’t mean you can’t do your best to keep the work on track. It does mean that you’ll have to make hard decisions, ask for and extend grace, and enlist your staff as collaborators in tackling challenges.

In short: The more you can talk about the impact of this situation honestly and openly, the better off you and your team will be.

Try this:

  • Look at your team’s goals and work plans for the next few months and consider what can be adjusted and what absolutely needs to be prioritized. Ask your staff for their input. Then, communicate the changes in a team meeting.
  • In your one-on-one check-ins, ask your staff members how (not if) they are being affected by this situation. Work with them to reassess and adjust their work plan given the new realities.
  • Make weekly (or even daily) time on your calendar for reflecting, analyzing, and responding to the situation and supporting your team. Give yourself permission to shift priorities and renegotiate your time.

2. Check in with each staff person about their remote work set-up.

Talk to your team members individually to learn what accommodations they need to do their best work. Ask—don’t make assumptions—about where folks will be working from (not everyone can work from home or has a home to work out of) or what equipment or materials they may need.

Try this:

  • Ask each person, “Do you have everything you need to be productive and comfortable while you’re working remotely? Is there anything about your remote work set-up that might present challenges or that we may need to work around? Is there anything I can do to support you?” Then, offer solutions where possible.
  • Add 2×2 feedback to your weekly check-ins specifically about remote working — the feedback should cover: 1) what you are doing well and what you could be doing better to support your staff in working remotely and 2) what they are doing well and what they could be doing better to work effectively.

3. Focus on output over activities.

As a manager, your main responsibility is to get results with and through your team. First-time remote managers sometimes fall into the trap of micromanaging by focusing too much time and energy on monitoring the activities of their staff, rather than the outcomes they produce. When you emphasize results over activities, you’re showing that you trust your staff to manage their own time and workload.

Try this:

  • Start a daily email (or Slack message) thread with your staff to share your “big rocks,” or priorities for the day. Report back at the end of the day to celebrate your wins (and create plans to get to the priorities you missed).
  • Set up a 30-minute team meeting at the end of the week to share outcomes from the week.

4. Set and respect work hours.

Setting and respecting boundaries around time is the key to maintaining trust and balance while keeping the work going. Set norms around how you use your calendar, and use yours as a model. Note: Be flexible and don’t expect that people’s work hours will be the same as when they were in the office.

Try this:

  • Block off time on your calendar to indicate when you will be working, and have your staff do the same. Aim to have one significant chunk (4-5 hours) of overlap between your schedules each day.
  • Use your calendar to show times during the workday when you will be less responsive (such as if you have an appointment or will be doing a focused work block where you won’t be checking email or chat).

5. Set up (or revise) communication practices.

If you’ve been working in an office, you’ve gotten used to having many opportunities to connect with your colleagues throughout the day. The sudden shift to a remote workplace might feel jarring and can lead to staff and managers feeling isolated and disconnected. Avoid this by setting communication practices that encourage connecting (formally and informally) and clarify what channels should be used for what types of communication.

Try this:

  • Create guidelines* about when to use chat/messaging apps, email, and phone or video calls. For example, “Gchat is for quick questions and informal chatter; Email is for longer-term planning or items that require more thought.”
  • When you send calendar invitations for meetings, state how the call will be conducted in the description (for example, “A will call B at 555-555-5555” or “via Google Hangouts”).
  • Set up Zoom “co-working” sessions for people to hop on for an hour or two at a time (on mute!). Add an accountability measure by having people share their goals for the session at the beginning and reporting on their progress at the end.
  • If you’re on Slack, encourage the use of the “watercooler” channel. Consider sharing a fun daily check-in question or prompt, like “Share something funny you’ve seen or heard in the last week” (yes, this may sound cheesy, but emotional contagion is a thing and we could all use a laugh these days).

What are your favorite tips and tricks for managing during COVID-19? Send them to us at [email protected].

*Note: this sample is not ours, but we’d love to give credit where credit is due. If you know who created this, please get in touch!

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