I've led teams at BuzzFeed, Microsoft and Google. These are my 5 tips for managing remotely in a pandemic.

  • Nearly a year into the pandemic, many of us have adapted to working from home.
  • But how many of us have learned how to manage remotely?
  • Cate Sevilla shares her tips, learned in roles from managing baristas to teams at Microsoft and Google.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Managing a team is challenging even when there isn’t a pandemic forcing you and your staff to work apart. It’s full of obstacles, difficult decisions and seemingly endless meetings and admin. But now it’s even more complex.

I’ve been a manager and team lead at Microsoft, BuzzFeed, Google and The Pool, as well as managing teams of baristas at Starbucks. I’ve experienced everything from managing in a crisis when a company goes under, to redundancies and restructures and big leadership changes.

Here are my five tips for how to best manage your team, when you’re all working from home.

  • Ask how your team are doing, actually

One of the most important things a manager does to have regular 1:1s with each member of your staff, and this is even more important when you’re remote. As well as regular business, you need to ask them how they are, really.

A genuine “How are things?” was one of the most powerful questions anyone in a leadership position could ask me whenever I was struggling as an employee. It can help your staff feel seen and understood, even if they’re unsure how to answer straight away.

This may not feel natural to you. Your staff member may not want to tell you how they really are (particularly if you’ve never asked until now). They may just say, “I’m fine, all good!” But you should go a step further.

Just say, “OK, but I know things are weird at the moment and working this long from home is tough. If there’s anything you need or want to talk about, please know I’m here and you can talk to me or let me know if there’s any way we can help.”

You don’t need to push, but leave the conversation open so that if they do want to chat later, they can.

  • Make sure they know they can be flexible with their time

Whether they’re balancing childcare/homeschooling and work, or living alone without a support bubble – your teams are no doubt feeling stretched or demotivated right now. Knowing this, do not ask your team to adhere to strict hours or expect them to spend five hours on Zoom every day. Be mindful of when you’re scheduling meetings and how long they are.

It might seem arbitrary or obvious but I’ve found that a team of high performers tend to need explicit permission to take lunch breaks. Tell them directly there’s actually no pressure to check in on Slack at 9am, as long as they’re in the stand-up at 10:30.

Be as flexible as you can. As long as things are being delivered on time and figures/goals are being hit, does it really matter how your team gets it done? They’re more likely to be responsive and hit their deliverables if they can make it happen in their own time, while they juggle the other aspects of their life.

  • …And make sure you’re not doing the opposite

You can tell your team they should be looking after themselves and respecting each other’s time, but if you aren’t doing that, you may as well not say it. If you’re constantly responding – no matter the hour, no matter the platform – your team then see their manager advocating they do one thing while doing the opposite. Which do you think speaks louder?

The best managers I’ve had always logged off on time. They didn’t call or text at all hours. They had a life outside work and, by making that clear, gave us permission to do the same. A rested you, with boundaries on your time and energy, is the greatest gift you can give your staff. Don’t underestimate the meaning of leading by example, especially at this time.

  • Communication is always essential but now the format matters more than ever

One of the hardest things I learned managing a Starbucks team of people who were all older was that I had to adjust my style of communication for each member of staff. I had inadvertently been talking to everyone the same way, which was no doubt highly irritating.

Your staff all have different needs, want different types of relationship with their manager and all require handling in subtly different ways. And remotely, you’ll not only have to think about your style of management and communication, but which form it comes in.

Text communication like Slack and email are perfect breeding grounds for miscommunication and assumption. It is so easy to come off the wrong way. Some of your staff will simply do better if you call them instead of sending paragraph-long Slack messages. Others will be awkward (if not painful) on Zoom calls, but more communicative and open on email. Find what works best for them – and if you’re unsure, ask. You may think a video call is the best way to show you take a 1:1 catch up seriously, but they might surprise you and say, “Actually, can we do these just on our mobiles?”

  • Make an extra effort to introduce new, remote starters virtually to everyone they should know

Many managers are welcoming new starters who they, and the rest of the team, have never met in person. I know that making sure a new starter has all of their equipment and necessary log-ins makes everything go smoothly and makes the company look prepared for their arrival. But once those basics are covered, while they’re working from home, you’ll need to put in a bit of extra effort to make sure they feel included.

To do this, help set up meetings with their peers, but also other leadership figures in the company so they can get to know the team. Don’t just send a blind invite and expect that to be enough.

Both parties need context – let your starter know who they’re meeting and why, and make sure the other person knows who your new starter is, and give them specifics on what you’d like for them to talk to them about. You could also introduce screensharing sessions as a way of replicating in-office shadowing.

Make sure to check that your new starter is added to all relevant team meetings, and that you or another team member introduces them on calls so they don’t feel even more awkward. Try to put yourself in their shoes not only as a newcomer to the company, but a newcomer who has never had the reassurance of face-to-face interactions in an office and, at this rate, may not for many months..

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