The first wave of COVID-19, back in March of last year, turned managers everywhere into explorers of uncharted territory, mapping out the nuances of remote work in real time. Those early days have long since passed, but the specter of long-term remote work looms large for many businesses: Some 16% of employees now report that remote work is permanently in the cards for them, with that number topping out at 40% in some industries.
What this means for business leaders is that the scrapes and bruises that may have been overlooked in a temporary remote work situation must now be confronted head-on because your newly remote team may soon become your always-remote team. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid during that process.
1. TRYING TO MOVE THE OFFICE ONLINE
Before COVID-19 struck, our team was tight-knit and our office cozy. No amount of remote work could stifle the former, but attempt after attempt to recreate our office dynamic virtually came up short. Remote work is a new environment, bereft of many of the tenets of office life, and it should be treated as such.
This doesn’t mean you need to burn everything down and build a new culture from scratch. You just need to be prepared to make changes. Jennifer Howard-Grenville, professor at Cambridge Judge Business School, recommends “calling out” culture while working remotely to acknowledge when aspects of your unique culture are on display in order to reevaluate what still feels relevant in this new space. Identify what can and should be brought online in terms of office culture, but be equally prepared to leave other things behind.
2. BEING TOO RIGID—OR TOO FLEXIBLE—WITH SCHEDULING
Some remote teams may all be located in the same town or city, while others span time zones and international borders. Scheduling will be a thorny issue no matter what, but the fixes will vary wildly depending on just how spread out your team is.
The key here is not to lean too far in either direction. Respect your team’s autonomy without giving them carte blanche to appear and disappear at will. Emphasize the importance of freedom and flexibility, but be sure to sprinkle in some regular meetings or debriefings at which everyone should be present. These events can act as centralizing nodes around which your team can coalesce, ensuring that no one falls behind.
3. LOSING THE GROWTH MINDSET
When remote work first became widespread last year, most teams headed online in crisis mode. Between severe economic uncertainty and a rapidly worsening pandemic, the first and only goal was to keep the ship as steady as possible.
Times have changed. As vaccinations become more widespread and the economy continues its upward trend, the opportunities for growth are there—but many teams have yet to shed the survival-mode mindset. Because of the conditions that first caused remote work to become the norm, the virtual office can still feel like something of a panic room. Remind your team that nothing about their new environment should be holding them back; remote workers, after all, can be up to 35% more productive.
4. LETTING COMMUNICATION SLIP THROUGH THE CRACKS
It should be no surprise to business leaders that the single most frequently reported challenge to effective remote work is communication. The common response to this is to unify as many communication channels as possible and enforce some mandatory policies—both of which may end up causing more problems than they solve.
If other remote teams are like mine, they include a number of people who simply communicate in different ways. It would be unfair of me to force someone uncomfortable with video conferencing to hop on a required Zoom call. The priority here shouldn’t be forcing everyone to keep up but putting in the effort to make sure that no one falls behind. If you’re getting radio silence from a member of your team, check in personally; it will have a far greater positive impact than enforcing some arbitrary rule on them.
Once your team has finished exploring the uncharted territory of remote work, it’s time to set up shop there. There will always be some transitional pains, but striking the right balance as a leader can make all the difference when it comes to getting settled. Lay down some roots, build a culture, and get to work on what matters.
Misty is the President of Relevance, an agency specializing in helping companies own their industries online.