How to Manage A Remote Team Through COVID-19

As the world reacts to COVID-19, employees have been sent home en masse while organizations of all sizes try to continue operations. They’re doing so by building telecommuting infrastructure and processes on the fly. It has led to employees and companies trying to figure out how to operate while working from afar for the very first time.

I can tell you from experience, it’s not an easy transition, especially for entrepreneurs and managers that are used to having their hands on every aspect of the business. I first built my companies around telecommuting while completing an MBA 12 years ago. While owning multiple clothing stores, I had to manage the team while in school. Then, when I completed my program, I traveled for six months, stress-testing my telecommuting tools by running the company from all over the U.S. Since that time, I’ve moved out of retail and into the financial field while also playing professional hockey overseas each winter. In total, I’ve spent my last decade growing and managing my teams and businesses, ensuring they can operate even when I’m not there.

For those companies, entrepreneurs and managers now in the early days of transitioning their own business to telecommuting, here are five things that I’ve learned - and you should plan for - as your team adjusts to this new normal.

Use Reliable Communication Products

Cameras, mics, software and internet connection are often all needed to ensure virtual meetings - especially with clients - go off without a hitch. Plan a few minutes prior to all communications to test your equipment and forgive those that have issues within the call. Many employees, whether they’re tech-savvy or not, will struggle with the setup, so plan to have a short delay at the beginning of all virtual meetings to give everyone a chance to make sure they’re ready to go.

If you present anything virtually, have documents downloaded and opened prior to starting the meeting. It’s best to host a training session with your team, so you can also walk them through all the features of the telecommuting tool you’re using for calls (and teach everyone the mute button!).

Making the technical process easier for them, will ease the headaches they try to adjust to their new work environment.

Check In Daily

When you’re separated from your team, you can’t see their struggles. My purpose each day is to help my team navigate any systematic bottlenecks. I want their job to move forward as fluidly as possible. Sometimes, though, they get stuck. It can take hours for them to find answers I could provide in minutes. They might get hung up trying to guess what I would prefer in a given situation, or they’re caught on a problem I’ve solved in the past, or looking for contacts that I have on speed dial, or any other handful of speed bumps.

I usually check in each morning with an email, text or quick call. I’m not trying to micromanage. Instead, it’s my way of offering assistance, anticipating their problems. In a normal office environment, you can see when your employees have hit a wall. When you’re not present, checking in can prevent them from wasting time.

Keep Strong Metrics

The less you can see with your eyes, the more you need to see with data. Your metrics that you measure will need to change, monitoring more of your staffs’ activity than before. Staff that can waste a day can waste a week. If they fall behind, it’s your fault. The goal isn’t to force them into production but rather support them through their process. You will find simple things eat up large portions of their day, especially early on. Maybe their wi-fi is down, or they’re having trouble connecting a different printer. In this shelter-in-place world, family can also lead to distractions throughout the day. But as things progress, you must help your staff fall into a rhythm that works for them and the business.

You can track this through your metrics, like number of clients contacted, virtual meetings booked, sales completed or whatever metric you find most useful. This will require some trial and error because each employee and job needs different measurements.

But once you understand what you’re measuring, then you can determine who needs extra help in this work-from-home world.

But Don’t Let Metrics Blind You

Metrics help you analyze data quickly but they don’t tell the whole story. If you’re measuring sales, for example, and they falter, it might not have anything to do with the employee but the current economic environment.

You need to talk to your staff. Virtual employee meetings let your staff tell you what difficulties they face that can’t be seen in the numbers. A weekly or bi-weekly 30-minute to one-hour talk can dramatically change the direction an employee takes. Help discover problems and opportunities for the employees and hear their concerns. People want to feel heard and physical distance makes this more difficult. Try organizing team meetings as well. You want to see how the group views certain tactics or measures. Hopefully, in these meetings, they can solve the problem themselves while you just help build consensus.

Treat Employees like People

The coronavirus outbreak has forced all of us to realize we’re more than our job. Remember to care about what’s going on in your employees’ lives. In the office you might have small talk, keeping you up to date with what’s happening with an employee’s family, pets, hobbies and health. When remote we often become over-concerned with time management and forget to connect. Yes, we do want to limit wasted time, screen time and unnecessary meetings, but we don’t want to make people feel like we don’t appreciate them. That’s especially true for employees who might be more isolated than others. Take time at the start or end of meetings to talk to your employees as people.

I have spent years trying to improve my virtual management skills. In the past, this has allowed me more time to spend travelling. Now it’s allowing me to manage through self-quarantine. In the process, I’m looking to help my team succeed and overcome this difficult time. I’ve increased my communications. I’m offering more support. It has led to better conversations with clients as well, which will ease their concerns through this pandemic.

While it’s an adjustment to company-wide telecommuting, you might be surprised by the benefits you find in this new normal.

By Timm McLean, MBA |

More About the Author >