Brave New World: How to Manage Distributed Teams Amid COVID-19 Uncertainties

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As the reality of COVID-19 hits us hard and fast, more organizations are shifting to remote work environments to protect society. Fortunately, remote working is not new — but it hasn’t been the norm for many companies, particularly public-school systems or corporate giants like AT&T and Cox Communications.

So, what if your workers have never worked from home for an extended period of time before? How do they show accountability? What can they do to stay in sync with their coworkers? How do they handle the loneliness and reality of being away from everyone else? COVID-19 is forcing us to answer these questions faster than we’d like to, but luckily, we have some tips to help you ease the transition and minimize the disruption:

Step Up Your Communication Game

Just as in the office, communication reigns supreme while working remotely.  Here’s what you can do to keep communications in sync while telecommuting:

  • If you’re working with a team, have an initial conference call to implement new team norms around working remotely: Establish an approach for working through conflict remotely; discuss new decision-making protocols; create new cadences for meetings; set expectations for being available online; etc. Alternatively, if you work alone, meet with those who depend on your work output to establish new norms of communicating. Video communication tools like Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams are relatively intuitive to use and easy to implement for a team.
  • Since you won’t be able to do the occasional office walk-by, you’ll have to be more intentional with the frequency of your meetings. Work with your team — or those who depend on your work output — and vote on a designated daily check-in time. We recommend meeting every day in the beginning, then adjust to fewer meetings the following week if appropriate. You will need to experiment to figure out what works best for you and your team.
  • For teams that require more frequent collaboration, we highly recommend a collaboration tool like Microsoft Teams because such tools provide teams with real-time communications and context through chat history. You can also include the tool in the new team norms, and have your team agree to answer messages throughout the day during ‘normal’ business hours.

Create an Environment Conducive to Remote Work

This part may get a little tricky if people are new to working remotely, but here are some tips that will help:

  • Have a meeting with everyone you live with to cover the reality that ‘this is happening, and we all have to make adjustments.’ These adjustments might include asking children to stay out of your designated workspace during work hours, or keeping TV, music and talking volume to a minimum. Everyone needs to show more empathy than usual in order to make working remotely successful.
  • Designate a work area, preferably away from the common lounging areas in your home. Avoid the temptation to work in bed and carve out a workspace area — ideally a spare room or office — to keep your work life and home life separated. Since you will have to make more at-home calls than usual, minimize the background noise, especially during video conferencing.

Leverage Technology to Stay Connected

  • Ensure that everyone is using the same tool for collaboration. Minimizing your tool stack will reduce confusion and ensure everyone is able to find what they need easily — policies, protocols, documents, messages, etc.
  • Make use of the camera on your laptop. Sometimes, what is said verbally is inconsistent with what is communicated through body language. Using cameras will ensure you don’t miss subtle nonverbal cues and behaviors — like postures, facial expressions and eye gazes — that might indicate a disconnect. Plus, it helps you feel more connected to your team if you can talk virtually face-to-face.
  • Continue whiteboarding and using sticky notes virtually with rich collaboration tools such as Miro, Retrium or Ideaboardz. All three tools are good choices that can help you visualize work, brainstorm and collaborate despite the distance.
  • Be patient with glitching internet connections. Bandwidth is going to be pushed harder than ever before, and home internet services may not be equipped to handle the influx. If bandwidth gets choppy, try double-checking other household devices to make sure they aren’t hogging the bandwidth: Stop streaming games or movies on other devices, and shut down programs that use a lot of bandwidth — at least while the video conferencing is going on.

Overcoming Human Struggles

  • Loneliness is a real struggle for many remote workers. We suggest creating a virtual Community of Practice for socializing and water cooler talk.  Depending on the number of attendees, you can do this via video or group chat — but video is always preferred because it is closest to chatting in person. We recommend conducting this CoP once a week for 20-30 minutes.
  • Maintain the same level of personal hygiene and etiquette you would practice in a traditional office setting. Get dressed for the day, at least from waist up, and avoid revealing clothes or sleepwear. And don’t forget to practice regular hygiene because, believe it or not, you are more up close and personal on a webcam than when you are in person. So, if you haven’t done the needful things after waking up, it may be evident on camera. Plus, maintaining your ‘getting ready for work’ routine creates a sense of normalcy and shifts your mindset to work mode: According to a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, dressing for the job increases abstract thinking, which is associated with creativity and long-term strategizing.
  • Cameras should be on and every participant’s face should be shown. This helps to be courteous to one another, improves remote communication, and brings more focus to the conversation.
  • Take breaks and walk outside. Exercise social distancing as needed, but make sure you get out of the house and breathe fresh air for 5-10 minutes several times a day.  If going outside is not practical, stretch or do mild physical exercise to get your blood pumping.

Remote work has its benefits, but it requires a bit of planning and effort to start off on the right foot. AgileThought’s Transform practice uses these techniques daily, and we teach our clients who have distributed teams to do them effectively. And with our scaled agile-first delivery — both onshore and nearshore — we can help you navigate this challenging time and implement a remote team without sacrificing work quality. Contact us to learn how we can help you today.

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