Reshaping Management: Leading Distributed Teams with Intention and Flexibility

With the rapidly evolving COVID-19 global pandemic, people and organizations around the globe are being forced to shift from their traditional in-person workplaces to virtual ways of working. With no time for a well-planned, phased transition, leaders suddenly found themselves managing distributed teams without the ideal training or resources.

But amid the acute concerns for public health and safety and the challenges of rapidly implementing virtual work, there also lies great potential. Organizations now have a unique opportunity to test and learn—reimagining traditional ways of working to deliver on the long-awaited work-from-home promises of work-life integration, flexibility, and inclusivity.

Even for those of us who help other organizations achieve this, the lesson had to start at home. At Kearney, we’re known for our culture of collaboration, both internally and with our clients. With teams deployed across the globe, distributed teams had already become second nature. But early in this crisis, country by country, we needed to move rapidly to expand our work-from-home arrangements, remotely managing both our own teams and all our meetings with our clients. Although technology is an essential component of our ability to work remotely, we have learned that there’s much more to it than that. It’s about managing people, empowering, engaging, and reinforcing connections.

Amid the transition, we focused on four moves that can help other companies effectively manage their distributed teams.

Define new team norms

Shifting to a virtual work model requires re-establishing our social contracts for engaging with one another. Collectively defining and agreeing on these norms creates ownership and builds accountability.

So, to start with, it’s important to establish and communicate agreed-upon norms for remote work. For example, employees must be visible. This means using video calls, and dressing for them—the dress code can be more casual than a suit but should be more formal than a bathrobe. Responsiveness also changes, as coworkers can no longer stop by one another’s offices. Rather, it’s effective to utilize the status function in the messaging platform to keep your team updated about your availability and send texts for messages in need of urgent response. If any exchange requires more than three back-and-forth responses, be vocal and get on the phone instead. Finally, it’s important to be patient. Disruptions such as crying children, barking dogs, and roommates talking in the background are to be expected. Manage through it with a sense of balance and humor.

New norms and practices should be inherently agile, and leaders need to remain flexible to adapt to evolving employee needs. We have a number of ways we keep people feeling connected, both through productive meeting time as well as informal conversations that replicate the social atmosphere of an office. Team meetings at the start of every day can establish the working hours and the priorities for the day, while one-on-one check-ins with your direct reports can help employees feel supported. Consider shifting these to more frequent and shorter interactions, such as moving from once per week for 30 minutes to twice per week for 15 minutes. Virtual office hours allow people to drop in for quick questions and informal collaboration, and virtual lunches and coffee breaks mimic the social interactions that come with in-person work.

Overall, whichever specific traits define your team’s new engagement standards, it’s important to communicate them by creating a remote work charter to formally capture the new ways of working. Share it with your fellow managers so that everyone is on the same page.

Care for the whole employee

The uncertainty of this pandemic requires taking an especially human approach, managing people and not just handling resources. Your employees are facing a wide variety of new concerns and commitments outside of work, particularly caregiving responsibilities, which can add stress and create a need for more flexibility. Have open conversations about what they need and get creative in defining working hours that suit everyone’s needs.

In order to do so, managers must check in on people personally. Take time to connect with people and understand what personal challenges might be impacting their ability to work effectively. Make sure they know the range of counseling and other resources your company has to offer. It’s important to listen to what they need and be flexible, allowing employees to redefine their hours. With childcare and schools closed and the elderly in need of added comfort and assistance, some people may need to work different hours than the typical 9-to-5, but they can still put in a full day of work. Ensure that everyone on the team is transparent and proactive in communicating their availability and their working hours. Flexibility also requires trust and empowerment. Manage outcomes rather than process by establishing clear priorities and expectations while letting employees define how they will execute the work.

Managing distributed teams runs the risk of two extremes: managers either taking a hands-off approach in which employees lack the guidance and feedback to work effectively; or trying to maintain close oversight of their employees through endless emails, messages and meetings that hamper productivity. Managers need to instead evolve their leadership to create space for meaningful engagement. This means ensuring that all employees have balanced and appropriate access to your time and attention and being intentional about inclusivity during meetings—consider who you are spending the most time with when working virtually, and change accordingly to make sure everyone is heard. Create social spaces as well. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Engage with each other over messaging platforms, at the start of online meetings, or by simply picking up the phone. Look for opportunities to move social engagements online, such as hosting a virtual birthday celebration or having lunch, coffee, or happy hour online together. Working from home is breaking down our well-established barriers between work and personal life. Consider leaning into this unique opportunity to get to know colleagues on a different level by opening up about the realities of your home life and the challenges of the current situation.

Model healthy work habits

In addition to the concerns and stress associated with COVID-19, working from home can introduce other challenges to people’s physical and mental health. Help employees manage their well-being by modeling healthy work habits.

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Many people don’t have a formal home office, and in fact, might instead have several factors at home contributing to a less-than-ideal work environment, such as roommates or children. It’s important then to be intentional about creating a professional and productive work environment, however that might look for each individual. Find ways to set up your workspace, starting with a comfortable chair, a proper tabletop, and natural light. Make this space your own with music, a favorite coffee, or other personal touches to help you feel positive and productive. Next, coordinate with others in your home to let them know when you are in “do not disturb” mode. This could mean designating a quiet room in the home and putting a sign on the door or even just a sticky note on the back of your laptop. Going on mute when not presenting in a meeting is also useful to minimize background noise on calls if you do not have access to a high-quality headset. Consider too using background blur or backdrop options that are available on most video conference applications to avoid drawing attention to your home décor.

Now that your virtual teams have their workspace set up, it’s time for them to establish a routine, building their calendars with intention and focus. It’s a good idea to use the time normally spent commuting on healthy activities such as reading, meditation, or family time. This time should be dedicated to themselves, with a focus on healthy meals, exercise, and fresh air—all of which are essential for creativity and productivity. It’s also important to be intentional about getting up and moving, given that we’re not walking around the office to go to meetings.

Schedule the end of your day as well. Without the visual cues of an empty office, it’s easy for the workday to creep late into the night, but it’s important to manage any tendencies to overwork. Find intentional ways to stop working, such as signaling the start and end of your workday with “good morning” or “see you tomorrow” messages to your team, and avoid overloading your day. Don’t let the fact that your home is now your office mean that the separation between the two must become blurred; avoid filling your early mornings and late evenings with calls by setting up clear boundaries of working hours and ensure that you have time dedicated to healthy activities.

Quickly build virtual working capabilities

Adequate tools and technologies are the foundation of every virtual team. There are many hardware and software solutions to choose from, but you’ll also need flexibility, teamwork, and clear communication to quickly enable your employees to work from home. The first step is increasing everyone’s access to these tools, so consider adapting expense policies and guidelines to allow employees to supplement their technology where needed, such as with headsets and webcams. Provide easy access to clear information about available tools and remote IT support.

Everyone will have different needs, so make sure to speak with each team member to identify any technical challenges they might have, such as slow or no Internet at home, and work with them to develop quick fixes. Team members can be a resource to one another as well: identify the informal tech experts on your teams, and empower them to share best practices by hosting virtual meetings so they can teach their coworkers how to use tools they may not be familiar with.

Unleash the potential of your virtual teams

These are stressful and uncertain times for everyone, but in any challenge, there is also an opportunity. As teams test and learn new ways of working, capture their insights to evaluate and institutionalize best practices when our work lives settle into a new normal.

Now is the time to be bold and innovative with a grassroots effort to reimagine the workplace in a way that best suits a diverse workforce. With a creative, open-minded approach, we might all emerge with a work environment that finally makes good on the long-awaited work-from-home promise.

Jennifer implements and accelerates new ways of working in organizations. By focusing on people and their experience of work she helps organizations become more effective. She drives the people agenda in large transformations, such as the merger of two companies, new partnerships, or developing new organizational capabilities. Her expertise includes organization design, culture, and social network mapping. Jennifer is a Principal in Kearney’s Leadership, Change and Organization practice and has over twelve years of management consulting and industry experience.

Kim Fulton is a Consultant at Kearney, a global management consulting firm focused on strategic and operational CEO-agenda issues facing businesses, governments and institutions around the globe. Kim works with these organizations to develop and operationalize their talent strategies, including shifting organizational culture, creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, and implementing transformation programs to engage employees and drive behavior change. Kim has also worked closely with Catalyst, a global non-profit and leading voice on workplace gender equity and earned her MBA from the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

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