Managing remote teams

20th March 2020

We need people to start working from home where they possibly can”. Boris Johnson’s address to the nation at the start of this week, whilst expected, will have sent a shockwave of change to organisations and employees across the UK, on a scale we have never seen before.

For many of us working from home is nothing new but, it is unlikely that the majority of the population, will have found themselves away from an office environment for such a period of time. Over the next week, we will discuss the impact of this change on individuals and businesses.

For many organisations, the biggest challenge they face is how to manage a team that is working remotely. So, what should be expected from those managing remote teams and how can we ensure we are effectively communicating and using technology to maintain engagement?

We spoke with Richard White, a senior procurement executive who was recently the VP of Procurement & Sustainability Europe for the world’s largest brewer, AB InBev, to discuss how he has managed remote teams throughout his career. Richard has  previously been the Global CEO of Agrega, and has managed teams of up to 150 employees, and has operated at both global and regional levels throughout his career.

Richard explained what he felt were the critical aspects of success:

“Technology, communication and leadership, which, if they were each plotted on one side each of a triangle, would then ensure and drive engagement at the centre of the triangle. This is, in my opinion, a critical deliverable to ensure effective and productive global and remote team performance”.

1. Leadership

Cases of COVID-19 continue to grow and employees are going to be increasingly concerned for the health of themselves and their loved ones. Increased anxiety from financial concerns, a change to routine and a bombardment of fake news, means it is essential that leaders do what they can to mitigate this in a highly complex situation.

Acknowledgment and transparency are key and it is essential that leaders do not get sucked into panic, with employees looking to their behaviour during times of crisis. Richard agrees, “In a scenario of not being in physical proximity to your teams, the effective leaders need to go the extra mile to make their presence (virtually) felt. They need to be at the epicentre of the company and have their finger on the pulse of the overall company performance, and ensure the local teams are kept informed and up-to-date as to the latest developments of the company and sector as a whole.”

It is imperative that they are seen as someone who is calm and empathetic to their employees heightened emotions and Richard agrees, “Leaders doing the little or simple things well, will often mean the most to individuals”.

These are unusual times and leaders should be flexible and agile to working expectations and hours. Relaxing policies is crucial as priorities shift for their team members, who may be having to take care of children or the elderly. Maintaining a sense of individual purpose but also being part of a team is important. It is essential that employees do not feel isolated, as a result of this fragmented way of working.

Richard agrees, “A global leader will be expected to put in the necessary hours to ensure that the whole network feels connected. The global leader is the orchestra conductor for connecting the relative strengths and weaknesses of the matrix in order to ensure the overall performance is greater than the sum of the parts”.

Now is an opportunity for many leaders to install new working ideologies, promoting ways of working differently for the future. They must empower people to drive success in this new model, recognising that for those that favour office-based working, this is a process, not a flick of a switch.

2. Communication

Communication needs to become more frequent than usual and assumptions cannot be made that information will disseminate. Transparency is key and regular communication from business executives will reassure those across the business. Richard explains, “The remote team leader needs to be seen and heard by the teams as much as if he or she were present locally. They need to show that they are equally receptive to the opinions, ideas and feedback of the remote teams”. 

Many employees will struggle to find individual purpose. Therefore, setting in regular conversations, using all mediums available, will reduce the sense of separation and loneliness. This point was reiterated in McKinsey’s ‘COVID-19 response’report, where they state, ‘communicate with employees frequently and with the right specificity’.

It’s also important to maintain the sense of, team, promoting group communication and interactions.

Have clear expectations from daily communications, daily scheduled catch up’s between managers and their team, group wrap ups and having conversations that are not exclusively focused on work.

In Richard’s experience, “Visual AND non-visual communication, regular or scheduled, AND spontaneous, real-time, group AND one-to-one communication, all have an important role to play. There is no one size fits all communication style or platform for everyone, so a strong leader will need to leverage the range of options and approaches to maximise the impact of their communication effort.”

3. Technology

Utilising technology lies at the heart of successful remote working, from an operational, leadership and communication standpoint, as Richard explains, “The evolution of technology has clearly facilitated communication by the remote team leader, and this needs to be leveraged to the max. WhatsApp (and perhaps, for more personal connections, Instagram) provides an additional platform for group or remote leadership. Regular messages of encouragement, news, sharing key achievements or simply wishing them a great week ahead or an enjoyable weekend, can make a difference”. 

Utilising different communication methods, in times like these can ensure teams feel connected. Company-wide chat tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack allows employees to communicate with each other, promoting more informal conversation and a sense of comradery.

Video calls as opposed to phone-based conversations create a sense of a virtual office environment, allowing colleagues to feel they are still part of a community. Richard agrees, “Video conferencing is clearly more impactful and effective than email or phone calls”.

Cloud-based platforms like OneDrive ensure that key documentation can be shared across an organisation, and further promote collaborative working and initiatives.

We are in the biggest global crisis for a generation, impacting businesses and their employees in ways we’d never anticipated. In times of adversity, we must look to the positives and it is important that our mindset and behaviours drive operational stability and employee engagement.

Richard concludes by stating, “Effective use of the above, i.e. leadership through communication enabled by technology, should result in maximum engagement. Increasingly, and in particular during difficult times, engagement is critical to maintain the belief, hope and confidence of the teams, beyond the employment contract and wage slip”. 

Technology has allowed global and local organisations to feel increasingly connected and to keep employee engagement high. Through regular contact, both professional and personal, we are able to use the current situation as a cultural accelerator for the way we communicate and operate with each other in the future.

At Berwick Partners we specialise in recruiting Procurement and Supply Chain leadership roles across all sectors.