You Suddenly Have a Remote Team—What Happens Now?

Mar 16, 2020

By AMA Staff

With the United States taking action to slow the spread of coronavirus, more and more employees are working from home or preparing to do so.

As a team leader, how do you adjust to this sudden change? Can you find a silver lining? How do you best lead a team that’s now home-based because of a public health crisis?

Working virtually: A trend that companies can embrace

AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center asked two experts in remote leadership to offer some critical tips for these difficult times.

Some of the adjustment may be hard, but there are actions to take for the best outcome, says Kimberli Allen, CEO and founder of Everything Webinar and an AMA facilitator. “Above all, don’t panic,” she says. “If you panic, the rest of the team is going to take their cues from you.”

Allen has been working with clients around the globe, including China, from the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Large companies may have a difficult transition if employees suddenly have to work remotely, she says. “[In China] they’re struggling to deploy a team of 10,000 and they don’t have access to basic tech. They’re scrambling to find laptop computers to send to people’s homes,” Allen notes.

That will also become the case with some U.S. companies, she acknowledges. But if you have employees with cell phones, computers, and internet access, you can work out a basic plan while putting a longer-term virtual policy in place.

“Leaders need to communicate the protocols that should be followed, especially when the workforce has not worked remotely in the past,” suggests Wendi Barlow, virtual facilitator and coach at Barlow Consulting and also an AMA facilitator. “Technology that is typically available at the company may not be available if working from home.” She adds that you may have to rely on freeware or apps like Zoom, GoToMeeting, or similar meeting apps as interim connectivity workarounds.

Creating a successful remote team

Here are some additional tips to consider:

Put your team first, and work on maintaining a bond. One of the biggest hurdles in virtual teams is that unless there’s a video connection, you miss out on making eye contact with people. You can bypass this initially, but do set it up as soon as possible, Allen says. Adding video helps form a trust bond. “Your people need to feel safe and a way to feel safe is to bond with you,” she explains.

Set up ground rules for working remotely. This may include asking employees to troubleshoot their own equipment, or holding morning and afternoon check-ins where everyone shares what they are working on, says Barlow.

Don’t trust your employees? Work on that. Many upper managers are wary about employees working remotely, Allen says. “Isn’t the proof in the numbers?’” she says. “If somebody starts to lag behind because they’re actually watching YouTube at home instead of working, you’ll see it in their performance.”

“Trusting your employees is crucial,” Barlow affirms. “People want to do a good job, and they will rally around supporting the company.”

Get training and offer training to your staff. Not all aspects of working remotely are simple. One of Allen’s clients is anxious about making a virtual presentation; he’s worried that he’ll be fired if he fails. Another client has to give a remote sales presentation to a group of manufacturing companies, but he doesn’t have online presentation skills and is nervous about having to be on camera, she says.

Acknowledge the aspects of your team members’ roles that require adjustments, and get them training. Allen recommends team leaders take a course like AMA’s Leading Virtual Teams. “There’s really no reason not to,” she points out. “This skill set is something that you’re going to need going forward.”

Follow your employer’s directives and local and national protocols. This may mean reduced hours, projects put on hold, or even layoffs. “There’s no magic that we have to offer other than just understand that your employer is caring for your safety and putting all measures in place that they possibly can,” Allen says.

For those still in the office, remind staff of health measures: maintaining social distancing, cleaning frequently, and following other coronavirus recommendations, Barlow adds.

Make every effort to conduct business as usual. “As usual as it possibly can be, in that if you have meetings that are regularly scheduled, if you have one-on-ones scheduled, continue with those but transition them to the virtual environment,” Allen says. “No big deal—you click a link and you’re in your meeting.”

Embrace the virtual future. “After coronavirus, working virtually is going to be more in the forefront of people’s minds,” Allen predicts. “Putting these measures in place now can actually really ignite a fire in you about this style of working. It can absolutely be easier than you think if you receive the right advice.”