Remote working – it’s just a matter of making sure everyone has a working laptop and a passable WiFi connection, right?

If only it was really as straightforward as swapping your team huddles for a Zoom call. According to the US-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 71% of employers have struggled with the transition to mass home working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s not surprising when you think about it. Making remote working the norm, as opposed to an occasional perk enjoyed as part of flexible working arrangements, requires huge cultural as well as operational shifts.

Workflows, communication, collaboration, information sharing, meetings, commuting, not to mention the scramble for suitable cloud-based IT solutions for everything – remote working has turned working life as we knew it on its head. And it’s not like anyone has had much of a choice in the matter.

Change puts a lot of pressure on managers. Even at the best of times, leaders are problem solvers, enablers, resource providers, helping hands and shoulders to cry on all rolled into one. At times of significant change in an organisation, all of these roles are amplified. Mangers have to adapt themselves as well as guide others through the transition.

Just to throw another spanner in the works, with remote working, all of this has to be done at a distance.

Successful leaders are good at breaking challenges down into small, digestible pieces. The following five principles are designed to do just that in relation to remote working – provide clarity as to what you can focus on to best support your team and your business.

Communication

The rapid switch to remote working during the pandemic has made us realise just how much we rely on face-to-face interaction for most communication in the workplace – everything from formal planning meetings to the social chats that are so important to building camaraderie and keeping morale high.

For remote teams, the need for digital communications tools – email, IM, video conferencing, collaboration platforms – is a given. But don’t expect these channels to replicate the constant trickle of dialogue that occurs when people share a workspace. In fact, trying to do so might be detrimental. People get more distracted answering an IM than they do taking part in a verbal conversation, and we are much better at giving cues that we need to ‘get on’ in person than we are on a call.

Research suggests that communication between remote teams is most effective and productive when is formally scheduled and segregated, leaving people to focus on their work the rest of the time. Aim for regular short, sharp bursts in the ‘huddle’ mode rather than lengthy meetings. This caters for the fact that people’s attention is more likely to wander on a Zoom call, but ‘little and often’ also means you can keep everyone feeling connected without infringing on their productivity.

Consensus

One of the golden rules of change management is to strive to get buy-in from everyone affected. One of the best ways of doing this is to involve people in the decision-making process and build consensus, so they feel a sense of ownership over what is happening.

So with regards to remote working, this could be canvassing opinion on what a communication schedule looks like. Does everyone want a daily virtual huddle, or would they prefer to go weekly? If people have queries, want help or need to discuss something with a colleague to get a piece of work done, what channel(s) will you use? Which platforms are everyone most comfortable using?

Conversations like these can of course extend way beyond communication to cover the likes of quality control, training and development, work patterns and more.

Empathy

Seeking consensus from your teams leads to broader considerations of understanding what the transition to remote working might mean to people. A point the CIPD makes is that while a manager has a responsibility to uphold the ‘big picture’ of company policy, goals and performance, it’s also important to show flexibility in the face of some of the challenges people are facing.

You should anticipate, for example, that home working will leave some people feeling isolated, struggling to focus with whatever distractions there might be at home, battling unreliable IT equipment or just finding it difficult to motivate themselves without direct supervision for perhaps the first time in their life.

While performance is ultimately your responsibility, your mindset should be one of solutions rather than sanctions. Consider all the changes you are having to cope with – it’s the same for your team members. Make a point of asking people one-to-one if there is anything you can do to help them on a regular basis, follow through on any requests they make, and be sensitive in your approach if you do notice a dip in output.

Trust

By its very nature, remote working requires leaders to put more trust in their teams. Distance means you just cannot monitor everyone’s behaviour and work patterns the same way you would be able to in an office. Some managers find this very difficult, but breaking away from the micro-managing mindset is a good thing. Many people respond positively to the extra freedom and responsibility remote working hands them. Show them you trust them and they will shine.

Perhaps the most important thing is to adopt a ‘trust-first’ mindset, i.e. don’t expect anyone to struggle with working from home. Make this clear and leave them to live up to your expectations – while keeping a close ear to the ground for any problems that might arise.

Availability

Finally, an old principle of effective leadership is that managers should always be available to listen to and help with whatever issues, queries, concerns or complaints arise in their team. This is definitely something to dust off and revisit when managing a remote team. The manager who is ‘too busy’ to listen to an anxious member of staff asking for help is a manager who people quickly stop taking their problems to. When that happens, you quickly lose your grip on what is actually happening and therefore your ability to make a difference.

So do whatever it takes to clear your task list – delegation is another essential part of effective leadership – and make being available as and when your team needs you your priority.