Maytree blog

Five good ideas about maintaining morale while managing a remote team

Published on 06/05/2020

To help us navigate a new way of working during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re reaching out to experts in our network and asking them to share their five good ideas on issues that matter to non-profit professionals. We will share their responses in our new “Five Good Ideas: Home Office Series.” In this post, Christine Yip, Founder & Managing Director of Organizations for Impact, shares her five good ideas about maintaining morale while managing a remote team.

Here are Christine Yip’s five good ideas on managing remote teams.

Download the slides (PDF)

After six weeks (or more) of working from home, most of us will have fallen into some type of routine. At the same time, removed from our daily in-person contacts, relying on regular video calls, watching too many news conferences hoping for an easing of the restrictions, many may also feel a renewed sense of anxiety. Some of you may start to feel “fed up” with being stuck inside, having a hard time getting motivated to get your day started, or keeping a good balance between being at your (home) work desk and getting a good rest away from your desk. And for those of us managing a team, now remotely, we have the additional task of making sure everyone is doing well and keeping mentally healthy.

Five Good Ideas

1. Be clear and realistic about expectations

  • Have 2-way conversations on what is possible
  • Provide timely feedback to clarify direction
  • Focus on outputs rather than “hours worked”

2. Be flexible and respect boundaries

  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion
  • Accommodate scheduling needs
  • Respect “on the clock” hours

3. Communicate effectively

  • Communicate key messages multiple ways
  • Make sure the medium matches the message
  • Be careful not to over-communicate
  • Make time for informal check-ins

4. Provide space to “recharge”

  • Watch for signs of strain & burnout
  • Make sure people are taking “off-screen” breaks
  • Ensure team members are socializing with each other
  • Encourage activities that can increase energy levels

5. Take time to take care of yourself

  • Establish a routine and set clear boundaries
  • Lean on your support networks
  • Be patient with yourself, this isn’t easy, trial & error

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Full session transcript

I know that it is a crazy time and everyone’s spending their days and nights logging in and out of Zoom calls: Zoom calls for work, Zoom calls with family, Zoom calls for teaching your kids, doing homeschooling with your kids, or doing yoga classes, or whatever it is. So Zoom calls for everything.

So I appreciate the time to come in, and log into this, and share some learnings about how we move forward in this new remote world.

I just want to set the context quickly.

While remote work isn’t new, working remotely with a pandemic is new. So although there are a lot of things that we know already about managing remote teams, contextualizing it in this circumstance is really important.

I think one big takeaway many of us have from this situation is that more companies can work remotely than have been in the past, and the technology is there to work remotely. And I think now that we’re all in here, it’s important to step back and say, okay, so now that we know that we can do it from a technological perspective, how do we actually put in some of those best practice management practices in order to do so in a way that we can still provide support to our teams, build confidence in our teams, and also achieve what we are, our objectives in our work.

That’s the purpose of today.

Just for a little context on my experience with virtual teams. I have been working in a remote semi remote way for probably my whole career. I studied telework and remote teams back when I was doing my education in organizational psychology. And since then working as a consultant I’ve often had international national clients where I work either remotely at times, but sometimes onsite in the last few years, running my own business. I’ve worked with clients who run a pure virtual workforce. So no at home, no at office work.

And then in the last eight weeks, along with all of you, I have gone 100% remote. I teach a course that had to go 100% remote. So managing through that transition as well.

What I’m going to be doing is presenting through five ideas that combination of what we know from research and evidence and what has been studied as best practices of remote team management, what I’ve learned in my experience working remotely, and then what I’ve learned and what I’ve heard, and spoken with other colleagues over the last eight weeks about what works and what doesn’t in regards to the situation we’re in. And I think that’s an important point that we’re all still learning.

So I wanted to start with what do we know about managing remote teams? What do we know from what’s been studied and what are some best practices to this point?

Because really managing remote teams is around balancing the benefits that could come from it as well as the risks.

I just wanted to start quickly with the benefits. So we know that working remotely results in reduced commuting time, fewer interruptions at work, increased productivity. There is evidence to show that teams and individuals who work remotely are more productive.

There’s also an increase in opportunity for flexibility and autonomy so you have more control in how your work is done, and you can manage your schedule a little bit, and you have a little bit more freedom managing scheduling. And in the past this has often been one of the reasons why many companies have offered flexible and remote work.

It was really looked at as like a benefit to offer employees to accommodate for a certain scheduling needs, but also to reward high performing employees as well. There’s also a higher, a better opportunity to have that better work life integration. So in the past when you know you have to be at the office from nine to five, any of your personal stuff you have to do after. Now when you’re working from home, you could be on a call and get stuff done while you’re maybe like putting some stuff away around the house or doing laundry. You can integrate those activities together in a way that suits you.

And then obviously from an organizational perspective, remote working is a cost reduction strategy in some cases. So a lot of organizations have been moving more towards this because they save space and not having to have an office for every single person.

So what are the risks? Again, with every benefit there is a risk on the other side that needs to be managed. Increased productivity also means increased risk of burnout. You don’t have those natural nudges in your day that say, okay, it’s six o’clock everyone’s leaving the office, it’s time to go.

Moving from working to home is a much harder thing when work is home. So really having those environmental cues aren’t really there anymore. You tend, you could overwork, and this can increase your risk of burnout.

There’s also the increased risk of social isolation, although interruptions can be bad for your productivity. A lot of times those interruptions are very well needed little breaks and little social interactions with your team. And we know that social support is a huge buffer against burnout caused by long working hours and high pressure work. And so not having that can put a real risk to individuals working and just like we can get better work life integration.

It’s also, you know, the risk that we don’t have those boundaries between work and life as I talked about. And I think from an organizational perspective, a lot of organizations who haven’t been doing remote work up to this point, there is a cultural element of people saying, Oh well we need more face time. We need to get our work done. And getting work done means being, you know, having that Face time and there’s also this element of making sure people are working. So from an organizational perspective, not having that Face time might seem like a negative.

And then as well there’s reduced access to information. One of the things when you’re physically in the same office is you have these informal conversations where you learn things about your work, where you share information informally that you might not be getting through email or through a formal meeting. So you’re cutting off that vehicle of information flow that was once there before.

And I think the other important thing is even in meetings we often get information through what people are saying, but there’s also that implicit communication or that informal communication that happens.

There’s nonverbal communication that you can understand if someone’s upset or how they’re feeling by being in person. So that is something that we don’t have.

So the objective of really managing remote work is being able to get the benefits of it, but also making sure to manage across those risks to make sure that we’re managing for those and we’re keeping those in mind.

I’ve outlined five ideas that I think are really the most important. There’s a lot of things we could talk about, but really these are five things that I think are the most important to think about right now.

The first is really around being clear about your expectations and setting realistic expectations.

So this is really about managing uncertainty for your team. Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty in what the future holds. Making sure that you’re very clear about what’s expected at work gives them some level of certainty and stability in their every day.

And then there’s also the other side of this, which is to be realistic about expectations. Obviously right now, yes, people are at home and can potentially, theoretically work longer. But there’s a lot of extra demands on people’s plates, which include for a lot of people with kids having their kids at home, their partners at home.

Some people might, some people’s partners might have or teenage kids might have lost their job during this. So that’s more pressure on there. And there’s also issues with just stress and anxiety that are resulting in people losing focus and not being able to just put as much output out there.

So, I think really having those two way conversations with your team about what is possible to achieve when, you know, what are the expectations, when is the deadline? What can we expect to get done? Really looking at it as a negotiation between what do you think is possible. And then also providing that timely feedback.

As a manager, you might not always know exactly what you want at the end of a task, and sometimes it’s a little bit iterative. So making sure to check in with your team members as you know, tasks are being done in the background and just check in on how things are going and give that timely, smaller feedback to continue to clarify that direction.

I think an important element for people who are new to working remotely is really to focus on the outputs of their work rather than the hours worked. If one of the ways that you’re used to judging how well someone is performing is how long they’ve been at the office, which is in the nonprofit sector, it’s probably less common than in the for profit sector. But in this circumstance, that’s really not what’s important and it can’t be. Because if you’re starting to get too involved in how people are working, especially in this scenario, there’s that risk of micromanaging and we all know micromanaging is a morale killer.

So we want to be trusting of how things get done and really let go of that control, and really try to focus on what is the quality of the output; which is why being clear about those expectations is really important.

The second big idea or the second piece of advice would be, you know, being flexible and respecting boundaries.

I think what’s really important is demonstrating empathy and compassion. So even if you’ve clarified exactly what you want, when you want it, and you’ve had that two-way conversation, and you’re checking in given all of the challenges that we’re facing on our day to day, it’s likely that the expectations were set that weren’t really realistic and that’s okay ’cause we’re learning.

So how do you, and things can come up that people don’t necessarily have not necessarily planned for, how do you actually demonstrate that empathy?

An example that I could give from my experience: I mentioned before I had been teaching a class at York that now is virtual and it was right during the beginning of the pandemic and I had a paper due in the class. My students had to submit a paper to me and one student emailed me and she was like, it’s going to be late and I have no reason. It’s been really hard to focus.

And I think in pre-pandemic world, that might not have been an excuse, that I would have said, okay, you won’t get the late penalty. But in this circumstance, it was because I understand that it is hard to focus when it feels like the world around you is changing. So I’m really trying to find ways to be compassionate.

The second item is accommodating to scheduling needs. Obviously, especially with parents. People have to be very creative with their schedule and parents have to switch off and have shifts when they’re working with the kids and when they’re scheduled and when they’re actually working on their work.

So I think managers need to sit with each of your team members or at least have some conversations around what their unique scheduling needs are and how we work together. And what are yours, even as a leader, what are your scheduling needs, and how do you have that conversation to make sure to set those expectations early.

And then the third point is really important about respecting those on the clock hours. If you know that your team member isn’t working from two to five, but they’re going to be picking it back up at eight o’clock because of managing childcare or other care responsibilities, and you’re working in that time, you might want to be sending emails to them even though you know that they’re not on the clock. If someone was taking a break in the office, you wouldn’t go to them and start listing out everything you need to do. So I think making sure virtually you’re respecting those boundaries.

I often use the schedule send button in my Gmail. So even though I want to check off the sent the email on my to do list, I’ll just schedule it when I know the other person is working. So then I’m not giving them a notification when I know that they need that time, that they’re not working in that time or at least they need that time off.

So the third idea is about communication. Obviously a lot of this stuff is really getting back to the basics of good management. We know communication is always important and I think there’s some best practice of communication that when you’re in a meeting and you assigned some action items, you always make sure to send an email after just to clarify what those are.

I think in a virtual environment, having that rigor and cadence with how you communicate, making sure you’re using those multiple channels, is really important to close any gaps.

In communication that you might end up in the office you might just swing by someone’s cubicle and then you have that clarification conversation there. That doesn’t happen anymore.

So how do you put in that structure to be able to ensure that those gaps are closed?

Another important one is making sure the media matches the message. And again, this isn’t advice that’s just for remote working pandemic, the specific work scenarios. But I think it’s more important that we have a lot of ways we could communicate.

So we have email, we have chat, we have phone call, we have Zoom call, just text message. There’s all these different ways and there are norms and best practices about what messaging and what communication gets sent through what medium.

So if you have a more constructive performance, email to send someone or that’s something a little bit more sensitive, it’s better in those cases to pick up the phone and call someone because it’s sensitive information. And receiving an email that potentially has constructive feedback could come off as very negative. And so being on a phone call with someone gives you that opportunity to manage those emotions.

And also being careful not to overcommunicate. There are two sides on this. On the one side, without your team around you and you might be wanting to keep them engaged and keep everyone on track. And so there might be a desire to check in all the time. But you want to again manage that micromanaging.

I think people can feel if they’re being policed and that definitely impacts people’s morale and their desire to want to work – it just erodes that trust.

But then on the other side of it, there’s also this idea of not over collaborating. So jumping on a Zoom call with the whole team every day could be quite exhausting and might not actually be the best way to discuss it.

In some cases you might be able to have a group chat over your Slack or your team’s chat function. So be sensitive to the medium and what’s the best way to have those conversations.

And then the last thing is, you know, make time for informal check-ins.

We do have to communicate about what work has to get done, but it’s also important to just communicate in general about how people are doing and how people are feeling. And so having those informal times with your team members one-on-one to check in on how they’re feeling is really important.

And that moves nicely into the fourth idea, which is around providing space for people to recharge. And this is really trying to watch out for and minimize the risk of burnout.

I do a lot of work on burnout and really trying to find ways to address burnout across organizations. And this one is a really important one in that sense. So really checking, making sure you’re checking the energy levels of your team.

Watch for signs of strain and burnout.

We know that there are certain things that happen when normal stress becomes strain, which becomes burnout. So people start to be more exhausted. You might see people sending emails late at night and then they’re online early in the morning.

There’s a level of apathy that tends to develop. So you might see people get more cynical, have lower patience with their team members, and then also lower self esteem or feelings that they’re not adding value. So these are signs of stress becoming strain. And I think that’s really important to watch out for.

It’s important to take screen breaks. Again, like detaching from work and having that time off screen is really important. I have some colleagues and clients who have been running lunch and learns at lunchtime and fun games in the afternoon to keep people engaged. But there’s a risk to that because all of a sudden every interaction at work is now over a screen.

Whereas before we’d work, but then we turn and we talk and then we’d go to a meeting and we talk. There have been a few articles about Zoom burnout. It is real. It’s not normal to be having a meeting with someone where you’re looking at yourself, and you’re looking at everyone else.

It’s a lot of things to process that ends up draining your energy in addition to all of the demands outside of work that are on your plate. Plus the fear and anxiety about what’s going on – it’s a lot.

So really giving people a break maybe not always opting for that fun game. Give people 15, 20 minutes just to just log off. And that might mean company-wide no slack, no MS Teams, no messages for 15 minutes and really make sure people have off screen time.

The other point here is around making sure team members are socializing with each other.

Obviously social support is one of the biggest buffers to managing burnout from high pressure work or high workload or anything like that. So making sure team members are not just talking about work but interacting in a way that they’re laughing. Those types of things really connect, re-energize you.

One of the things that I’ve heard more recently is around new team members who are starting.

New team members don’t have those connections already made and they’re more alone than the rest of the organization. So really making sure, whether it’s establishing a buddy system or something for people to check in on a daily basis, just to see how people are, how their work’s going – with new employees especially.

And then the last point is just encourage activities that can increase energy levels. I’ve heard some people running yoga classes in the afternoon for their organization to make sure people are getting energy and being physical.

Another important point is reconnecting people to their purpose.

Obviously what motivates us right now to work is a little bit different than it did before. We’re now worried about our health and our family’s health. And so our purpose at work might be a little bit reloaded. So making sure to remind people why we’re here and what we’re doing is a good distraction to all of the stress, but it also can help re-energize people.

For the last idea I went back and forth whether to make this last or first because this is really about taking care of yourself as a leader and a manager. It’s about you both taking care of yourself as well as serving as a role model for your team.

As leaders and managers, it’s not just what we say that our team listens to, it’s what we do and what they see. So being able to model some more healthy work behaviours is really important.

This session was really focused on team management, but there are a lot of articles posted on LinkedIn around best practices of how to manage your routine and make sure you’re setting up those boundaries, and things like this. So I think that that is really important to be able to have a routine for yourself, have clear boundaries, and maintain them.

I have some people who are working with me now who work on weekends – even though I tell them don’t work on the weekend or don’t work on Saturday, because I do not, I don’t work on Saturdays for sure. Sundays in the evening I might log in, but I’ll still get an email on Saturday and I have to remember, don’t respond even though you know he’s working.

Don’t respond because that’s your time and you want to make sure that you’re honouring your own boundaries, and that’s something that your team needs to do as well.

And lean on your support network. Sometimes being a manager and a leader is the loneliest job. You don’t have that comradery of the team around you. Connect with other managers and leaders every once in a while and find out what some of the challenges are they’re facing.

And then finally, be patient with yourself. This isn’t easy, it’s trial and error.

I’ve been working from home for probably the last eight months, more so than before. And only in the last three have I really figured out what the right routine is for me. And that’s by trial and error. Learning what works and what doesn’t. Stepping back, trying the next week something different.

And you know, you have to be open to learning in this sense. So be compassionate with yourself and be compassionate with your team.

And those are the five ideas. There’s a lot in there, and there’s a lot of other things that I didn’t touch on. But I wanted to touch on what I thought was, if you’re going to think of five things, what should they be?

I think the main point here is working remotely is not new, but working remotely during COVID-19 is, so we still have a lot to learn.

That being said, I just saw a news article from Dr Theresa Tam saying that there is desire to opening up some businesses. So we might not all be working as remotely for as long as we think, or maybe we will. But I think what we do know is that this situation will shift a lot of organizations to work remotely more than they were before. So it’s always good to brush up on what those kinds of best practices are and keep learning about what else you could do differently.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Christine Yip is the Founder & Managing Director of Organizations for Impact, a management consultancy that works with leaders across sectors to build more inclusive, psychologically safe, and empowering workplace cultures.


[Five Good Ideas: Home Office Series] Christine Yip shares her five good ideas about how you can maintain morale while managing a remote team.