Prior to COVID-19, my firm was already using Zoom as a communication tool for our phone system and for videoconference calls across our six locations. We had administrative staff in every location, so we were used to seeing each other on a screen when we came together as a large group for our monthly team meetings. As our firm’s administration team manager, I was flying to our various locations to meet with our administrative staff face-to-face when possible. However, managing a team during a pandemic, where everything changed for everyone, created new challenges. In an instant, I needed to change how I managed the team including how we communicated with each other, how we partnered together to best serve our firm, and how I needed to advocate for them in new ways.
It quickly became evident that our administration team was going to be at the core of how our firm quickly moved to a work-from-home model effectively and efficiently. Our leadership was meeting daily, and I was in those meetings to take minutes, so I had access to pieces of information that could be shared with our administration team. I started by sending daily emails to the team about “what’s new for the day” as leadership was trying to figure out all the nuances of working from home. I wanted to make sure our team had as much information as possible because I knew their offices and teams were going to go first to them looking for answers. To help lift morale through all the multiple changes, I made sure to thank them for their hard work and perseverance through it all, as well including a funny meme or video at the end of each email.
We also knew that because decisions were being made daily, and that there was a lot of information to take in, we needed a single place to put all of it and communicate about it in one place. We began using Microsoft Teams immediately, sharing posts to the whole group (eliminating back and forth emails), posting files for all to see and edit in one place, and developed a Wiki of resources, instructions, and information for quick reference. We continue to use our Teams site today, adding new content and sharing best practices with each other outside of our meetings.
Now that we were even more physically distanced from each other it became even more critical to meet more often. We went from meeting as a large group on a monthly basis to meeting weekly. During these meetings we focus on what we have going on that week, who needs assistance, news from leadership, changes in policy, and any new software tips. We also started meeting weekly as small groups by office location. Our small group meetings are more informal where we focus on getting to know each other better and learning how we can support each other not only with work tasks and responsibilities, but also through the emotions of working in a pandemic.
I have found that by meeting more often, our team feels more connected and stronger. The challenges have not gone away and are often the same challenges we would still face if we were back in our offices, but we have had an opportunity to connect on a more personal level which has helped increase the level of trust we share, and our collective positive spirit works to lift each other up even when things in our world appear so negative at times.
By connecting and meeting more, I have learned more about our individual team members – what they like, don’t like, what is hard for them, what they are great at, what do they value, where do they want to go in their career, and much more. While I knew some of these things prior to COVID-19, gathering this information has been more critical as we are working to move away from a location-based support model to a strengths-based model. I want to be able to assign our team members to tasks and projects based on their knowledge, skills and passions. While this isn’t always possible due to availability and workloads, this enables our team to be more flexible and offer the best service possible for the task or project at hand.
Working from home and knowing our team members abilities also opens doors for our team members to work with other staff in other locations, including other leaders that they don’t regularly support. It provides them with opportunities to develop new skills, work on different project types, and most importantly, shine bright.
We recently needed to update a spreadsheet that contained over 2,000 line items by reviewing the corresponding changes on several floor plans. Over the course of a week, we had about seven team members working on it to finish it up. Not only were we able to finish the task much faster than if one person had been assigned to complete it, but we were able to share our tips and even bond over the mutual frustration with a difficult task. It proved to us and other staff that we are a strong team that is willing to work hard together to get the job done well, all while doing it virtually from six different offices at the same time.
I have also noticed the increased need in my abilities to advocate for our team and individual team members. I am asking myself the following questions on a regular basis now:
- Are they being asked to do something they shouldn’t be doing?
- Are they burned out?
- Are they struggling with a task or assignment?
As their manager, I have needed to learn how to read the signs of an employee struggling or in distress, and then follow up with them to see how I can be a resource, advocate or sounding board to support them. Sometimes, employees are fearful to speak up about concerns and need someone to simply ask them how they are doing or express concern in a sincere way. Our teams are tired, stressed and overwhelmed more than ever now. While we cannot solve all problems, we can make sure our team members know we can be trusted to listen to them, care about them as a person, and if needed speak on their behalf and in their best interest to make it better wherever possible.
Managing a remote team is no easy task, but implementing some key practices for communication, partnering with other team members, and advocacy will enable your team to work well and positively even in a pandemic. What are some of the successful ways you are managing your remote team during this time? Share them in the comment box below.
Danika Larson, CDFA is the Administration Team Manager at Cuningham Architecture Group in Minneapolis, MN.
She currently serves as the National Education Services Committee Chair for the 2020-2021 term.