How to keep remote teams well and effective
By Karen Tay, who is a director in the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (Prime Minister’s Office) and Regional Vice President in the Singapore Global Network (Economic Development Board). She will be speaking exclusively at the HR Tech Fest Connect 2020, a two-day online conference which will be held on May 12-13.
In the past three years, I’ve largely been a remote worker.
I’m based in the San Francisco Bay Area, working for the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group as well as the Singapore Global Network. Both are part of the civil service, so their headquarters are naturally in Singapore.
I co-lead a global team spanning San Francisco, London, New York and Singapore. The four of us based in San Francisco have an office, but because our work usually takes us all over the country, we meet in person only once or twice a week.
Three weeks before Singapore’s circuit-breaker measures, the San Francisco Bay Area went into “shelter-in-place” mode. The conditions are relatively similar — all schools and childcare centers are closed, and we can step out of our homes only for essential services or exercise.
As a working mother of children aged four and two, whose husband also works, having children around 24/7 is an additional adjustment.
Since many Singaporeans are now working remotely, I would like to share some tips on how leaders and employees can keep themselves and their teams well and effective while working remotely.
Don’t take this as a prescriptive list — everyone has to make it work in their own way. I hope, however, that you find some of my experiences helpful.
Challenge of psychological safety
A few years ago, Google ran a study on what influences high performance in teams. One of the most important factors is psychological safety: A shared belief that team members can take risks, ask for help, and need not be afraid of looking stupid or bringing up difficult issues.
Achieving psychological safety is difficult as it is, much more so when working remotely. Without face-to-face interactions, bosses can be more worried if their staff are on top of things.
Employees may wonder if their boss acknowledges the work they are doing, or thinks they are slacking off. Depending on the original state of the relationship, the degree of stress varies.
What are some things that can help remote teams foster psychological safety?
First, it’s important to lean forward in gratitude and recognition. Bosses can send individual team members words of appreciation, and acknowledge the challenges they face.
This can be in the form of: “Thanks for the great presentation!” or “I know how hard you are working to manage this new project. It’s especially difficult when we’re all remote, since I know you rely on face-to-face interactions to build trust with the other team”.
Teammates can show more appreciation to each other, and to their bosses too.
When replying to emails, including a simple emoji can help better convey your actual tone.
If we are unhappy with someone, face-to-face interactions can smoothen some of these tensions easier.
In remote situations, I’ve found that clarifying quickly, setting expectations and avoiding accusations is especially important. A frame I use is “Situation, Behaviour, Impact, Expectation”.
For example: “We need this item for our management meeting on Friday. When you did not reply to my email for 24 hours, I felt nervous that there was no progress. In future, please drop me a quick update that you are working on it, and share your timelines.”
All these can enhance a climate of safety for your remote team.
The challenge of blurred work/life boundaries
When working from home, there are fewer boundaries between work and life. I used to find myself working all the time, never really disconnecting from my devices — especially since I cover four time zones.
Additionally, if someone is insecure about his position with his boss, he might feel the need to immediately reply all the time. This can be detrimental to mental and emotional health.
What are some things that can help your team draw clearer work-life boundaries so that they can stay mentally and emotionally healthy?
First, try to schedule meetings as consistently as possible to provide structure to your days and weeks. For example, my operations meetings with the US, United Kingdom and Singapore are on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.
Bi-weekly one-on-one meetings with team members are prescheduled for months. I still get asked to jump on last minute calls, but only those that are truly urgent.
Secondly, it is useful for bosses to be a role model in taking a break. For instance, message the team to say you are going for a run and will be online again in an hour or two. This simple act can make them feel freer to take their own breaks.
Thirdly, acknowledge that team members may have children at home, and find ways to accommodate one another. Since all schools and childcare centres are closed, my husband and I draw up a schedule to take turns with childcare.
I communicate my working blocks with my team, and encourage them to come up with their own. We then try to accommodate each other’s boundaries when scheduling meetings.
When someone’s child wanders onto the screen, we say hello and show warmth — recognising each other as humans, not just workers.
Part 2 of the article will continue with how to overcome two other challenges of remote working: the challenge of collaboration and the challenge of social life.