The expert guide to remote leadership
Get management tips for working remotely and find out how to motivate a team so they can work better together from anywhere
Working from home has become the new normal for many businesses. The biggest barriers were initially technical - does everyone have a computer? What about the right software? Is their internet reliable? But long term managing people that don't share an office also creates new challenges for team leaders.
Neil Dennis is Managing Director of Thinking Juice, a creative agency that's split between London and Bournemouth. They make ads and promotional materials for brands like John Lewis, Dr. Martens and Barbour. Before the pandemic, an average day would see some of his 50 employees working closely to cook-up exciting campaign ideas in the office. While others shot photos and video on location or travelled to meet with clients face-to-face.
But then everything changed. With team members used to working on the go, all of the company's files were already stored in the cloud. But rolling out remote working across the whole business during the first national lockdown still meant doing things differently. This included Neil's management style. Here are his tips for running a business remotely and keeping your team feeling connected.
New normal, new opportunity
Before the pandemic, Neil had spent most of his time in the office in meetings, either with different team members or on the phone with the client. He'd fallen into the habit of doing work that required more concentration - such as reviewing budgets - from home in the evening anyway.
"When lockdown first started, I thought, 'I'm going to be able to get my head down, focus on the work, get stuff done,'" said Neil. But the opposite happened. "What we quickly found was how easy it was to spend most of a working day on video calls."
"So one of the first things we did was to set limits to the number of video calls. This was good because we put the onus on making fewer calls more productive."
Working together apart
But this doesn't mean Thinking Juice stopped talking to each other. They just communicated more effectively. Neil started every Monday with a morning video call with the whole team. This was an opportunity to make sure everyone was on the same page, so they knew work had to be completed that week and could celebrate winning new business together.
Then Neil would catch up one-on-one each week with different team leaders. "I had to be strict with myself and stick to those meetings," he said. "It was always tempting to move them or put them off when you've lots else to do." But he knew they were necessary.
These catch-ups were an opportunity to make sure projects were running smoothly, as well as check team members were coping with the isolation of working alone. Neil explains: "Where in the office I'd be able to pick up things like that through nonverbal communication, now people had to tell me outright if they - or someone in their team - was struggling."
And this approach paid off. "We quickly saw that having these regular check-ins paid dividends," says Neil. "We could see problems before they blew up or if anyone was struggling".
Keeping in touch with customers
Remote work isn't just about internal operations though. You also need to be able to reach customers. At Thinking Juice, Account Managers were used to emailing back and forth or hopping on a conference call with clients to discuss on-going projects.
But during the first lockdown, many of their clients were working from home too. They switched to using collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams. So, they expected Thinking Juice to use them as well.
"Communicating with clients is very important," says Neil. "I'd make sure all your people know how to use the different platforms, from how to log on to how to share their screen. It also never hurts to join a call a few minutes early in case there is a problem."
Hiring new people remotely
Remote working has its advantages when it comes to recruitment. It lets you cast a wider net to find top talent, rather than just looking on your doorstep. Interviewing candidates was also easier, as they didn't necessarily have to book time off work or travel to meet Neil.
However, onboarding new starters is a lot more challenging. In an office, you only have to set-up someone's desk before they arrive. Now, they need a laptop and mobile phone sent to them, plus access to the right software and log-in details already set-up. Otherwise, new employees aren't able to communicate with their colleagues or access any of the files they need.
But even once the IT is sorted, new employees can still feel disconnected from the rest of the team. So, Neil put a new onboarding process in place. This starts earlier to make sure devices can be dispatched without needing to pay extra for overnight delivery. But it also lasts much longer, so new hires get ongoing support until they settle in. This includes regular one-to-one meetings with managers. "It's easy to not realise when someone's struggling, so having regular check-ins with your new staff is really important," said Neil.
Security is more important than ever
"Compliance and security is a top priority for us. I wanted to make sure that we still have the same level of security even with people on different networks," said Neil.
This was partly about protecting customers' confidential information. But it also reflected how dependent on their devices the remote team had become. If even one team member's laptop was compromised, it could have a knock-on effect for the whole business.
Thinking Juice put a security checklist in place, which was emailed to every team member. This reminded them to change their passwords regularly, beware of email scams and to be careful about what information they share on social media. A team leader was also assigned to carry out a full software audit, to make sure everyone was running the most up-to-date programs with the latest security updates.
Staying one step ahead
The world of work has changed. Neil doesn't think Thinking Juice will ever be an analogue agency again. But he still thinks the office has a place, it'll just be used differently. "It's still easier to brainstorm ideas face-to-face," says Neil. "I think people will do most of their work from home, but they'll come into the office for team meetings."
With that in mind, Neil is planning for a more flexible future. His creative team needs powerful computers to run design and video-editing software. So before now, they've always used desktop iMacs. When lockdown happened, they just picked these up and took them home with them. But to make it easier for these designers to split their time between home and the office in the future, Neil's upgraded them all with cutting-edge laptops instead.
While this is a nice perk for them, it also opens up new opportunities. Creative teams will now be able to work on the fly wherever their clients need them to go. "It's an investment that we probably wouldn't have made otherwise," Neil admits.
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