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How to Maintain the Morale of Remote Teams during COVID-19

By Dimitrios Kalantzis

Slack is the new office — and water cooler!

By the end of March 2020, an estimated 16 million U.S. workers had begun working remotely due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

These workers joined nearly 5 million people who were already working remotely — a figure that’s doubled in the last 10 years. 

In other words, the pandemic seems to have rushed forth what was already happening, a major change in the knowledge economy and how it actually gets things done.

According to Site Selectors Guild, industries are anticipating major changes post-COVID, particularly in the landscape of the biotech and life sciences sectors. A major factor? Remote working opportunities, particularly in attracting top talent.  

And remote work may create a new type of soft skill for job candidates of the future. Emsi, the labor market data analyst firm, sees a major growth opportunity for remote managers.

“Understanding how to capture the subtle nuances of human communication over such disembodied platforms as Slack and Zoom may be the next big hurdle in normalizing remote work—and an opportunity for a new and highly valuable set of managerial skills to emerge,” Emsi concluded in a recent report.

If you and your employer have already experimented with a distributed team, you know that many of the major concerns around remote work — compromised productivity, camaraderie and accountability — were grossly overstated and easily checked. But the question of how to maintain a happy remote team — that takes a lot of care and intentionality.

We studied remote workers in Kankakee County, Illinois, and beyond for a series we published last year. We took what we learned then and applied it to today’s rapid expansion of the distributed economy. 

Here are a few key takeaways for how to keep your remote teams happy, productive and engaged:   

Normalize children — for they are now part of the office

Remember that cute video of Prof. Robert Kelly, AKA “BBC Dad,” whose two young children made an unexpected appearance during his live on-air interview? Recall how embarrassed he and his wife seemed about it all? Cancel that emotion right now. 

No parent should have to apologize for a child’s whimsy and the best way to make everyone feel at ease is to set forth the expectation that kids will be making appearances during meetings. Normalizing this fact of remote worker life will put everyone at ease and will let staff concentrate less on covering up the occasional chatter and more on the work at hand. 

Consider creating a Slack channel for parents (and pet parents) to share their favorite photos, videos, stories of epic meltdowns, whatever!

Establish ground rules for replies

Two months ago, if you needed something from Dan in marketing, or Katherine in data analytics, would you stand over their desk, bark your request and wait for a response? Of course not. 

The same rules of office etiquette apply online. Except your newly-formed remote team needs to hear that explicitly. One way to do this is to establish a protocol for inquiries. When co-workers send over a request, ask that they include a timeline. For example, instead of saying, “Hi Stephanie. Can you proof  May’s social media analytics report?” The request should include a time frame: End of Week; End of Day; Immediate Attention Requested.

Remember, you do not want your employees stopping a task every time their computer pings. Adding clarity to requests helps prevent that. 

It’s OK to limit screen time.

There is nothing more disheartening for a new remote worker to see a missed message from a supervisor that reads, “Can you jump on a call right now?” Resist the urge to virtually tap your colleagues on the shoulder throughout the day. If you want to chat, use the time frame designations laid out earlier.

Of course, emergencies occur. So tell your staff how you plan to address those. Slack allows people to update their status, and one of those pre-set status updates is “Reach by cell if needed.” 

Establishing expectations is key here. “If it’s urgent, I will text or call” is a good way to make people know they won’t miss something important if they step away from their desk.

Goals have never been more important.

One of the predominant concerns managers have about remote teams is productivity and accountability. How will I know they’re actually working? Well, two ways. Make sure your team has clear goals and objectives. Their productivity will be inherently evident.

More importantly, you simply have to trust your colleagues. If you don’t, then you have a much bigger problem. And when the dust settles, you should probably reconsider your hiring practices.

Make sure people “clock out”

Remote workers tend to work more, not less. It’s really easy to get back to that report or research project when your commute amounts to walking down a hallway. As a supervisor you absolutely have to make sure your staff is not working 24/7. That means telling them explicitly to shut down and step away from their virtual workspaces at regular hours throughout the workweek. Failure to unplug will result in burnout, and a burned-out employee will inevitably become resentful, dissatisfied and toxic.

Hang out socially — but do it during “office hours”

Camaraderie is essential for a happy workplace. And people build this by sharing experiences. Allow your employees to build new Slack channels around shared interests: Cooking, Movies, Music. And let the conversations happen organically.

You should also consider hosting a Happy Hour at the end of the week. Make sure you schedule it for a time most of your staff would otherwise be at work, 3 p.m. on a Thursday, for example. And make sure that it’s not built around alcohol. Not everyone drinks! 

Zoom and other video-conferencing apps aren’t great for mingling, so you also want to make sure that you bring prompts to help keep the conversation moving. People might want to talk about the book they’re currently reading or show-and-tell something they brought back from a vacation. Keep it light, and make sure there is a clear end time.

Ultimately, disruption provides the business world an opportunity to take stock of what it’s doing well and where there might be room for improvement. By more intentionally weighing in the human factor, we may be surprised at the new levels of success that become available to our businesses, our teams and ourselves.

DIMITRIOS KALANTZIS is the founder of 5:15 media, a digital marketing company for nonprofits built on the belief that stories help turn vision into action.