Self-isolating: How to manage a remote workforce successfully

Beautiful woman drinking coffee and relaxing at home at twilight.
Trusting workers is absolutely key in a good remote-working environment. (Getty Images)

Companies around the world are asking their staff to work from home as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.

Google (GOOG), Twitter (TWTR), Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN) and Spotify (SPOT) are just some of the firms that have rolled out mandatory remote working for employees.

More than 180,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported around the world so far and countries have introduced stringent measures to contain it.

In the UK, the Prime Minister has said people should avoid going to pubs, restaurants and seeing others - and work from home where possible.

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For some people, including self-employed people and freelancers, remote working is nothing new. But for others, the concept may seem difficult. With the right management, however, employees can still thrive at work in these challenging times.

Get to know your staff

Knowing your workers is essential for all managers, but it is particularly important for those overseeing a remote team.

Sometimes, those you think will enjoy working from home may find it more difficult than you realise - which can take a toll on their health, wellbeing and their work.

“You might assume that introverted people, who are more comfortable spending time alone and working under their own steam, are more accustomed to working flexibly than extroverts, who feel a much greater need for social interaction. The reality, however, is that extroverted people are much more likely to adapt well to agile working,” says Stuart Duff, Head of Development at workplace psychology consultancy, Pearn Kandola.

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“It’s vital that remote workers remain in touch with their wider team, and this is something at which extroverts excel. They are much more likely to proactively make contact, while introverts find it harder to initiate conversation and risk becoming even more detached,” he adds.

“If you know that you have an introverted person on your team, it’s likely that you will need to provide that extra bit of encouragement for them to communicate.”

Establish trust

Another important factor in managing a remote team successfully is making sure you establish trust. Not only is it crucial to trust people to get on with their work without being physically watched, employees need to feel they are trusted too.

“This hinges, in part, on understanding that there are two types of trust. The first is cognitive trust, which is trust in someone’s experience, knowledge and ability. This can be developed remotely, through means such as conference calls and emails,” Duff explains. “The second type is emotional trust, which determines how much one person likes and believes in another. “Emotional trust can only be grown through face-to-face interaction and is therefore much more difficult to establish in a remote workforce.”

Don’t rely on email

Keeping in touch with your employees is essential and there are many ways to do so when you aren’t physically in an office. Slack, Google chat and other apps are all designed to keep people in communication quickly and easily, as is good old email. However, it’s important not to just rely on email - sometimes a brief phone call is better.

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“It’s a great tool for communicating facts and figures but hearing someone say something is very different to reading it, and this has the potential to create all sorts of underlying tensions and confusion,” Duff says.

“It’s much more difficult to interpret how they might feel when you’re reading their reply in an email, and I would advise all managers of remote teams to pick up the phone as much as possible.”

Find time to socialise

The spread of Covid-19 has put pay to socialising in the traditional sense, such as after-work drinks or heading out for a morning coffee with colleagues. The workplace is a very social environment - and even something as simple as making a round of tea and having a chat is an important interaction that affects the way we feel.

“One way that leaders can encourage more interaction within their teams is by factoring social time into teleconference calls,” Duff says. “Try to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of the call for social exchanges, or if there is time, even invite colleagues to dial into the call early for a quick catch-up.

“Where possible, it’s even more beneficial to communicate with video-conferencing facilities such as Skype and Facetime. The ability to make eye contact, and to read facial cues and body language, adds an additional layer of connection which can’t be achieved over the phone.”