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Managing remote teams during COVID-19

Jane van Zyl, CEO of Working Families, shares what she has learnt from managing a remote team.

Book now for the webinar: Managing a Successful Remote Working Team on 19 June, led by Kirstie Axtens, head of employer services at Working Families.

As CEO of the UK’s work-life balance charity, I’ve grown very comfortable managing a flexible team. About a quarter of our staff team is home-based, and we’ve literally written the rulebook on managing remote workers.  But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team—like many organisations around the world—has been thrust into a strange new world of work. Here are some lessons I’ve learned in the last few weeks:

Be flexible

Many people are facing new responsibilities and pressures as a result of the pandemic, whether it’s homeschooling children, sharing a workspace with a partner, or coping with increased stress and anxiety.  Because of this, flexible working is more important than ever before. Managers need to have open conversations with their teams about what can realistically be achieved in this ‘new normal’. It is important that staff members are given leeway to fit work in around all of their other activities rather than being expected to adhere to ‘normal’ hours of work.

Elephant in the room: None of us (including me) are at our productive best. We’re focusing on a few priorities.

Watch out for overwork

Our research on parents shows that remote working can often blur boundaries and lead to working extra hours. This is especially true in our case, as we are on the front lines of advising parents and carers of their rights during COVID-19. Sometimes it feels very difficult to ‘switch off’. The key message I continue to communicate to my staff team is that their wellbeing is the most important thing. I’ve asked the senior management to be mindful that their teams are not working extra hours, and that staff members are taking leave—even just a day—to decompress. And I’ve made sure to build in some time to socialise in the form of twice-weekly virtual ‘hangouts’, to break up the day and give the team a chance to step away from their work and catch up with one another.

Elephant in the room: Some of the team has been furloughed – as with everyone I’ve met who works for charities, the commitment to colleagues and service users means people are doing more hours than they should.

Lead by example

Following on from my last point, it’s important that CEOs ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to work-life balance. I know we’re all putting a huge amount of effort toward securing the future of our charities in an unprecedented situation. But we must remember that we need to keep up our own reserves of energy to do this effectively, and we need to set a positive example for our teams, who may feel pressured to work around the clock if we do. CEOs can lead the way by setting boundaries, taking breaks, being vocal about their own hobbies or childcare responsibilities, and limiting communications to staff during unsociable hours.

Elephant in the room: As the CEO, communicating with my Board does tend to happen after hours and over a weekend – I’m human, too, and sometimes my job isn’t human-sized.

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