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Managing a Team Remotely at Earth Class Mail

Gwen Murray

October 21, 2020

It’s been going on eight months now since the team at Earth Class Mail has been working from home. With a team of five, spanning multiple time zones and locations, even before workplaces established COVID work from home policies, keeping everyone on the same page wasn’t always easy. But now, with an almost fully-remote workforce across the organization, the need for transparency, clarity, and consistency is even greater. 

To say that my team has relied on technology to get us through this experience would be putting it lightly… Without video conferencing, instant messaging, and good old-fashioned email, I can’t imagine how we would function. Traditional water cooler talk is out, but collaboration can still take place, in spite of the obstacles working remotely can create.

As most of us settle into working remotely for the long term, at least longer than we had initially thought, we can’t afford a band-aid approach. It takes sustainable methods and consistent practices to keep our teams engaged and productive. 

Tools and Check-ins 

I’ve managed remote employees in the past, but to have the entire company working away from the office has forced a shift in how I operate, how we communicate as colleagues, and how we stay on-track without the benefit of face-to-face interactions. New tools and routine check-ins have taken the place of more casual encounters.

As part of my research on different mechanisms and techniques to keep employees engaged, I’ve been talking to colleagues in my network at the Revenue Collective to hear what they have to say about this new style of work.

Heather Teicher, VP of Marketing at Loqate (a GBG solution) shared her experience in managing her remote team. "It's been very important to maintain personal connections with members of my team. We've been "at home" in the NYC/NJ area since the end of February and had to get creative in how we keep things fun, while working really hard. We chat about what's really going on in our lives on weekly 1:1 calls (non-video) and share random things that make us happy over text, like freshly baked cookies. We've sent each other flowers for each other's birthdays and random surprises for jobs well done. Anything to keep each other smiling and sane." These seemingly small gestures can go a long way in maintaining team unity and connectivity.

Intentionally setting aside time to check-in with my team on non-work related matters has been important for my team as well. Virtual Happy Hours with “get to know you” games have been a great way to maintain social connection. It’s also been important to check-in and see how the team is feeling, just how they are doing. Happiness scores in our new HR platform Lattice have helped drive some of those conversations.

Watching for signs of employee burnout are also important. At Earth Class Mail, we have an unlimited PTO policy, and I encourage my team to take time away from work to recharge and unplug. Lattice also provides the opportunity to ask deeper questions and monitor happiness scores over time. This helps shine light on employees who might benefit from some time away from their desk, screens, and home office.

Tate Gibson, Head of Marketing at AccessPay identified that “video call fatigue is real. I think our brains are working harder to read emotion and understand each other through pixels and headphones.” To combat that, her team has camera-optional daily stand-up in the mornings to check in on everyone's mood and priorities for the day. These meetings help remind her group that they are “on a team, not on an island” and allows her to follow-up with team members directly if she senses that anyone is feeling overwhelmed or “off.”

Management Tips

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted some best practices in an article called Battling Pandemic Blues: How Managers Can Rally the Troops. The article does a fantastic job of offering insights into managing teams from a distance. It features tips and tricks that I’ve began implementing with my own team such as:

  1. Rethink meetings: Make sure every Zoom call has a purpose. If a meeting isn’t working, adjust the content, cut the time in half, or scrap it altogether.

  2. Analyze what happened: Conduct after-event reviews of your team’s successes and failures, Prof. Hinds says, so no one’s in the dark about what happened, and employees can apply lessons learned to the next project.

  3. Give people a challenge: Form a special team to examine new opportunities or give workers time to tackle a tough problem. Learning helps people grow, feel engaged and be productive, Ms. Bates says.

  4. Keep tabs on your employees: Set reminders on your calendar to check in with folks. Standing meetings can further clutter your team’s calendar, so adjust your outreach as you go based on who needs what. And really listen to what they share.

  5. Offer perspective: Remind your team that this is just a moment in time. Things might be hard, but this stretch won’t last forever.

Summary

While working remotely has proved challenging, it has also been rewarding in many ways. My team members who were already remote get an equal amount of face-time among the checkerboard during our video calls. The situation has pushed me as a leader to be open to new approaches, new technology, and new ways of connecting. Celebrating our achievements has taken on new importance, and making sure everyone feels connected is a top priority. The team at Earth Class Mail continues to be collaborative, open, and hard-working - all reasons that motivated me to join the company in the first place.

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