They’re the unsung, albeit occasionally unpopular, heroes of most organizations: The layer of middle management that rallies their teams around a task, executes on time and at a reasonable standard of quality, and does it all with minimal intervention from leadership. Perhaps you’re a card-carrying member of the middle management class, and for years have honed your ability to manage your team through deft skill that those you manage might rather crassly refer to as “micromanagement.”
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Whether others call it shoulder surfing, walking the halls, or status meetings, these techniques keep team members informed and productive, and get the work done. However, these finely honed tools are challenging in a remote work environment. It’s no longer possible to walk a few steps down the hall and check in with a team member, creating a lingering uncertainty that often results in frequent “check in” meetings that quickly overwhelm your calendar and create a feeling of mistrust and overbearing oversight on the part of your team. While there are glimmers of a nearing “return to normalcy,” remote work will likely become a common theme in the future. Here are some tips on how to apply your management techniques for good, rather than evil.
Win the morning
Morning status meetings aren’t a new idea, but in a remote environment they require a bit more care and forethought. If your remote status meetings have descended into 30 minutes of you talking to a blank screen, with an occasional grunt from your team, you’re doing it wrong. Schedule the morning meeting for 30 minutes, but strive to complete it in 15. Use a tool to track discrete tasks assigned to each team member (I like a Kanban board that’s easily created in Microsoft Teams or Trello, but a simple spreadsheet will suffice), and have each team member update the tasks they’ve completed, what they’re working on for the day, and where they’ve encountered any blockers.
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Avoid long discussions or soliloquies; the purpose of this meeting is to talk through what’s been completed in the last 24 hours and the focus for the day; table the blockers or translate them into a task that’s likely assigned to you for resolution. Asking your team to enable video keeps things engaging and sets the tone that you can come dressed casually as this meeting is all about winning the day, not the trappings of formality. If it works with your personality, add an “Easter egg” to the end of each meeting. My personal favorite is a “dad joke of the day,” but random facts of the day or similar are fun little tricks to keep the team listening.
Have office hours in the afternoon
A challenge to remote working is collaboration among team members, and with you as the manager. The best tool I’ve found to replicate the ability to collaborate in an ad hoc manner is to have a 90-minute office hours session in the afternoon. This session provides time to review outputs as a team, spend time working through blockers identified in the morning, and gives you some insight into what progress was made during the day. On some days, the whole team may need more than the 90 minutes to review a complex document, while on other days the team might need “heads down” time, and having the 90 minutes blocked on their calendar provides some uninterrupted work time where your team knows you’re also available should they have a question or need a quick review.
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Use collaboration tools
Remote working has certainly sped adoption of collaboration tools, from Teams to Slack and Zoom. However, many managers and leaders have only scratched the surface of what these tools can do. When used well, these tools allow for a powerful ability to review your team’s work in real time, easily identifying what’s been updated since you last opened the document, and highlighting what needs reviewing. While it’s certainly a hassle to learn to use these tools when your team will comply with your request to email the latest version of a document and set up a call to review their updates, the hassles of finding the email, seeing you have an old version, and wasting the time of you and your team walking through a document can be replaced with a quick message and 15 minutes of eye time.
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Not only is this practice more efficient, but it should delight your inner micromanager as you can readily identify what progress has been made by whom and know when to applaud or admonish individual team members.
While middle manager sometimes gets a bad rap, it’s key to getting things done at most organizations. If you find yourself fretting that you don’t know what your team is doing, and you have visions of team members eating bonbons and watching Netflix, try the simple techniques above to not only keep your team performing, but to allow them the space to be successful in a remote environment.