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Managing Remote Teams

While remote (also known as virtual teams) have long been a feature of many workplaces, there has been a significant increase in the adoption of such work practices within Australian workplaces post-COVID-19. In fact, for many businesses, the traditional “office-based” way of working is no longer sustainable and as such, the practice of managing remote teams is likely to become a permanent arrangement.

What are remote teams?

A remote team refers to a group of employees who work together despite not being physically together in one location. This method of working is facilitated through the use of a range of online and digital communication and collaboration systems and resources. This enables team members working remotely from different parts of the city, state or potentially even country.


How to manage remote teams?

Many managers mistakenly believe that they require a different set of skills in order to effectively manage employees who work remotely. However this is not the case. Rather for the most part, managing a remote team is similar to managing an office based teams. 

However we have detailed below some measures that should be taken by managers to ensure that their remote working arrangements for their team members remains effective:

Consider the needs of each team member

All individuals will have different needs and preferred working styles that exist irrespective of the location in which work is performed. When managing a remote team, it is essential that individual styles are taken into consideration when identifying how to support team members to perform at their best. 
Such considerations may include:
- What is it that the worker needs to support them in remaining focused? 
- How does the worker like to receive recognition or acknowledgement?
- What is their communication style? What is the best way for information to be shared? 

Meet regularly

Managers cannot afford to be too hands off when managing a remote team. 
In order to effectively help manage the workload and expectations of the team as a whole, it is important that steps are taken to actively check in with employees (both individually and as a team) on a regular and consistent basis, whether via telephone or via online systems. 
By prioritising one on one time with each team member, as well as meeting with the team together as a whole, strong working relationship and enhanced communication practices can be established and maintained. Such process will be further enhanced through having open and honest conversations with employees about both how they are feeling and how they are tracking with their goals and targets.

Establish, review and clarify work priorities and objectives

This process is particularly important in circumstances where the employee’s goals were developed at a time when their role was being performed onsite and were based on the specific operational requirements and resources at that time. If the decision is made, or there is a requirement, to commence working remotely occurred after employee’s KPIs and targets for the review period have been set, it is important that these be revisited. Each employee’s performance goals and targets should be reviewed regularly to ensure that they continue to remain current and to identify whether there are any restrictions impacting on their ability to be achieved. 
As with all teams, it is essential that performance goals for individual members be clear and specific, measurable, achievable and realistic. Goals must also have target dates by which the goal is to be achieved.  Doing so can help to ensure that employees are focused, clear on their objectives and have specific deliverables on which their performance will be measured. It is essential that remote team members are provided with clear expectations as to what is expected both individually, and for the team as a whole.

Investigate performance concerns promptly

Although managers are not able to directly observe the productivity of individual employees when they are working remotely, and it can be difficult to make a clear assessment of whether underperformance is occurring, it is important that prompt steps be taken to address concerns held with an employee. 
This process can be facilitated through the development and implementation of clear performance goals, maintaining regular communication and the provision of regular constructive feedback. Some factors to look out for include:
- Is the employee meeting their deadlines and/or targets on time? 
- Is their work being performed to the required standard? 
- Does their work meet both their individual goals as well as those of the team as a whole? 
Irrespective of whether a performance management process is being undertaken for a remote or onsite worker, it is important to ensure that the process undertaken is transparent, fair and consistently applied. However with remote employees, it is particularly important to ensure that an objective approach is taken when assessing their performance compared to that of someone who continues to be working onsite and can be directly observed.
When investigating potential underperformance, consideration should be given to whether:
- the performance concerns are attributable to any recent changes that have occurred in the workplace (such as during periods of COVID lockdown), or 
- the employee has access to sufficient resources, rather than immediately determining that the employee has insufficient skills or a lack of commitment.
- the underperformance has only recently been identified following the commencement of their remote work arrangement.
- the change in work environment has impacted on the employee’s performance
- there are any challenges with systems or technology that are impacting on the employee’s capacity to perform their role.
- the organisation’s operating procedures need to be reviewed to ensure that they align with and support the ability for employees to work remotely, and
- the employee requires any support with managing their time or tasks.
It is important to note that while there is not a requirement for the performance standards and expectations for employees to be reduced when an employee works remotely, there is a requirement to ensure that any potential work-related causes are taken into consideration and rectified so far as is reasonably practicable.
Managers should proactively work with each of your team members to help identify any potential issues and solutions. 

Informal performance management 

If it is identified that a remote employee is not performing to the required level, a process should be implemented to address the concerns, whether that be undertaken through informal conversations and coaching, implementation of a performance improvement plan or through initiating disciplinary procedures.
As an initial stage, an informal performance management approach may be adopted. This may include:
- The manager having an initial conversation with the employee, letting them know that they have noticed that they are not meeting their performance requirements and/or to discuss the concerns held.
- Resetting expectations by clarifying with the employee what it is that they need to do to rectify the problem, what action is to be taken and by when.
- Setting clear and realistic timelines and scheduling check-in meetings to consistently review the employee’s progress.
A performance improvement plan may also be implemented as a framework to support the employee in demonstrating improving and moving towards the achievement of their performance goals. 

Undertaking formal performance management 

Where it has been identified that a formal performance management meeting is required to take place, it is important to ensure that the employee is provided with:
- feedback about their performance, 
- clarification regarding how their performance is to be improved,  
- notification that the failure to meet the required expectations may result in further disciplinary action which may include the termination of their employment. 

Prior to commencing such a process, a manager will need to provide their employee with at least 24 hours’ notice of the requirement to attend a meeting via your designated video communication platform, to discuss their performance. At this time, the employee should be provided with the opportunity to bring a support person to the scheduled meeting. 

During the meeting:

- the performance concerns should be outlined with the employee and examples of the unsatisfactory performance and/or behaviours should be provided. 
- any steps that have already been taken to resolve the issue, as well as the support that has been provided should be confirmed with the employee.
- the employee should be asked for their feedback and their response to the evidence/issues raised.
- After taking into consideration any response provided by the employee, the manager should determine whether a warning will be issued. 
- Agreement should be made on what steps are to be taken to address the performance issues, and what the next steps will be i.e. establish performance targets, and when a follow up meeting will be held to review their performance.

It should further be clearly communicated to the employee that any continued underperformance may result in further disciplinary action, which could include termination of employment

Once this meeting has occurred, the employee should be provided with the written warning letter (if being issued) and their progress monitored.

As with any performance management process, it is important that notes be kept of all discussions held with the employee regarding their performance. 

If you require assistance with managing such matters, or if you require HR Advice, please contact the team at HR Advice Online on 1300 720 004.
Information in HR Advice Online guides and blog posts is meant purely for educational discussion of human resources issues. It contains only general information about human resources matters and due to factors such as government legislation changes, may not be up-to-date at the time of reading. It is not legal advice and should not be treated as such.

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