7 Lessons for Leading Effective Remote Teams During a Pandemic

Retrospective insights from our project management team about successfully fostering collaboration and productivity while switching to a fully remote agency.

Remember when everyone expected the pandemic to only last 30-or-so days? Fast-forward several months and many businesses are still working from home, some perhaps indefinitely.

Work-from-home culture continues to put added strain on many businesses to manage productivity and employee satisfaction. This is perhaps even more true for advertising agencies – traditionally driven by interpersonal collaboration and culture.

With some form of remote work likely to continue for the foreseeable future, we shared a few of the observations and tips from our playbook on becoming a fully remote agency overnight.

7 tips for keeping your team’s eye on the prize while working remote.

  1. When in doubt, communicate it out. Communication barriers are ultimately the most significant challenge transitioning to remote work. The first thing we implemented after quarantine hit was to implement daily production check-ins with each team member. This was temporary, but significantly helped open the lines of communication, bring any issues to the forefront and help maintain accountability. When in doubt, air on the safe side and overcommunicate to ensure everyone’s on the same page.
  2. Listen to feedback and adapt. Listen to the challenges team members are facing and take action to help alleviate those pain points. Find ways to make iterative changes to processes that maintain consistency across the organization, while providing flexibility for individuals. For example, team members expressed challenges sifting through tasks and cross-departmental silos, a natural side-effect from lack of interpersonal (or in-office) conversations. We addressed this by accelerating the adoption of an agile team framework, leveraging sprints to coordinate team bandwidth and timelines. This created a more streamlined process and broke down the silos that naturally form in long-distance scenarios.
  3. Get more from meetings. The go-to saying at the start of the pandemic, “now we’ll really know how many meetings could have been handled over email.” While cutting back on arbitrary meetings is a good move, there are natural communication tradeoffs to balance. Make optimal use of the team’s time by replacing arbitrary meetings with more detailed status updates and setting clear role expectations beforehand. Predefine who’s owning the meeting, who’s on deck for commentary, and designate a note-taker. This helped us relieve bandwidth issues while a solid follow up communication plan helps keep the test of the team in the loop.
  4. Tailor technology to fit your needs.  A top concern of a ‘work from home’ system is always productivity and bandwidth issues. Research showed that 19% of companies started using project management software for the first time when the pandemic hit. Now more than ever, it’s important to look for opportunities to invest in technology/tools that meet the new needs of your team, and/or find ways to customize tools to fit your organization. For example – we saw value in consolidating software and connecting our core tools as much as possible. This involved connecting Asana (project/team management) with our communication tool (MS Teams), as well as optimizing how Teams integrates with our server system (SharePoint). The result: unrestricted access to whatever tool you need across each core application.
  5. Test and improve processes. Rolling out new tools and processes takes input from a lot of stakeholders with different styles. The shift to a more horizontal, agile agency didn’t come about overnight. We sandboxed the theory, tested it with a few stakeholders, and then rolled it out companywide. Don’t be afraid to take input, evaluate areas for improvement, and test new processes before rolling out to the larger team.
  6. Incentivize adoption and engagement. Our reliance on project management tools become critical overnight, as was the case with most companies. We also fully transitioned to a new workflow in Asana just weeks before the pandemic hit. Many team members were unfamiliar with how to get the most out of the tool. To familiarize our staff with new processes and technology, we ran a 4-week contest that measured engagement on our PM platform. If there’s anything to get people to engage with unfamiliar things, it’s a friendly competition. This proved effective and fostered company-wide adoption – which continues to this day. Moral of the story – find creative ways to keep employees engaged, especially if you’re asking them to do something new.
  7. Have fun. The greatest threat to any tight-knit team working remotely is losing interpersonal connection and hurting morale. Work with your team to create ongoing team building activities to maintain comradery. We do this by continuing to host virtual happy hours, lunch & learn meetings every week. More recently, we’re back to socially distanced group activities – a glimpse of pre-COVID agency life at last. As many companies are able to save on overhead costs – rent, utilities, office snacks, etc. – it’s a good option to reinvest what you can into maintaining team morale and employee satisfaction during these crazy times.

How do you continue to approach the abrupt shift to extended WFH life? What challenges or solutions have you adopted in response?

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