We’re living in historical times. Who could have foreseen that 2020 would bring terms like ‘Self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’, into our generation’s vocabulary? That we were about to face the biggest recession since 2008? And that remote working would come to be so important to keeping the economy on its feet.

The term ‘remote working’ has also taken on new meaning; the need to be productive and focused while the world around you is uncertain and unyielding. Working from home is hard at the best of times; a January 2019 study by YouGov reveals only 27% of HR decision makers believe that employees who are at home produce a higher standard of work than in the office. So how, as team leaders, are we meant to navigate our teams successfully through this time of extreme social stress?

As we move out of the period of denial on our Coronavirus change curve, and onto the acceptance phase, companies are starting to embrace innovative ways of working to ensure teams feel cohesive and productive. Here are some practical ways you can improve your remote working team to ensure cohesion and maintain productivity:- 

  1. Always have your camera on

By now we have all worked out which video conferencing tool is our weapon of choice, but make sure the video is firmly turned ON. In a 2017 Forbes article, Srini Koushik describes how video conferencing changes the ‘feel and the etiquette’ of the meeting. People are more able to respond and engage with the physical reactions they see in person. Whether it be a client meeting or internal, there is a certain relaxation that comes with seeing people’s body language and hand gestures. This builds trust and naturally leads to a more open productive conversation.

  1. Maintain connection

A challenge often faced by remote team members is not fully understanding how their work fits into the bigger picture. This is because the office environment lends itself to being a shared space to connect the dots of a project together. One way to ensure teams are all still collaborating is to maintain connection by establishing a regular team meeting and sticking to it. Even if the group does not necessarily warrant full updates due to the nature of the work, having a team check in every week or even every day is a great way to ensure connection within the group.

The Ignite team, led by Simon Sinek spend a full 70 minutes in their team weekly catch up. They take the time to be present by turning off notifications, having team members discuss something they’ve learnt that week and celebrating even small team successes.

At this time when physical social contact is actively discouraged, a quick regular check in will serve as a great connector as well as a mental health check in.  Team members will know they will be included every week or every day in a session with their colleagues, as well as their contribution to a shared goal.

  1. Take time to do a wellbeing check

At this moment, everyone is feeling at risk and vulnerable. Difficult news is being delivered 24/7, whether that be through the news channels or indeed because of direct involvement through family members being unwell. Psychology today describes the effect that constant negative news has on people’s mental health. In a 2012 study they found that people who had watched the negative news bulletin spent more time thinking and talking about their worry and were more likely to catastrophize’.

To help alleviate this in your team, a good practise might be that at the start of any meeting to do a quick check on how everyone is coping. Indeed, share your own worries. By creating a safe space where people can share their anxieties, the group will be able to provide support to each other.

It’s common to feel alone with your worries at the best of times, but when we are physically isolated, all negative feelings are amplified. So ask ‘how are you?’ and take time to listen to the answer.

  1. Become Output orientated

Currently, the largest distraction for parents is the need to set full afternoons aside to entertain or educate their children, as kitchens were turned into classrooms overnight. For people without children, it is hard to stay concentrated on a specific task with general household chores looming as they spend more time at home than ever.  it’s important for leaders to stop watching the ‘online’ sign in the chat window which indicates your team members are at their desks working on your task.

Set SMART tasks (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-bound) which can be worked on at times where people can work when they are able to focus. Set a deadline, so planning and prioritising can be left up to your team, and encourage an open dialogue about whether this is achievable. Progress is easily tracked in either a daily one-to-one or indeed your weekly touchpoint!

  1. Online co-working space

Something being pioneered by WeCoffee, a London based co-working company which has spaces dotted around the city which have been forced to close down, is the concept of online Co-working. Founders Ben and Arnaud create a virtual Zoom meeting weekly from 10am to 4pm where attendees can dial in from home and share the space. The aim is to recreate that interaction that usually solo consultants, or entrepreneurs need to generate new ideas.

If your team is used to working collaboratively, this is easily replicated by having an all-day Zoom meeting where people can log in and log out as they please, or speak up in or not as they need to.

  1. Virtual coffee hang outs

Humans are social creatures. Encouraging virtual social gatherings can lighten up even the most difficult of weeks. Whether that be alleviating the stress of an upcoming deliverable to spend time with your co-workers at a virtual team hang out with drinks, or simply ensuring team members are getting together regularly, encourage your team to spend virtual time away from work together. It is at these times that bonds can be irrevocably formed.

  1. Understand the people in your team

The final point here is to take time to think about who is on your team and what they might need. If you are a team of mainly extroverts, the techniques described will be quite easy to implement. If it’s a team of introverts, they may just need a few friendly pings every now and then. The likelihood is that your team is a mix of people and personalities. While you can’t satisfy everyone, there is an undeniable reality that people work best together, so putting the effort into getting to know the individual personalities in a group and their needs will foster an empathetic co-operative environment.

The cornerstone of these elements is building a sense of togetherness and attempting to recreate some of the brain chemistry felt in physical human interaction. By seeing a face online, having specific check-ins on measurable tasks that demonstrates achievement and by opening yourself up to having online social interactions, you are not only integrating your team, you are also inadvertently stabilising their mental health. Humans need a sense of purpose, community and stability. When the world outside is on fire, and death tolls are rising daily, inside we can create a framework of cohesion, trust and progression. At a time where being alone is our only option, the best you can do is offer a to your group somewhere where being alone can also be achieved together. You’ll be surprised of what can happen as a result.