SINGAPORE: The hashtag #WFH (“working from home”) has dominated social media posts, as Singapore’s “circuit breaker” measures kick in and non-essential workplaces shutter.

It is difficult enough to lead teams in the middle of market conditions worsening faster than the 2008 global financial crisis. Try doing that while figuring out split teams and physical isolation, not to mention fighting off panic at the growing contagion.

It is precisely in a time like this we need to stay united and learn from one another.

I have been privileged to speak with many business and HR leaders since the outbreak (over video calls no less) and have distilled five useful tips, cross-referenced with global studies, for managing remote teams.

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1. CREATE COMMON REFERENCE POINTS

First, don’t let your team have to second guess how their lives at work will look like. They are already surrounded by a swirling vortex of uncertainty. Work should not add to that.

A survey conducted by healthcare consultancy Business Group Health revealed 54 per cent of employees believe employers are responsible for protecting the public during health crises, and have high levels of trust in their organisations.

Leaders should create common reference points for their teams of information on company policies and internal communications – where they can find announcements related to work arrangements during this COVID-19 crisis.

Most importantly, organisations must outline the reasons behind these policies and articulate the leadership principles guiding decision-making through this crisis, whether this entails fixing a Zoom meeting at a certain time of the day or coordinating actions with other departments.

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Small toy figures are seen in front of diplayed Zoom logo in this illustration taken March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The good news is, the same study also indicated seven in 10 large employers have an established emergency preparedness plan to guide supportive measures for employees during the coronavirus outbreak.

But for teams working through these, creating these reference points can be as simple as having an internal document circulated to everyone and updated periodically, with links to authoritative sources of information to prevent the spread of disinformation.

2. ENCOURAGE AND COMMUNICATE ROUTINES

Second, accept that we all need some element of predictability in our lives. Having a daily working routine helps reduce stress from uncertainty and improves productivity. Communicate what this is to your team.

The top-performing companies we observed established working routines for their teams even while they were working from home.

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The basics include maintaining connectivity during stipulated office hours. In some cases, team members check in over chat with their managers when they start and end work for the day.

Using status icons helps to indicate availability where teams aren’t used to sharing calendars.

Counterintuitively, the importance of the routine is not the hours when people are at work. Respecting “out of office” hours allows for a psychological separation of work and personal lives.

Good managers focus on team productivity during working hours but they also do their best to protect downtime as far as possible because productivity is negatively impacted when team members are “always-on”.

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A study conducted by Airtasker, an online services marketplace, showed on average, remote employees worked 1.4 more days every month, or 16.8 more days every year, than those who worked in an office.

3. USE VIDEO CALLS, GIFS, EVEN EMOJIS, TO CONNECT

Third, embrace the fact that humans are social animals and thrive on non-verbal cues exchanged in face-to-face communication, which cannot be allowed to disappear with remote working. Ask how you can move beyond emails and instant messaging when communicating with the team.

Video calls are a great idea. They allow for some non-verbal communication, improve understanding and allow for constructive conversations when there is disagreement between two or more parties.

Research conducted by Gartner revealed 40 per cent of organisations have set up additional virtual check-ins for employees with managers and 32 per cent have introduced new tools for virtual meetings.

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Video calls also prompt individuals to find a dedicated workstation at home, a best practice that improves productivity while also encouraging some physical separation between work and personal life.

Over chat, using appropriate emojis, stickers and GIFs (video snippets) can convey tone more effectively and augment textual communication, avoiding miscommunication during stressful situations.

4. ENCOURAGE ‘SANITY CALLS’

Fourth, keep in mind that even for those familiar with remote work, one can easily feel out of sight and out of mind. Check in with your team regularly.

One of the most common complaints about remote work is loneliness. Separating employees from their teams and organisations affects talent functionally, socially and emotionally.

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During sensitive periods, organisations must fight isolation by strengthening relationships and diffusing a sense of resilience.

A study by remote company Buffer found that one in five remote workers identify loneliness as their biggest struggle, on par with difficulties in collaboration and communication.

Some organisations like Asia’s leading financial supermarket, GoBear, have shared they allocate time to do “sanity calls” – dedicated video calls to check in individuals or groups.

Having coffee, or a meal, together virtually can help break up periods of being alone, and help team members take time out from work. Ideally, all parties on the call would close windows on their desktops and focus on connecting with one another.

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Likewise, the leading superapp in Southeast Asia, Grab, launched a radio station that shares information and allows for song dedications between employees. They also have a chat board that pairs employees who do not know each other well for virtual coffee sessions. Employees get to know each other better, strengthening the social bonds across the company during these difficult times.

All these help tackle feelings of isolation. As an added bonus, they also allow bosses to demonstrate care and concern for their team through a very difficult and stressful period.

Combining these initiatives with regular organisational climate surveys to assess overall morale can nip remote work challenges in the bud.

5. ACCEPT A PRODUCTIVITY RAMP TIME

Fifth, understand that teams will need time to get used to working remotely; they must “build muscle” before they can become truly effective. Productivity may drop in the first few weeks as adjustments are made so ask how they are adjusting.

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Each team member will take time to get used to the new way of working and develop a natural rhythm. They may need to ensure their home Wi-Fi bandwidths are enough and set clear boundaries with other family members at home also working remotely.

The best leaders we spoke to planned for this, and in some cases, chose to bite the bullet earlier to get a head start before the circuit breakers were rolled out.

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OPPORTUNITY IN CALAMITY

The coronavirus story is one with an unclear ending.

But it is likely that the economy will take longer to recover and get COVID-19 under control. Even after the pandemic is over, businesses have a chance to reimagine and reinvent the way they work instead of reverting to old methods.

If leaders invest in these practices, they may be rewarded with more engaged, resilient and high-performing teams.

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and its developments

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Leong Chee Tung is the CEO and co-founder of EngageRocket.

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