Although remote workers offer definite benefits to PR agencies and corporate PR departments, managing off-site freelancers, contractors or employees can be challenging at times. Now, of course, almost everyone is working remotely from home in order to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
You’re almost definitely reading this at home. While your children or spouse may occasionally interrupt your work, you haven’t seen any team members in person for days, possibly weeks.
Here’s advice from experts on how executives can overcome the challenges of managing their remote PR and marketing teams.
Lead from the top. Proper management of remote teams calls for leadership from the top. The ideal remote leaders are approachable, personable, and show their personal side as well as professional side. They encourage and praise employees and listen more than pontificate. “The CEO must be present in online tools and channels, communicating proactively and engaging in timely conversations where they are happening and knowing when to bring things to video chats,” recommends Marten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne, in Fast Company.
Create a virtual water cooler. Some managers disparage the gossip and jokes that circulate around the company water cooler or break room, but such spontaneous, personal conversations improve relationships, enhance teamwork and promote the company’s culture. Build a virtual water cooler where employees can show their personal sides, Mickos urges. That can be accomplished by creating different channels in Slack or similar tool where employees can celebrate business successes, mark personal milestones or express other emotions.
Embrace online tools – selectively. Many PR and marketing teams adopt a range of tech tools, such text messaging, Slack, email, wikis, hangouts and video conferences. The more tech tools, the better, they presume. Yet many successful virtual teams use only a small number of online tools and only for certain purposes. Flexibility when considering tools is the best guideline.
Stay in contact. Don’t let employees go half a day without checking in, recommends Timothy R. Clark, founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, in Harvard Business Review. Consider daily meetings, ideally by video, and instant messaging to maintain regular contact. Research proves that shorter communication cycle times are more effective in building and sustaining morale and engagement.
Update if there’s nothing to update. Communicate regularly even if you don’t have new information to share, Clark says. Lack of communication fuels isolation and uncertainty. The more you communicate and share, the less chance that an information vacuum will develop within your team.
Put on a happy face. Managers can promote optimism and confidence by showing optimism themselves. Optimism is contagious and provides the antidote to isolation and anxiety. Humor can also improve moral. “Remember that fear freezes initiative, ties up creativity, and yields compliance instead of commitment,” Clark says.
Devise communication guidelines. Create guidelines on what kind of messaging system is best for particular messages. Email may be better for longer queries, and in-app comments for quick updates. “Make sure your remote marketing team doesn’t feel like they are running in circles or repeating themselves ad nauseam when trying to post a project status, update, or question,” says Ben Aston, founder of The Digital Project Manager. Also create a protocol for off-hour crisis communications and a substitution plan in the event key team members become unavailable.
Provide direction. Guide employees with clear instructions and achievable goals. “This is perhaps the most important step for you, as it’s where you’ll be demonstrating your leadership by giving concise, yet clear, instructions which can be carried out even if you’re not present to immediately answer questions,” advises Jessica Stevens at Glassdoor..
Keep staff accountable. Avoid micromanaging, but ask employees to keep managers informed with periodic updates on their activities. Some managers recommend that off-site employees keep records of their activities. “It’s no different than a regular office – you need to make staff accountable for their work by giving them deadlines and holding them to it,” says Cathy Cowan, founder and president of Cowan & Company Communications, a virtual PR firm.
Know when to go offline. While some employers ask off-site employees to keep regular hours, it’s important to tell them to log-off at some point to maintain a work-life balance. If they keep working into the night, burn out becomes more likely. Just as good managers lead by example during work hours, they lead by example by going offline when daily work is complete.
“Sure, every business is going to have its share of late nights, but they should be the exception and not the rule,” Cowan says.
Bottom Line: Communications agencies and corporate PR and marketing departments across the country are working remotely, many for the first time. Executives face new challenges of managing virtual teams.
Michael Kling is manager of public relations, marketing and social media at Glean.info, a media monitoring and measurement service that provides customized media monitoring and PR analytics solutions.