Most people who are reading this article might have worked from home at least a few times in their lives. However, managing a team of creatives that work from home a couple of times a week is radically different from leading a team of creatives working from home full-time. While such an arrangement was just a nice-to-have in the past, COVID-19 has made it a necessity.
Creative teams that are transitioning to a full-time remote working arrangement often find maintaining employee engagement a challenge, especially for those that are working in client sides. The teams that are most successful in navigating the new normal have accepted that what worked in a physical office setting won’t necessarily do the job in remote working environments.
You don’t want your team or business to get left behind when the crisis has blown over. You want to build a strong foundation that can endure anything that the coronavirus throws at you. This is why I’ve assembled a list of best practices for managing remote creative teams. These are not just industry benchmarks — they are guides to survival.
Create a cohesive communication, collaboration and monitoring plan
Unlike the remote working teams of old, which had to rely on proprietary chat software and email to communicate with each other, today’s remote teams have no shortage of software options.
Many teams still rely on the old, tried and tested methods — email, phone calls, SMS — but the majority of creative teams now use a variety of messaging and file-sharing apps such as Skype, Slack, DropBox, or WhatsApp. There even are specialized tools for proposal preparation and website monitoring that bundle many different functions that otherwise exist in separate software.
While it’s convenient to have so many software options at your disposal, this also means your team is at risk of getting overwhelmed as messages start arriving in their inboxes almost 24/7. You have to create a communication plan that ensures that important messages arrive and are read on time while maintaining your team’s sanity.
A typical software inventory
One important element of such a plan is creating an inventory of all the tools that your team uses, then determining their frequency of use and core functions. Once you have mapped out the different tools and the functions they serve, you can start removing the redundant ones and strictly enforce the use of the ones remaining.
For example, instead of using both Slack or Microsoft Teams for collaboration, you can use just Slack. Instead of using both Skype or Whatsapp for desktop, use Skype instead. Create a list of the remaining tools, then define what they will be used for. Even if Skype lets you send files, you can insist that all files be uploaded to DropBox and the links sent through email instead.
Be flexible with your workday policy
One advantage of working from home is that it reduces the need for employees to travel from their homes to the office. However, it leads to some confusion between team members and the clients they serve.
If the former working arrangement required team members to be available for calls and emails at a certain time, clients now might feel entitled to replies to their inquiries at odd hours. On the other hand, the remote working arrangement might be interpreted by employees as a sign that they could start their availability any time they choose, as long as they finish their deliverables. This is particularly true for designers that are paid per study.
Your job as a creative manager is to find a middle ground between these two extremes. You need to come up with a workday policy that assures clients of employee availability while maintaining team members’ work-life balance.
The latter is particularly important because your remote team isn’t just working while at home. When they’re not working, they’re either focusing on their family, household chores, or dealing with emotional and mental health issues brought about by enforced lockdowns. Sending an email during these hours will put undue pressure on them to reply right away.
If your team is still transitioning to a remote working arrangement, it would be useful to schedule a call with clients to set their expectations. At the same time, it is also important to set some ground rules for your team, such as setting a cut-off time for all emails or an expected time for online availability.
Make HR tools available to everyone who needs it
Many companies host their HR platforms in on-site servers, which means employees need to report to work to access these tools. However, this is no longer an option for people who work remotely. While you could give them credentials for a VPN that connects to your office network, these are often too slow and unreliable to be useful.
If you have a small organization (say less than 500 employees), you could instead use a cloud-based HR software for small business.
This software should offer what your old HR tools used to offer, such as employee records management, leave requests and approvals, recruitment tracking, timesheet submission, and company records storage.
On top of HR features, your online HR tool should also be able to integrate with other tools that HR uses, such as the payroll and rewards system, expense reimbursement, and employee engagement. You can even integrate it with procurement tools to allow your team to purchase supplies, like paper, printer toner, or even business cards.
Speed and scalability are the biggest advantages of a cloud-based HR software over on-site HR tools. Your team will spend less time trying to access your company’s HR portal and will instead be able to focus on things they actually need to get done, like work. It also contributes to employee satisfaction because they know management is willing to invest in improvements.
Be more open with staff performance evaluation
The biggest difference between working in an office and working from home is that you can no longer just drop by your team’s workstations to check up on them. The lack of spontaneous conversation could be a significant barrier to manager-team member relationships that are driven by on-the-spot observations, brainstorming sessions, and quick replies to process questions.
Staff performance evaluation also suffers as a result of these differences. As creatives, their productivity isn’t always measurable by the amount of output they churn out on any given day, especially if client requests are complex. However, it’s also tough to quantify project complexity as even the term “complex” is subjective depending on the team member’s strengths and weaknesses.
This means you will have to re-think the way you do employee assessment. Instead of counting how many hours or minutes it takes for a graphic designer to lay out a Facebook header cover, you could measure quality in terms of compliance to client branding and request specifications.
Shifting from a volume-based staff approach to staff evaluation to one that places more emphasis on quality is just the first step. Because you’ll also be doing a lot more quality assurance as part of your assessments, you will be able to spot mistakes sooner than you did before. To reduce these errors, you’ll have to adjust your feedback schedule.
For example, instead of getting evaluation samples on a monthly basis, you could try doing compliance checks more frequently, maybe twice a month. This will also mean giving feedback more often to help reduce the incidence of these errors.
Offer options for community-building
While you and your team are all working from home, you can still build and nurture good relationships among individual team members. You can collaborate with your team and hold regular team meetings through video conferencing tools to remind your team that there are faces to the people they email all the time. You can set aside some time in these meetings for non-work topics.
Aside from regular meetings, you can maintain a relaxed and spontaneous environment that fosters free thinking and collaboration through other means. Chat-based tools such as Slack allow you to create “off-topic” or “just for fun” channels where your team can post memes, (safe for work) jokes, graphic design disasters, or reviews of the latest shows they watched on Netflix.
You could also create a “sharing is caring” channel where your team can post work-related hacks, design inspirations, or an article headline that was particularly effective at drawing reader attention. The beauty of these tools is that channels can lead to full-fledged conversations that could result in new ideas or process improvements.
Source: The ADS Agency on YouTube
Finally, you can use collaboration and conferencing tools to mark important milestones. For example, if someone in your team is celebrating their birthday at work, you can organize a spontaneous Zoom meeting and have the team sing “Happy Birthday” to the celebrant. You can also give a shout out to team members who performed exceptionally well during the past week and read out commendations sent in by happy clients.
Managing a high-performing remote creative team
Adjusting your management style to lead a remote team, especially if it’s done with very little preparation, is very challenging. But the transition to remote working is also a rare opportunity to reassess long-held habits, take a second look at established processes, and to find new ways to engage your team.
As you adjust your way through remote management, you will soon find out that constant learning and application of the things you’ve learned will not just help you become a good remote manager, but also one who is able to lead creative teams regardless of the situation. You will continue to enjoy the benefits of the changes you implement long after the pandemic is over.
If you’re reading this sentence now, it means you’re ready to start adapting to the new normal. Best of luck!