By Bill Clifford
The COVID-19 virus has caused offices around the nation to shut down all but essential businesses, forcing startups and early stage CEOs/entrepreneurs to face the daunting task of managing a workforce that they have hardly had the chance to know — much less grow into a cohesive, well-oiled group of tightly knit workers. In many cases these new CEO/entrepreneurs are new to the task of executive management.
Many of the office closures we are seeing across the nation at the moment are mandated by the need to protect workers from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, the technology to manage a workforce remotely, hold virtual meetings, share content in real time, etc. has existed for quite a while.
What tools and management techniques can these new CEOs/entrepreneurs quickly utilize in this crisis period to save their companies and maintain high levels of productivity?
I remember inviting Lou Dobbs of the Fox News Network to participate with me and a group of other technology executives at a Gartner Symposium in a panel discussion of the challenges in managing a large group of highly educated employees (at the time I managed a group of about 700 Gartner analysts with advanced degrees, many of whom worked from home offices). My response was, “remote management!” — that is, managing a remote workforce. At the time, that was during the period of 1995–1997, software tools for monitoring productivity of remote employees was in their infancy, so we ended up building some of our own tools internally. Today, many software tools exist to assist the manager in measuring and monitoring nearly every aspect of a remote employee’s activity and productivity from keystroke to keystroke — from sign-on to sign-off, from database accessed to database updated. Tools such as Teramind, Veriato, ActivTrak, Spyrix and many, many more are available to track and monitor every aspect of an employee’s activity and provide detailed reporting to management so that management can see what each employee is doing regularly.
The bigger issue for management is the SECURITY of the company’s data, as these employees are continuously modifying and updating it throughout the day. This is an area where the company’s security team must act immediately to ensure that each and every employee has installed the latest version of company approved security software and has it operational on their equipment before accessing any of the company data. They must also enforce all of the company policies regarding the use of NON-APPROVED DEVICES such as cell phones, other PDAs, other home computers/PC’s, unsecured networks, etc. These are the weak links in a company’s security protocol and these policies must be stringently enforced.
From the general management perspective, no matter the size of the company, there are many Best Practices that have been learned over the years of managing remote employees that need to be put into place immediately that can save many companies from drastic drop offs in productivity while we are in this national crisis. We learned from our collective experiences in remote management; now management’s challenge is to keep the company together while staying apart!
The following may serve as a guide for Best Practices related to managing a remote team.
Now that we are working remotely:
– We must communicate frequently. There are tools that exist to do just this, and they are available at little or no cost. We can use our cell phones for quick casual updates. For group chats or more formal team updates, programs such as Skype or Zoom are commonly used tools that can bring our smiling faces together and reinforce familiarity amongst what was formerly a happy, cheerful workforce. For those of you who are worried about your stay-at-home appearance, some of these tools actually have a ‘freshen my appearance’ feature which applies a light coat of makeup around those dark, sleepy eye circles!
– Trust is critical. Scheduling a Skype or Zoom meeting at 9AM daily just to make sure everybody is up and working is a terrible, morale killing idea. Every employee has his or her own productivity cycle when they are most productive (whether they are in the office or not!) — it may revolve around their own bodily cycle or their kids schedule or whatever, but scheduling a company meeting at an early time is a transparent signal that you don’t trust the employees to get their work done on their own schedule. There are many other techniques to measure their productivity without becoming the management AH! (See below.)
– Use these tools to go 1:1. This is a good time to reach out and take the temperature of each employee and see how they are doing, adapting to their work-at-home circumstances. Everyone’s circumstances are unique, and you may have to be flexible in how you adjust your response to each employee. If you have an HR department (although I doubt many startups would, so you may want to consult your outside counsel — you don’t want to come out of this with an HR lawsuit!) you may want to consider offering to offset some hardship expenses such as childcare, subscriptions to social media sites, etc. if it is necessary to maintain the employee’s productivity and overall morale.
– Consider Short Interval Scheduling (SIS). While we are in these times of crisis, a big risk to both our companies and to the US economy as a whole is a drastic fall off in productivity. It is a technique by which you break down your most important projects into very small, individual tasks that can be measured as complete or not complete — done or not done — in very short intervals of time — say a few days or a week — versus a few weeks or a month, as might have been the interval in the past. SIS relies on the concept of done or not done versus progress reporting, which relies on the concept of estimates of 20% complete or 40% complete, which is fraught with estimated completion errors and overruns. Since SIS is binary, you will know when your most critical projects, the ones that can make or break your company’s future, are on track for timely completion and you can divert resources to that project if needed. This will facilitate management’s ability to perform one of its most important tasks in ensuring that assigned tasks are accepted by individuals on the team, that they are executed upon with urgency, and that they are completed in a timely fashion — and that is to INSPECT WHAT YOU EXPECT. Examine the deliverable resulting from the SIS technique. Not only does this allow management to understand the status of the project’s progress but it also gives management insight into the quality of the employee’s deliverables — something not quite so easily done under prior project management techniques. In the end, SIS will help ensure that your company is doing its best to maintain high productivity levels.
– Make it personal (but appropriate). Another technique to keep morale high during this period is to maintain the personal connection you usually have in your shared workspace by sharing photos and stories of the kids, pets, etc.; for example, having coffee with a colleague over Skype to start the day, or simply connecting visually versus by phone to work on a project. I know it sounds corny in a way, but these are the kinds of things that substitute for the conversations over the water cooler. They provide a few laughs but they also humanize all of us and the more that senior management (Founders and CEOs) partakes in all of us, the more of an impact it has on the rest of the team! Take a break from the serious and tragic news that is broadcast 24/7 on every channel, and help your employees and peers find some levity. Consider injecting some humor into your virtual meetings and broadcasts, or email light videos or emails that are either relevant to your business or industry, or funny cartoons/jokes or videos (in good taste). Again, these are small things but staying at home can present a mental burden on some employees and, as they say, laughter is the greatest medicine!
– Celebrate Victories and Successes! This has always been a Hallmark for morale and keeping teams together and united — never more so than now. Find the smallest reason to celebrate: Steve found a way to create the new website without having to pay the current owner of the URL! Kerry wrote a Press Release and it was picked up by the Wall Street Journal and is going to be featured on page 1! These little victories can be celebrated by everyone in the company and the feel-good vibe will resonate for days with absolutely no cost to the company. You can just see the smiles on everyone’s faces.
– Create incentives. Incentives should be achievable and have an award tied to them. Cash is king, if you have it, or consider equity. No matter what, as a leader, you must follow through. One of the easiest and most motivational things that management can do in this crisis time is to establish some financial incentives for exceptional employee achievements. As an early stage company, there are always hurdles to overcome. Create milestones out of those hurdles that are consistent with the company’s goals and objectives AND that are achievable. It’s a win-win. The company advances toward its goal and the team member is rewarded. Then, use this as a reason to gather as a virtual team and acknowledge and celebrate that achievement.
– RESPECT THE INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEE AS NEVER BEFORE. Now that they are working from home and you don’t get the chance to connect with them in person, they are one step removed from your daily influence. This is a HIGH TOUCH PERIOD. Send them something through the mail or by courier. If the group is small enough, it could be a basket of goodies, chocolate, a book on a relevant topic, lottery tickets, an Amazon gift card, and the list goes on. It’s not about the “what” you send, it’s about the “why.” Each touch point says, “I’m here and I know you’re there.” If you didn’t have them hooked as a good and loyal employee before, when this is all over — days, weeks or even months from now — every one of those employees will have a decision to make — do I go back to that office where I once worked that I hardly remember, to work with those people who are now just a bunch of Zoom Info faces on my PC and voices over my tinny PC speakers, or do I spread my now liberated wings, having adjusted my life to coping with living with the kids being home and getting up at 10AM and going to sleep at 1AM. I now have a nice home setup with a fancy printer/scanner, security software, high speed internet, two monitors, etc. I could survive the Apocalypse with all the gear I have — so why not shop around and find new job?
Management’s challenge is to throw a warm blanket over their most valuable employees now and make sure they know that they are valued and missed and will be welcomed back with open arms when this crisis has passed. The many lessons that we all have learned can be put to use in the future should the company and the employees decide that the company should adopt certain flextime or work-at-home protocols. At some point it may be necessary to accommodate individual employee’s circumstances and a manager’s experience with this current situation will surely drive that decision-making. It may also feed a new set of Best Practices for remote work and help to cement a corporate culture that will further motivate the team to support the ultimate mission of the company.
We are in a period when founders, CEOs, or managers have little choice about working remotely. This will be one of the greatest tests of your ability to not only manage, but to lead.
For more tips and advice, follow our Spencer Trask Perspectives series on Medium, or follow us on LinkedIn. You can learn more about Spencer Trask by visiting spencertraskco.com.
About Bill Clifford
Bill Clifford is Chief Executive Officer of Spencer Trask & Co., a privately owned advanced technology incubation firm. Prior to joining Spencer Trask & Co., Mr. Clifford served as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer at Aperture Technologies Inc., General Partner of The Fields Group, and General Partner of New Vista Capital. He is also the former President and Chief Executive Officer of Gartner Group, the world’s leading authority on the information technology industry, user and vendor technology strategies and market research. During his tenure at Gartner, annual revenues increased from $175 million in fiscal 1993 to $780 million in fiscal 1999.
Mr. Clifford currently serves on the board of directors of Cybersettle Inc. and SWK Holdings (SWKH.OB). He has been featured in CEO Magazine, Leaders Magazine and Forbes, and is a keynote speaker and panelist at numerous Technology Industry conferences.