COVID-19 has forced several companies over the world to adopt a remote work structure. According to Hiver’s Customer Service Benchmark Report, 60% of customer service teams have some form of remote work arrangement, while 34% have a completely remote work model.
But managing a remote team is a challenge like no other. When your team isn’t working out of the same office, things can get tricky.
Miscommunication becomes a common sight. For instance, you might have sent a Slack message that came across a little offensive – although you didn’t mean any harm.
Collaborating on projects and keeping your team on the same page can get overwhelming. You might have to do more follow-ups and take part in more frequent back and forth conversations (with multiple people) just to figure out the status of a project.
Now, if your team is responsible for interacting with and supporting customers on a daily basis, not navigating these challenges associated with remote work can impede them from delivering world-class support.
In fact, a lack of effective collaboration within your support team can lead to poor customer service. If, for example, your team members are not aligned on who has to work on what incoming email, it could happen that more than one support staff responds to the same customer query. Something that confuses customers and makes them feel ‘not cared for’.
Moreover, when no one knows what they are supposed to own, important queries can go unattended. And let’s not forget that remote work can mean loneliness for some. In case your remote staff are demotivated and disengaged, it could easily rub off on customers – leading to subpar service experiences.
So, how do you ensure your team communicates and collaborates smoothly while working remotely? How do you foster ownership across the team and ensure everyone stays productive?
We’ve put together a comprehensive list of things that support team managers need to do if they’re running a remote team. Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
- 1. Communicate in “excess”
- 2. Find ways to keep team members aligned
- 3. Avoid the ‘micromanagement’ pit
- 4. Automate for higher efficiency
- 5. Make them feel like heroes (with super easy access to resources)
- 6. Be a pillar of support
- 7. Take away the stress from remote work
- 8. Help your team amidst distractions
- 9. Recruit smartly for remote
- 10. Setting new joinees up for success
- 11. Give pleasant surprises to your team
1. Communicate in “excess”
Remote work can easily pave the way to miscommunication and here’s why: unlike face-to-face interactions, we tend to keep our messages short while communicating virtually. We hope our colleagues somehow ‘get’ the message or are able to read between the lines.
Imagine this happens while handling a customer query. When agents are made to second guess or follow up multiple times with colleagues for clarity/context, they not only end up wasting time but provide slower and subpar customer service.
How do you fix this?
- Encourage your team to be as clear and detailed as possible in communications.
Good: Hey Cindy, I’m sharing a document with you that has all the info on how to reset the system. I’ve highlighted the steps and have also added screenshots. You can share this with the customer. I’m sure this would give them clarity. Let me know if you need anything else
Bad: Hey Cindy, the customer would be able to reset their system from the ‘settings’ option in their dashboard. Hope this helps.
- Never assume colleagues would be able to read between the lines. Ask yourself: would they understand the point I’m trying to make? Or, would this lead to more questions? If so, what are these questions and how can I be more clear? It’s always best to overcommunicate about a customer query and provide as much context as you can while working as part of a remote support team.
- Handing over a query to a colleague at the end of a shift? Give them all the information they need – what the customer issue is about, steps taken so far, current status, etc.
- Does your message contain too much jargon? Use screenshots to simplify things and make them more understandable.
Great support teams always know how to communicate effectively. In a remote scenario (in the absence of non-verbal cues), effective communication is about doing it in excess.
2. Find ways to keep team members aligned
When your team is not co-located, it’s that much harder to keep track of everyone’s workload.
Has John replied to that customer query that came in last night?
What happened to the recent customer issue that got escalated to the product team?
Can Cindy pick up a few extra queries this week?
What kind of roadblocks is the night shift team facing?
Building ownership and staying on top of your team’s workflows often becomes tricky when people work remotely.
And this is where technology comes in handy. Support teams must leverage collaboration tools to keep team members aligned.
- Have a daily virtual standup where every team member talks about what they are working on, the status of current tasks, and so on.
- If your team is spread across multiple time zones, have a slack channel where every team member can update their tasks, what queries they are handling, any assistance they require, etc.
- You could also use a project management tool such as Trello, Asana or Monday. Have your team update it on a daily basis — this would give you a clear bird’s-eye view of your employees’ schedule and tasks.
- A time tracking app could also prove helpful to keep your remote employees productive during work hours.
“Ever since my team transitioned to remote, we’ve found a way to streamline communication and ensure everyone is on the same page by leveraging a bunch of tools. We usually assign talking points, action items, and due dates while on a live Zoom call. By collaborating in such a manner (in real-time), it also makes it easier to build accountability across the team”, explains Cheryl Spriggs.
3. Avoid the ‘micromanagement’ pit
It’s a fine line between building ownership on your team – and micromanaging them. And crossing the line will never go down well with teams.
For instance, telling someone to make their email reply more personal (by showing them examples) is how you inspire/coach them. But, copying their reply on a Google Doc and adding nasty comments to it is micromanagement.
According to a survey conducted by Trinity Solutions, and published in Harry Chambers’ book, My Way or the Highway, 71% of employees said being micromanaged interfered with their job performance while 85% said their morale was negatively impacted.
- Give your team members the space they need. It’s really important that you trust them (and even more important that they know this).
- Do not schedule multiple status update meetings on the same day. Instead, simply keep an overall eye on things to ensure everything is progressing as planned.
- Treat your team members like real owners. Instead of hand-holding them on tasks, give them the opportunity to devise and implement action plans. For instance, can your internal escalation process be made more quick and efficient? Get a team member to come up with a plan and try it out. If it doesn’t work as expected, encourage them to quickly iterate and move on. Remember – the faster they fail, the faster they learn. Moreover, allowing team members to take ownership also makes them feel more confident about themselves.
- Rather than controlling every single thing your team does, focus on being more approachable so that they can get in touch with you when they need help. Show genuine interest in what they have to say. Never bring up something they’ve shared in a way that hurts them. Even if someone asks you a stupid question, don’t snap and respond in a rude manner.
4. Automate for higher efficiency
The best customer service teams are also the most efficient ones. They focus most on what actually matters – delighting customers – and less on repetitive work.
But, what does it take to be an efficient team when everyone is located remotely? In that scenario, it’s even more crucial to have your processes optimized to the tee.
You don’t want team members spending too much time on manual tasks – such as figuring out who needs to work on what query, which team should take care of a particular escalation, and so on.
Here’s where automations can help. They help you save time and most importantly, bring structure to how your team works.
Say you’re a logistics company that receives 100s of emails from delivery partners every day – and your team’s losing 2-3 hours every day just sorting through them.
First, you’ll have to clearly understand what are the daily tasks that don’t really require active use of people’s brains but are still taking up a good chunk of work hours.
- All emails from a particular partner can be redirected to a specific team member.
- All queries with ‘invoice’ in the subject line can be tagged as ‘finance’.
- Want to segregate queries that are high priority? Every email from [email protected]<companyname.com> with ‘urgent’ in the subject line can be tagged as ‘Priority’.
- Do you spend a lot of time filing away emails that don’t need any action? You can automate that task too. For instance, every email from [email protected] AND “processed” in the subject line can be marked “Closed”.
Automating such workflows can not only help your team save time on a daily basis but work in a smarter manner. Another huge advantage is that it helps your remote support team stay more organized – as every query is assigned a relevant tag (for identification purposes) and routed to the relevant person.
5. Make them feel like heroes (with super easy access to resources)
While on the topic of saving time and improving efficiency, the faster you find answers to your customers’ problems, the more happy your customers are.
But, according to Esteban Kolsky’s research along with 7, 28% of an average agent’s time is spent searching for the right answer, and the right answer can only be found 20% of the time.
This only gets worse when the team works remotely. When support reps don’t have the answers they’re looking for, they’re likely to loop in other team members and have more internal discussions.
And if the team is spread across different time zones, these discussions become more time-consuming and ultimately, impact the quality of support you provide.
This is why it’s important for support team managers to ensure that their teams have a centralized knowledge base, one which is updated constantly. Sounds like standard practice?
Well, as much as 27% of brands have not updated their knowledge base for a long time, according to TSIA and Coveo’s State of Knowledge Management Report.
Looking for inspiration to revamp your knowledge base? Here are some effective tips:
- In the homepage of your knowledge base, have links to the most common customer questions. It could be the top 5-6 queries that customers ask the most. Dropbox does this really well. Also, notice how they haven’t gone too heavy on the design.
- Make use of product photos/screenshots wherever needed. While photos can be used to denote different sections of queries, screenshots can be used to compliment how-to guides. Here’s an example from Bissell.
6. Be a pillar of support
Global workplace performance firm Leesman surveyed 700,000 workers worldwide to find that 52% have little or no experience working from home.
While it’s not surprising to know that many of us are working from home for the first time, this situation brings it with new-found challenges that need to be addressed.
Team managers should realize that every team member faces their own unique struggles. Some might be staying alone and could be feeling lonely. Others might have to work amidst taking care of their kids and elders. Some might be working in a noisy household.
Getting to know what everyone’s work from home challenges are – form an important part of managing a remote team.
Once in a fortnight, get on a 1-1 call with every team member and ask them how they’re dealing with remote work:
- “How are you coping with working from home?”
- “Is there anything you need from me?”
- “Can I support you in any way?”
Once you ask the question, ‘actively’ listen to the person and make a note of the challenges they’re facing. (You don’t have to offer a solution immediately but ensure to get back to them with an actionable fix.)
Do they need a bigger workstation? See if your company can arrange a stipend for your team to purchase furniture.
Is it hard for them to work in the mornings because of all the noise at home? See if you can accommodate them in another shift.
Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations.
This is why it is important for you to provide reaffirmation of your confidence in them and use phrases such as:
- “This might be hard but we’ll handle it”
- “We’ll find a way to fix this. You don’t have to worry about it”.
Letting them know that you are by their side makes the other person immediately feel better and more confident about tackling the challenges.
7. Take away the stress from remote work
While working from home offers great flexibility, there’s also a degree of loneliness that comes with it. You miss the in-person discussions with your colleagues. The impromptu conversations. The energetic team huddles.
Cheryl Spriggs, a customer support manager at Service Direct, explains how going remote has impacted her company’s culture:
“One of the hardest things about switching to remote work has been the impact on culture. We’re a tight-knit group of about 30 employees and right before COVID-19 happened, we had a big barbeque party planned. We also had a few remote employees flying into our main office. It was going to be a whole week of fun and learning but we had to cancel it last minute because of the pandemic situation!”.
Every day becomes only about handling more customer emails and calls, internal meetings, and so on. And this can have a profound impact on everyone’s mental health.
Based on a United Nations report, 41% of remote workers reported high-stress levels, compared to just 25% of office workers. And for customer support teams, there’s added stress as they are having to deal with a larger volume of customer queries.
Team managers need to make the well-being of their team their first priority. They need to ensure everyone maintains a good work-life balance and is feeling good about themselves.
- At the beginning of your every standup call, spend a few times discussing non-work topics with your team. ‘Did you guys catch the game last night?’ ‘How is that new Chris Hemsworth movie on Netflix?’ This helps you kick things off on a lighter note.
- Organize and host virtual team building activities, team lunches and parties. Though it doesn’t replace in-person team get-togethers, bringing your team together – albeit virtually – for some Friday lunch/evening cocktails is a great way to relax and build camaraderie. There’s also a plethora of online games for your remote customer service team — from Psych to Ellen’s Heads Up!
- Don’t entertain calls, meetings, or discussions post-work hours (and don’t expect your team to do that either).
- Encourage your team members to pick up a hobby (some ideas: learning a new language, playing an instrumental, practicing yoga, or learning sketching).
- Have frequent 1-1s with your team members – something we discussed in detail in the last point – also helps. During these 1:1s, managers need to be able to create an atmosphere of mutual feedback, clarify work-related ambiguities, and make an effort to solve problems their subordinates are facing.
8. Help your team amidst distractions
Seen those pictures where a person uses their (adorable) dog’s head as a mousepad? Or the one where someone is working on a laptop and feeding their child at the same time?
Though exaggerated as they may come across as, they symbolically represent an important aspect of remote work – distractions.
In fact, a recent study found that 47% of the people who worked from home had difficulty managing at-home distractions.
Be it a noisy neighbor, your dog wanting some hooman attention, or the grocery store delivery guy ringing the bell, these things can seriously hamper productivity levels.
So, how can your team cut down on distractions and focus on things that actually matter?
- Set up a home workstation: Encourage your team members to have a dedicated workspace. While remote work gives you the comfort of working from home, having an office-like setup can cut off distractions and help bring some order and structure to the way people work.
- Using site blockers: Recommend the use of site blockers (StayFocusd for Chrome and LeechBlock for Firefox) – add-ons that help block sites that you choose. These are great when you want to stay fully focused on the task at hand and not get caught up in a rabbit hole of Youtube videos or Reddit threads.
- Stay in touch frequently: Don’t just assign work to your team and then move out of the picture, hoping they’d figure everything out. It could make them feel like there’s too much time in their hands, leading to more procrastination. Instead, talk to them regularly to get a sense of how things are going. This is a great way to show your support as well as hold them accountable for time management.
- Incremental deadlines: Set incremental deadlines for tasks by breaking them into subtasks and having due dates for each. Adopting this approach would help your team get work done at a consistent pace, instead of accumulating backlogs or doing most of the work close to the deadline.
9. Recruit smartly for remote
One often overlooked challenge with remote work is the hiring of new team members. Although HR drives this initiative, as a manager, you ought to communicate the right expectations.
When we say ‘right expectations’, it doesn’t stop at the kind of experience or skill set you are looking for. When it comes to remote hiring, there are certain other factors you need to pay attention to. Here are a few things:
- Does the person have prior experience in working a remote job? Someone who has worked remotely before would be in a better position to navigate the challenges that come with it.
- Is the person tech-savvy? People who are good with tech require very less hand-holding and training.
- Do they think like an owner and take full responsibility for what they do? When the team isn’t co-located and when there’s no one actively monitoring what everyone is working on, people who ‘own’ things and follow through with them are a manager’s delight.
Pro tip: Merely looking for candidates on Monster, Indeed or Linkedin might not suffice. This is because people who are looking for remote opportunities have a different set of go-to sites — such as WeWorkRemotely, AngelList, Remote.co, and more.
10. Setting new joinees up for success
Remote onboarding is quite tricky. You don’t get to meet your new team member in person, organize a quick huddle and introduce them to everyone else, take them along for lunch, or drop by their desk regularly to ensure they’re doing fine and settling in well.
Instead, the whole process takes place virtually via introductory emails and/or slack messages. New joinees get to meet their team on calls, set up 1:1s with those they’ll be working with (might have to coordinate with people from multiple time zones), and so forth.
All of this lacks the emotion and excitement associated with in-person onboarding. New joinees might also take longer to ease themselves into the system, get comfortable with the new culture, and bring their A-game to work.
So, how do you make remote onboarding fun, exciting, and also informative?
- Mandatorily get your whole team together on a video conference call for introducing new joinees. To make onboarding more fun, inform new joinees that they will have to do an induction song/dance during the call.
- To help them acclimatize faster, ensure new employees schedule calls with team members that they are going to be working with the most. This is something Nokia does really well.
- Share in-depth customer profiles with new joinees. Who are your customers? What are their expectations? Do they span multiple countries, languages, and cultures?
- Give your new employees access to a repository of recorded customer conversations. When you back up your core customer service philosophy with real-life examples, it becomes easier for them to understand how to action these values.
Buffer’s Director of People, Courtney Seiter, covers all the key aspects of remote onboarding perfectly: On someone’s first day, they get to set up all our tools, sync up with their lead and key points of contact, enjoy a robust welcome GIF party and read through some key docs about our vision, mission, and values.
Guiding resource: This remote onboarding checklist from workable encompasses all the necessary things you need to do while inducting a new employee into your team.
11. Give pleasant surprises to your team
There’s a lot said and written about the importance of employee appreciation. A Canadian study found that when employees were asked what their managers could do to improve engagement, 58% said ‘giving recognition’.
And in a remote customer service team, employee appreciation and recognition are a lot more important. When employees have to deal with higher stress and increased periods of isolation, it helps them stay motivated and most importantly, feel good about themselves.
The good news is that you’ll find a plethora of tips on the internet on how you can reward employees. But, what makes any of these initiatives an enjoyable and memorable experience is the way you do it.
Focus on initiatives that are more creative. It’s best if they also come with an element of surprise. Here are a few things you could look at:
- Do an internal newsletter where you shout out your entire team for the great work they’re doing in keeping customers happy.
- Is it one of your team member’s birthday? Plan a surprise video call celebration and get your whole team to be part of it. You could also have a cake delivered to the person’s place along with a heartfelt message from your team.
- Gamify your rewards system. Have a leaderboard in place for, say, the most queries resolved or the least average resolution time. The winner at the end of every month could get very unique rewards – it can be anything from a mug with a clumsy photo of theirs imprinted or a video compilation of everyone else on the team talking about what they like about this person.
Managing a remote customer service team demands you to be a jack of multiple trades. From facilitating seamless collaboration to taking care of your employees’ well-being and keeping them motivated, you need to be able to manage tools, processes, people, and emotions. Doing all this in the right manner is what creates an engaged and productive frontline – the foundation to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.