Although most managers assert how performance and results are more important than the time a person clocked in or out, the reality is that in numerous organisations, both team member and leader have come to depend on the physical presence of each other.

The majority of managers and team leaders have learnt to manage people in a face to face leadership model. Conversations are manged by observing non-verbal cues – reading that nervous tap of the foot during a meeting or just noticing that something is 'off' about a person's usual behaviour. We scan the office and within two seconds we can tell who is engaged in the work they are doing or who is struggling to keep their eyes open. The hum of a busy office is reassuring. It gives us the comfort (albeit often just an illusion) that things are as they should be – if the team is busy then it must mean we are being productive and getting closer to our goal.

Similarly, many of team members are used to being managed by being physically 'seen' working. For some team members being seen to be working means they don't have to explain themselves – if they are late over a deliverable but their team leader noticed them in calls with multiple clients that took much longer than expected – then they feel reassured that they don't need to justify why they were late with their task. Team members might also feel that having a team leader around ensures accountability on the part of everyone in the team. It's a bit like when a police officer is present near a junction at peak traffic hours – somehow everyone drives more carefully. On that premise, some team members might argue that it is better to relinquish some of their own 'freedom' by having a team leader in control checking on everyone, if that means that everyone else is pulling the same rope as they are.

And suddenly the COVID-19 pandemic hit us all like a ton of bricks. We scamper to find new ways of working with some of us adapting faster than others. Sure, we worked from home before, when kids were sick or when the delivery of a new home appliance could only be scheduled on a weekday from nine till one. But it's not the same as having the whole company permanently working from different locations. Unless your company is one of the few organisations for whom remote working is normal practice, COVID-19 is presenting more than one challenge to manage our teams and ensure targets are met. So how can we ensure that we are successful in managing a remote workforce?

Let's start by addressing what hasn't changed. Even though our team members are not located in the same physical space, they are still working towards a common goal, with shared accountabilities and dependent on each other's activities and deliverables. It is therefore vital for team leaders to ensure team members are still accountable to each other, connected to the common goals of the team and the company, and still connected to one another on a human level. By ensuring that everyone feels connected and sharing a common vision, team members will sustain a trusting environment that keeps them engaged and productive.

We have to keep in mind that by working remotely, it is easier for someone to get 'disconnected' from the team – people can lose sight of their contribution to the whole, maybe they start feeling that their contribution is not appreciated or not 'seen' by the other members. This disconnection can easily lead to unproductive behaviour or a disengaged attitude. For example, a team member may suddenly start joining late for the regular team chat, stay silent or not contribute much feedback. This kind of behaviour should alert us to a potential issue and we should address it and bring the team member back in the fold. We also can't ignore that this 'disconnection' may be happening due to feelings of isolation which are compounded by the need to keep social distance even from loved ones during this partial lock-down.

What all this means from a people management perspective, is that the way we communicate with our workforce becomes crucial. We have to communicate the vision and goals of the team more clearly than ever before. What do we stand for as a business and as a team? What are the values that define us? How do we support our clients and each other?

We also have to communicate the practical day to day expectations and ensure everyone is aware of how their part fits to the whole. Action plans discussed over voice calls can be followed up by an email or a project story board that is shared amongst the team. There are project management tools and apps that can make this process easier, but even in the absence of such tools, we can share a plan with action points that is kept on a shared folder and that everyone can comment on when tasks are completed. A practice often used in software development teams is to work in iterations with deliverables checked against the overall goal every few weeks to make sure that issues are caught early on rather than at the end of the submitted project. With team members working at different times of the day due to family obligations, added to the occasional issues with internet connections and noise during video calls – it is easy for one or more members to misunderstand what they should be focusing on. Checking in regularly with team members and encouraging them to do the same with each other can prevent such issues.

Ultimately, what is crucial to keep in mind, is that this constant flow of communication within the team is not only important to get the tasks done but also serves to keep the team accountable to each other and therefore trusting in each other's contribution. It is this trust which keeps the team committed and performing at an optimum level.

Team leaders have an obligation to ensure that team members still feel connected and recognised. In the same way we would have spent the first 10 minutes in the morning going round the office saying good morning, there is no reason why we should not be doing that over video conferencing apps. We should check-in on that silent member before he/she becomes disconnected from the team, just as we would have done over a coffee in the canteen. We also cannot forget to praise the team's efforts and recognise individual members for their contributions, thus bringing what was invisible to everyone's awareness.

This pandemic may have caught us by surprise, however, as people managers we need to move away from operating in 'crisis mode' to planning strategically how we are going to get the best out of our teams regardless of where we are working from. We can keep thinking that this is a temporary scenario and bidding our time until 'it can go back to normal'. Alternatively, we can embrace the need to change our management style and adjust to a new way of working that allows us and our teams to really gear up productively and successfully.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.