The good news is that, in essence, leading remote teams is just like leading any other team. The bad news is that if you’re used to managing by watching what people are doing, you will need a shift in mindset.
“Work is far less meaningful and pleasant than it needs to be because well-intentioned leaders don’t believe, on a primal level, that people are good. Organizations build immense bureaucracies to control their people. These control structures are an admission that people can’t be trusted. Or at best, they suggest that one’s baser nature can be controlled and channelled by some enlightened figure with the wisdom to know what is best.”
-Laszlo Bock in “Work Rules!”
Learning to let go
The most challenging aspect of leading remotely is trusting that our “out of sight” team members are doing the work, and that they’re doing the work well.
There are many “Big-Brother-style” ways in which some organisations have tried to address this: by monitoring keystrokes on employees’ computers, by introducing time-tracking software, or by having online status changes when employees leave their computers for a certain amount of time.
These kind of practices just perpetuate everything that’s wrong with the current workspace: a misconception that work only happens when we are sitting at our desk and an obsession with measuring our work through the hours we spend doing activities that look like “work”, rather than by our results.
The first step towards addressing the question of whether the work is getting done in the remote space is to ask yourself: what are we paying people for? what does our team deliver and what are individuals responsible for?
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If the answer is, “Julian is paid to be at the phone answering customer queries from 9 – 5,” then yes, it’s really important that Julian maintains his hours rigorously. However, if Julian’s job is to make sure the Frequently Asked Questions page on your website is up to date, then as long as the site is updated regularly, who cares when Julian is sitting at his desk.
Switching to a more results-orientated mindset is the first step in successfully (and healthily) managing remote teams.
"The only way to look at the work, is to look at the work. The work should speak for itself and it should be viewable and visible from anywhere."
-Jason Fried, Basecamp CEO in HBR Ideacast Episode 557
The importance of explicit Communication Agreements
One of the fears of managers working remotely is that team members won’t be able to get hold of each other when they need to.
While this can easily be addressed by having a shared calendar or an app where we can regularly update our status, the biggest challenge is to balance the sense of autonomy that often comes with remote work with our accountability to the rest of our team.
While letting our team members regularly know what we’re up to might seem like we’re being monitored or watched closely, it can actually free us up.
If you have communicated that you are going to be concentrating on a piece of work for the next two hours, you know that you can turn off your email without fear of someone waiting to hear from you.
Given the range of communication methods available to remote teams and the fact that we all have different preferences on how to use them, there is a need to formally agree how we will use the different tools.
A simple team charter, or team agreement, can help us to address questions such as, “How will I know whether I’m interrupting someone, when I can’t see what they’re up to?” or “How do I know when to get hold of people and how?”
It might seem strange to formally agree when we can and can’t interrupt each other, but our behaviour in the “remote space” needs to be more deliberate than in the colocated office.
(Although some would argue that having agreements around when we should/shouldn’t disturb each other would also improve work at the office.)
Time to start narrating your work?
As well as your availability, you and your team members need to get used to sharing the progress of your work regularly.
As a manager, this might involve reporting back on conversations you have with others in the organisation, decisions you’ve made with some team members that might affect others, and interesting information from your industry that could remind others of how their day-day task contribute to the wider picture.
In particular, you’ll have to deliberately communicate those decisions made during meetings or phone calls with only one or two of your team members that will affect others. You can no longer rely on team members overhearing your conversations or on quickly communicating a decision to someone when you bump into them at lunch time.
You should regularly ask yourself, “Has anything happened or been decided that my team should know about?”
More away from email in your team?
Just as managers working in offices feel like they’ve done nothing all day but talk to people and attend meetings, the remote manager can end up spending all day answering written communication. Look for ways to match the communication tool to the type of conversation you need to have.
If you have a range of communication tools available, consider moving away from email to communicate in your team. Otherwise you will end up with inflated inboxes with one-line emails that should have been instant chat messages; conversations that should have been held on a collaboration platform where scrolling down takes you towards the present rather than the past; or complex discussions that should been have taken place during a video meeting.
It is now possible to get rid of email in team communication and restrict it to conversations with those outside the team – the main barrier to making this shift should be security concerns in the company, not inertia and habit.
Getting into the habit in your team of posting publicly has the potential of reducing the number of messages you have to answer.
The questions directed to you might actually be better answered (and answered sooner) by other team members, but this can only happen if they are asked on a collaboration platform, and not in a closed email.
Technology: ideal for both formal and informal communication
You’ll know when you’ve completely assimilated a remote team mindset when you’re as comfortable having “virtual coffee” over Skype (or equivalent) as in person.
There are other ways in which we can retain our humanity while communicating through technology, but they require a change in mindset. You might need to get used to making decisions over two or three days on a collaboration platform instead of meeting in person, or to writing long form to describe the reasoning behind a change in direction of the company - or hopping on video for a quick catch-up.
Embracing technology to connect with others might seem to challenge our identity, especially if we see ourselves as a “people person”, if we have an “open door” policy, or if we see ourselves as the person who others turn to when they need help. However, you can still be all these things in the “virtual space” – you just need to be more deliberate with your behaviour and communication.
Work – Life integration and separation
As a remote team manager, you might be based at home, and some of your employees might be based at home too. In addition to the practicalities of finding a suitable space to work at home, you and your team members might be worried about your work “spilling over” into your home life - and your home life interfering with your work.
There are ways of deliberately switching between “work mode” and “home mode” such as going for a short walk first thing in the morning to then “come back into the office”; having set times during which all communication devices (including email alerts on your smartphone!) are switched off; and protecting the office space from other family members, so that you can always find those little bits of paper you left lying around with notes on and don’t compromise client confidentiality or data protection.
As a manager you’ll need to be very aware of your own preferences, to make sure you don’t impose them on others. If you insist that people must work during office hours, you’ll restrict those who prefer to work in the evening.
If you constantly fire up emails in the evening, you might raise the expectation that everyone needs to be available 24 hours a day – unless of course, you have all formally agreed that everything can wait until the following day.
Deliberately agreeing on these little things can make all the difference between healthy and unhealthy team practices.
As well as ensuring that you and your team members have the tools and processes set up to communicate effectively with each other, you will need to make sure that everyone can progress with their work. In the next article of this series, we look at performance management in remote teams.
About Pilar Orti
I'm the Director of Virtual not Distant, a company specialised in helping teams and organisations transition to a remote set-up through workshops, coaching, consulting and facilitation. We also run raining on managing and leading remote teams, both in person and online.
I host the 21st Century Work Life podcast and Management Café.