As challenging as things have been for those of us lucky enough to be working remotely in the past weeks, the difficulty of trying to manage a team from a distance is taking things to a new level. Know Your Team is a website and software application that helps teams manage remotely. We don’t use or know anything about the software, but they have a great guide to managing teams remotely which they offer for free. It can be accessed here. The balance of this note is a summary of the contents from this resource.
Leading a team remotely requires attention to developing skills in three key areas: Communication, Trust, and developing Social Connection.
When starting out, seek to set up processes which will be used right away. Develop workflows around managing communication, then work to build trust; and, finally, foster social connection. Whether working in an office or remotely, a manager’s job is to help clear a path for employees. Encourage them to focus on outcomes and work output.
When we’re separated from each other, we aren’t having face to face contact. We aren’t meeting with each other. We’re not hanging out chatting socially. We’re not able to read each other’s moods or frustrations. Communications done from a distance are delicate.
We’re trading talking for writing. Writing is the key communication medium of remote workers. Clear, precise, and concise are what we’re after.
We’re also trying to communicate frequently. Write, write, write. Errors of commission are better than errors of omission. Err on the side of telling too much, too often. Instead of meetings and conversations, leaders must share their thoughts, ideas, direction through writing. If you’re not sharing explicitly something, your team simply doesn’t know what you are thinking. More communication is better than less. Communications must be intentional. Especially, relating to core company values. These must be clearly stated over and over if they are to be internalized by remote workers. Share as much detail and context as you can. If in doubt, write it out.
A private, internal blog is a great tool to use. This avoids an influx of emails and reply all chains that are almost impossible to track and digest. An internal blog allows leaders to communicate ideas and direction while providing teams the ability to comment on a thread. The record of conversation is kept together in a neat and tidy way. It remains accessible to the members of the group to participate when it is convenient for them.
Conversations related to small group work can be managed through chat apps or some type of message board. These, too, work well to replace one to one email threads. There are even tools available to integrate private blogs with messaging apps to unite the larger team with smaller groups.
Encourage receivers of communication to review messages from the perspective that the sender had positive intent. This posture may help reduce inevitable frustrations. Nonetheless, messages may confuse or irritate receivers. Any disappointments that inevitably arise must be managed sooner than later. Being sensitive that our written communication doesn’t have context or other non-verbal cues accompanying it, we can try to follow up to make sure the message as we intended has been received.
Additionally, as a sender of communication, put yourself in the shoes of the receiver. Try to develop empathy for those who will be receiving the communication. Will they understand what you’re talking about? What do you know that they don’t that may impact their ability to understand and appreciate the message being sent?
Developing guidelines around communications are a key part of managing teams remotely.
What should be standard working hours for both of us? What times should we be accessible to each other or overlap our schedules?
What is the best way to contact you during those hours? What form of communication do you prefer be used to communicate with you during that time?
What’s the expectation of how quickly I should respond when you reach out to me during those working hours?
What form of communication do you prefer when there’s a hard topic or conversation? (Writing, phone, video call, other).
How will private time be blocked for workers? Set times for no communications. When do you prefer to not be interrupted during the day?
What’s default mode of communication? Focus on matching message to channel. When do we use email, phone, text, other communications platforms?
Help your team determine how to rank communication in terms of priority. Can it wait? Is immediate response needed? If no, avoid direct messaging. Use email instead, for example.
What do you consider “urgent” versus “not urgent”?
If I need your attention on something “urgent”, what form of communication do you prefer?
If I have a suggestion about something, how would you prefer to receive it?
Seek consistent one on one meetings each week of up to 30 minutes. Preferably through video chat. This action is an opportunity to build on each of the three recommended remote team management practices: Communication as well as Building both Trust and Social Connection. You could use these meetings to discuss the above questions together, for example.
Communication is much less about technology and tools and more about sound processes. Setting the stage as soon as possible by working through developing answers to the above questions will be helpful to maintaining strong communication with your team.
Employees have a responsibility to help with communications efforts as well. As an employee, seek to proactively share as much progress as you can. Provide a weekly summary with bullet points of key activities performed. Help your boss help you. Give them peace of mind.
Understand how they like to work. How do they like to communicate? What do they expect? How can you help? Communication is a two way street.
Since micro-managing from afar is out of the question even if that’s our go to management technique, we’re forced to try something else. Trust is an important element for leaders to have for their team.
Two types of trust are discussed: Cognitive and Affective. Cognitive is based on our reliability and competence. We trust someone based on their ability to deliver their skillset and themselves. The other type of trust, Affective, is tougher to develop remotely. It is based on interrelatedness. How do we get along? How do we make each other feel? Do we feel like we’re on the same team? Pulling in the same direction? Do we believe we have each other’s backs?
Cognitive Trust is easier to manage as the work output of our team members is reflective of this. This second form of trust, Affective, is an ongoing challenge of remote work. Leaders must try to learn personal information about their colleagues. Asking questions similar to the following is encouraged. How’s life? What’s new? Anything have you worried or down lately?
In order to build affective trust, team members want to feel that you are there for them. The following are examples of questions managers can use to help their team see that the manager is looking after staff needs.
What are roadblocks you are facing? What’s getting in your way?
What questions do you have? How can I help you to do your job?
Are we both on the same page as to expected output?
Are there any decisions you’re hung up on?
This next group of questions are examples a manager can use to better understand their team members. These questions help team members feel like they are valued and their needs matter. They help a leader develop empathy with individual team members.
What time of day are you most productive?
How do you tend to organize your workday?
How do you tend to organize your week?
What do you think you’re more sensitive compared to others?
What do you tend to pick up very quickly compared to others?
What’s your biggest work related pet peeves (the thing other people do that totally annoys you when you work with them)?
What does “work-life balance” mean to you?
What would others who’ve worked with you say are your greatest strengths?
What would others who’ve worked with you say are your greatest weaknesses?
Anything you’d like to share about what makes for your ideal work environment?
What, if anything, worries you or keeps you up at night about the company?
What’s a current situation you wish you handled differently? What would you change?
What motivates you the most?
What do you consider your superpower?
Who’s been the best coworker/team you’ve worked with? Why?
Who’s been the best boss/mentor you’ve ever had? Why?
When have you worked with someone and noticed it not going well?
This final group of questions can be used to help both sides manage expectations. Do you both know what is expected of each other?
What feels unclear?
How clear is “success” for you for the next 3 months?
Would you like more or less direction from me?
What aspect of your job would you like more help or coaching?
Would you like more or less feedback on your work?
What does quality work look like to you?
What things will I need to have accomplished this year for you to view me in this role as “successful”?
How is your workload?
As you reflect on your own performance, what stands out to you? What have you learned or observed about yourself?
Once clear communication guidelines have been established and efforts in place to develop trust, then managers can seek to keep their remote team connected.
The biggest frustration that remote workers have is a lack of social connection. Many feel lonely, isolated, and out of the loop. Moreover, those that feel an increased sense of connection actually have higher levels of contribution. Creating mentor or buddy situations are a couple of ways to impose a structure around creating social connection. Try to pair colleagues with similar work roles together and task them with checking in with each other regularly. Encourage them to share a remote coffee together and work through how each are managing their workloads. Help them to help each other.
Ask team members stimulating questions that will help members get to know each other better. For example, what’s your least favorite song right now? How about John Lennon’s “Imagine”? These can be posed and answered by colleagues on a non-work related chat channel where folks can jump in and answer when it is convenient for them. Having a group meeting where the topic is more casual and less business related is another way to foster social connections amongst team members. Your company culture doesn’t need to disappear. It can even be enhanced with active effort.
With each passing day, it seems that this new way of working remotely that has been imposed upon us abruptly is likely to stick around for a while. Instead of treating it like a temporary thing we’re just trying to get through, considering and acting on the above suggestions will help us make the most of the work world in which we now occupy. None of the above implies any use of particular technology or tools. It does, however, involve active and concerted effort to stay in touch. Yes, communication is a two way street, but managers should be leading the way to continue to engage their team. The three core characteristics aren’t unique to managing remote teams. They apply to “regular” managing as well. You’re simply trying to adapt the same skills you have from a normal office environment to the unique needs of a remote office.