Managing a Suddenly Remote Team

Posted by Eric Eaton on Mar 30, 2020

It’s been said over and over, but it bears repeating – we are currently experiencing the largest work-from-home experiment in the history of the world. We need to say and hear this, because it reminds us that today's situation is not just any work-from-home scenario. It's a difficult and uncomfortable situation for many organizations, managers, and individuals.

In reality, remote work has been done successfully by enough people for enough time, that as a concept it's really not an experiment anymore. However, right now entire teams and organizations are being required to work from an unprepared location, with improvised tools and processes, and against a backdrop of considerable personal stress.

However, there are ways for your team to see net-positive results through the current chaotic scramble, if you’re ready to set aside assumptions that it’s possible to keep doing things the same way as before. It could even be successful enough that you decide there’s a place for both on-site and remote work in your future. The key is to acknowledge that the current abnormal situation requires some changes in perspective and habits.

1. There are some things you can’t control.

  • It’s not safe for many to physically be in the office together.
  • People are not currently in the ideal situation to work from home.

2. There are other things you can and should change to make the situation better and more productive.

  • You must be flexible and considerate with others that are working for you.
  • You must set a productive with the tools and habits necessary to be more productive remotely.

As a manager or team leader, you can have a large impact on how your team weathers this situation, no matter how long it lasts. How?

1.   Adapt the way you and your team work together

A common pitfall is to assume that everything should just keep on going the same as if everyone were in the office. Today's situation is also very different from working at home a day or so once in a while.

“The principles of remote work are different. The approach to conducting work is different. Just as multi-level office buildings required elevators and phones to be functional as workplaces, teams working remotely should embrace tools that enable asynchronous communication and should reconsider traditional thoughts on items such as meetings and informal communication.” – Gitlab

One of the surprises your suddenly remote team will discover is that the volume of email builds and snowballs almost uncontrollably. Everyone instinctively falls back on email as the way to say anything to anyone, which means everyone’s inbox is always overflowing with emails (most of which are not productive). You simply must find a way for you and your team to make core communication stand out of the inbox clutter. It gets harder and harder to find and keep up on the important things when all messages get lumped together in your inboxes.

Fortunately, there are several modern team collaboration tools that are tailor made for a remote scenario like we find today – for example Slack and Microsoft Teams. Tools like this provide various team channels where groups of people that work together can post messages that relate to that team. Each person is likely involved in multiple teams (due to various projects and cross-functional entities in your business). Since conversations for each team are separated into their own channels, it becomes much easier for each user to provide a different level of attention to each team as appropriate. This is an inherent advantage to these tools that is difficult to articulate until you try using one. In a message-heavy scenario, it's much more manageable to work in topical channels than in a single mailbox where everything piles up together.

Another surprise it that the same schedule of meetings you were holding before will likely be more difficult to stick to when everyone is remote. There is no one right way to do this. It’s a delicate balance that will likely be harder to achieve when everyone is remote. The key point here is you need to be willing to change things up to make the way your teams functions together more practical.

For example, it's not unusual to find that a full day of various conference calls can be exhausting and demoralizing when you don’t even get to walk from conference room to conference room. It's also likely that your team's situations at home vary radically from one another and it’s more difficult to synchronize all the schedules. Factors like these may mean that your team needs fewer meetings. That means they'll need collaboration tools that allow them to work more asynchronously than before.

In contrast, some teams need more facetime with each other because they feel disconnected and communicate more efficiently by speaking than they do by typing. This may be more practical if you encourage people to approach that in a more one-on-one model through individual video calls and working sessions. (See item 3 below...)

One practice many teams find helpful is to consolidate various status / update meetings through the week into a single daily standup meeting. This is a pattern that is frequently easier for everyone to regularly attend because it’s a single, consistent time each day. It’s also a welcome opportunity to see everyone and speak face-to-face on a daily basis. If you decide to do this, you might decide you need a shared task board to organize and track those daily updates. If your organization is using Office 365, Planner is a pretty simple tool for just that. It also integrates nicely with Microsoft Teams, which could be a win-win.

2.   Model your behavior to simplify things for your team

Your team will need some guidance about what efforts and outcomes should be prioritized. The simple reality of their new remote situation is likely complicated, and they probably won’t always be able to get as much done as they did before because of the unique constraints today. Hopefully your organization's leaders have helped identify the big picture goals that must stay in focus. Use that information to help identify and communicate what matters most for your team, and then prioritize activities and habits that reinforce those decisions. Make it easier to know what the right thing is, and your team will likely do it.

You will also need to help your team adapt to the new tools and habits that will make this time more successful. Your employees probably don’t care much about fancy new team tools – but they almost certainly care about the inherent pain of the situation. Try modeling your own behavior to use these tools as a way to simplify your own interactions with your team.

There’s probably a lot of things you need to communicate to them, and you probably have unique influence on your team’s meeting schedule. Do your own internal messaging in a Slack or Teams channel, if its available. Simplify the ways they report to and interact with you. Set a flexible and productive example of doing things differently that gives your team some easy experience with new tools and habits. When you attend meetings, be considerate and conscious of the unique issues of remote work. Lead the way by using a headset, and your webcam where practical. Don’t expect 24-hour connectivity, or imply it by the content or timing of your messages to them.

3.   Purposefully connect as humans

As we mentioned before, your teams meeting calendar can and should probably change when you all go remote. It is very important that you look for flexible ways for everyone to connect on a human level, too. They won’t bump into each other in the break room like they did in the office, but that doesn’t mean the entire day has to be focused on some specific deliverable.

When I started working remotely full-time during my time at Visa, my manager was very proactive about scheduling one-on-one calls regularly where we could just talk about whatever was on my mind and hers. She also occasionally did something for the entire group that was purely for team-building. It was a very effective way to stay connected.

I tried to do the same one-on-one checkpoints with the the team I led. Since my blend of responsibilities was more closely related to the hands-on duties of our team, I also looked for chances to do working sessions with them. This helped overcome challenges, but it also helped us connect on a human level. Things like this made us a team, even though we were separated across multiple states and time zones.

Similarly, when the current crisis ramped up in Hong Kong, reporters with the Bloomberg organization were suddenly isolated at home. They individually had many thoughts to share about how to adapt and be productive, but it’s interesting how as a team they addressed this human element.

“After three weeks of working from home, a manager helped moderate a video chat for 20 people on their team. With drinks in hand, they talked about their working environment, their pets, their families (some showed their kids on camera), and shared happy and funny stories.” - Bloomberg Hong Kong reporter

You may need to do the same for your team. If that’s not practical for them, at least make sure to include spontaneous and personal interactions in your normal meetings. In your standup meetings, ask how people are really doing, joke around with each other, and share what everyone is doing to stay sane.

4.   Ask your team what's working and what's not

One of the easiest mistakes to make as a manager is to assume that we already know what our people need to be happy and productive. While your own experience can and should give you empathy and instincts about how to help – don’t forget to simply ask them what's working and what's not? How can we help each other stay sane and get the important things done? They know the unique pressures and limitations of their remote situation better than you do. Be open to them changing their answers, especially if this situation continues for many weeks or months.

Conclusion

There are many things about this situation that we can’t truly control – when the danger is over, what situation people work from at home, how much time and attention those people can give us during the crisis. However, by being willing to adapt your team’s schedule and communication habits to its new setting, by setting a productive example and proper priorities, and by creating opportunities to connect on a human level – you can make a difference for your team. Some of the lessons learned from these adjustments can pay dividends long after this experiment is over. That's how experiments are supposed to work, right?

How these change principles specifically apply to other roles varies, based on what you can and can't control. Here's an article on what to consider if you're leading an organization. If you are an individual contributor, watch for that article to come soon.

 

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