Advice for Running Remote Teams (Thanks, Coronavirus!)

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The Coronavirus is creating a lot of first-time remote-team managers right now. And for good reason: It’s time to send your teams home. You can’t afford not to. Society can’t afford for you not to. We have to flatten the curve.

I’m here to help. I’ve been managing remote teams (and an entire remote company) for sixteen years. I’m passionate about this subject, and I absolutely love running a company remotely. It’s definitely different than co-location, though, and there are pitfalls to avoid. Recently, someone I mentor asked me to jot down my top 7 pieces of advice for remote management, and it took me less than three minutes to come up with them. I hope that by sharing them, I can make your transition to remote work a little easier.

First, a word about the employee trust factor:

Nothing will bring trust issues you have with employees into sharper focus than remote work. If you’re used to seeing your teams face-to-face every day, you may suddenly feel totally blind. Indeed there’s an opacity to managing remote employees that can be incredibly jarring. Later on in this post, I’ll talk about ways to bring more transparency into the remote environment, but nothing mitigates a true lack of trust. One thing you should NOT do is become a micromanager now that your employees are working out of your line of sight. That will drive them AND you crazy and will take up way too much of everyone’s time.

And now, my top 7 pieces of advice for managing remote teams:

1. Decide to trust:
If you’re a micromanager who lives and dies by the number of hours your team puts in, this is going to be a difficult one for you. It will also benefit you, and those you manage, far beyond this period of time. The first step to managing a remote team is making a conscious decision to treat them like adults who also have a stake in the success of your business. Because they are, and they do! You will have to be okay with not knowing what each person is doing at any given time during the day. And that’s okay! See point #2 for more on how to deal with this seeming lack of control.

If you have trouble trusting, there are two major possible underlying reasons: 1. It’s your issue. Maybe you’re someone who has trouble taking your hands off the wheel at all. Maybe you’ve been burned before and past experience has left you wary. Maybe your company fosters a culture of real top-down management. If this is the case, you tend to distrust all employees to some extent. 2. You’ve been given reason not to trust specific employees. If this is the case, you’ll need to pay special attention to their results and output during the first days and weeks of working from home. Be fair; make sure you’re clear with them about what you expect and attempt to correct any problems as quickly as they emerge. If nothing helps, and weeks into this new arrangement you still can’t be sure they’re doing their jobs, it’s time to evaluate whether it makes sense to keep them on your team.

2. Embrace a results-based work policy:
Results-based work means that you have a set of concrete metrics by which to judge people’s work. That means you can let go of your need to monitor what each employee is doing at any given moment. Does it really matter if your team members work a solid eight consecutive hours versus four hours in the morning and four in the evening? Does it matter if sometimes they work ten hours and sometimes six? Does it matter that they take a few minutes to update their Facebook status? Not at all, as long as they’re achieving agreed-upon goals.

There are many frameworks for goal-setting. My favorite is OKRs (Objective and Key Results). The OKR method serves a couple of purposes; it sets specific goals, of course. But it also serves to focus your and your employees on the most important tasks. By definition, that means it also tells you what you will NOT be working on. No more getting distracted by every business squirrel that darts by. When an opportunity presents itself, you’ll ask yourself if it aligns with your OKRs, and the answer to that question will determine whether you pursue it or not.

This OKR method starts on an organizational level, with leadership answering the question “What is the most important thing we can do to further our business this year?”. The answers to that question become the annual objectives. The next question to ask is “How will we know when these objectives have been achieved?” In other words, what are your numeric and qualitative goals? Once you have your annual organizational OKRs in place, each department comes up with how they can best contribute to achieving these goals and they set their own annual OKRs to support the organizational ones. After that, you break it down further into quarterly OKRs and weekly goals. OKRs are a big subject, and I’ll write a separate post about how we’ve adjusted the framework in ways that suit us best. To get started, though, I highly recommend the book Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke.

3. Set and communicate your ground rules:
Working remotely opens a whole world of flexibility to your employees. Flexibility is a great thing, but you’ll need to create some boundaries. Right off the bat, establish your ground rules. Some things to consider:

  • Will you have set working hours? If not, do you expect each employee to have set working hours they stick to each day, or are you okay with them creating their own hours, which may differ from day to day? Or is each department responsible for creating their own team’s working hours?
  • How do you expect people to communicate that they’re away from the computer for a while?
  • Do employees need to request permission to take time away (doctors’ appointments, errands, school events in non-Coronavirus times, etc)?
  • Are employees expected to make up time spent away from the computer? If yes, on the same day, or can they make it up another day?
  • Do you expect employees to check in when they log on in the morning? Say goodnight before they leave?
  • How will you handle meetings?
  • What remote collaboration tools do you expect each employee to purchase or download?
  • Is it okay to smoke or eat on-camera in video meetings?

Communicate expectations up-front and as explicitly as possible.

4. Temper expectations for a little while:
Moving suddenly to a remote work environment can be jarring. Like anything else, it takes some adjustment. Your team needs time to set up their home environments and get into the groove. We don’t yet know how this will affect business. It will take a little time to get back to normal.

Also, if your goals have been set based on your ability to for your team to collaborate in person, you very well may need to scale back your goals a little bit. Every team is different, but in my experience, everything takes a little bit longer for remote teams. Expect collaboration to be harder and more time-consuming.

5. Overcommunication is your friend:
Think of all of the communication pitfalls that happen in a co-located work environment and multiply them by 10. That’s what you’re facing in a remote work situation.

In an office, there’s intentional communication, like the kind that takes place in meetings and memos, and passive communication, the kind that takes place between people as they’re walking down the hall together or grabbing a snack from the kitchen. There’s also impromptu communication that happens when someone stops by a co-worker’s desk to talk through an issue or a challenge or an idea. All of these types of communications combine for maximum effectiveness at information sharing.

In a remote environment, the bulk of communication is intentional. Scheduled meetings are the way business gets done, generally. But ad-hoc conversations do happen. And a lot of communication happens between individuals in Slack channels or via email. Through all of this, the biggest challenge is making sure that decisions and information are communicated to the right people. And “right people” generally encompasses more people than you think. Communication silos need to be intentionally crushed on a daily basis. If there’s one word that you should write on a post-it note and attach to your computer screen, it’s OVERCOMMUNICATE. You will need to devote time and energy every single day to making sure that everyone who needs information get that information, and in a timely fashion. It’s tougher than it sounds.

Every time you finish a conversation with someone, get in the habit of asking yourself, “What was decided in this conversation and who else needs to know about it?” and “What problems were discussed in this conversation and who else may be working on the same problems?” Then take a moment to disseminate all the relevant info. Hot tip: make sure you have ten minutes of padding between meetings on your calendar just for this purpose. It’s so worth the effort.

Also, take extra time in your written communications, especially on Slack. So much of your remote communications will be in writing, and it’s so difficult to communicate tone of voice. It’s a breeding ground for misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

6. Carve out opportunities to socialize:
I cannot stress this point enough. High-functioning teams are teams that relate to each other on a personal level and are able to be vulnerable with one another. People need to feel cared about by their teammates and they need to feel invested in their teammates’ lives as well. You’ll be setting yourself up for more success if you carve out opportunities for personal conversation. Here are a couple of examples of things we do to spark your imagination:

  • Most tech teams have a daily “standup”, which is designed to be a super-short meeting in which each team member updates the rest of the team on what they accomplished the day before, what they plan to accomplish that day, and what help they need. We’ve found that, even though it adds time to the meeting, it’s really helpful for each person to do a personal check-in before they begin their update. Team members take a few minutes to update everyone on what’s going on in their lives, both the good and the not-so-good. These few minutes really serve as the cement that bonds the team together.
  • Every Friday is “Fun Fact Friday” in a dedicated Slack channel. Every week, someone on the team takes a turn asking a fun question, like “What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?” or “If you had to leave your house right this moment, never to return, and take one thing with you, what would it be?” Anyone who wants to play along can chime in with their answer. It’s one of the consistently most popular things we do to maintain our close-knit culture. We’ve learned so many things about each other!
  • Every other week, we have an open 30-minute “Casual Friday” hangout on Zoom. It’s open to anyone who wants to stop by and chat.
  • We have small coffee groups that schedule short get-togethers via Zoom every few weeks. Every quarter, we change the makeup of each group so people get to know different members of the team.

Working from home can be isolating, especially for the extroverts on your team, and activities like this go a long way toward making everyone feel less alone and more a part of something larger.

7. Encourage your employees to create and enforce boundaries:
Working from home has so many advantages. It also has one major disadvantage: you never leave the office. The boundary between life and work can become very thin and can sometimes disappear completely. Remember, effective employees have downtime. They go away and recharge their minds and bodies and come back with fresh perspectives and new ideas. Employees who never leave work are prime targets for burnout, and it’s really hard to overcome burnout. Prevent it from happening in the first place by gently reminding your team to log off, to set and communicate boundaries, and to enforce them…even with you.

I hope these few pointers are helpful to you. There’s so much more to managing teams remotely, though. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! I’m very passionate about this subject. I’ve faced pretty much every challenge that comes with remote management and leadership, and I’ve had to be very creative over the last 16 years. I’m happy to share my experience anytime.

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Socially-conscious product leader, Lean Startup evangelist, COO and Chief Product Officer at Adopt-a-Pet.com