How to lead remotely
The whole world has suddenly come to a point where working remotely must become a standard way of doing business. This means a lot of you have been dropped to an unknown territory and have to navigate as a remote professional or a leader of a remote team.
While I think remote specialists and experts will easily adapt to the new situation, team leads and managers will probably feel most out of place.
In the near future, a lot will have to change in the way we manage projects, lead teams and do the work.
I currently see a lot of counterproductive remote team leadership out there. Helicopter managers calling for constant videoconferencing and companies using control mechanisms for workers to name a few. That might be okay for now as a transition, but in the long run, this path will dissolve productivity, your team and business along with it. Remote work just works differently from working on-site.
Reflecting to my 20+ years of remote working experience, in the current article I’d like to give team leads and managers a few pointers on how I believe remote teams can work most effectively. I hope that current article will help you navigate your remote team to calm and productive waters.
This article is mostly directed towards people in IT industry, but is probably a good read for any industry leader who is working with a remote team.
Remote is not for everyone
I believe that majority of office work can and will be done remotely in the near future. I also believe that working remotely is the most natural way of working. It allows people to adjust their lives so that work and leisure are blended together. This will allow people to put out better quality work as the tasks will be done when and where people feel most productive.
Surely remote working is not for everybody. Some people find it hard to feel motivated and get things done by themselves. Distractions and temptations to procrastinate might become overwhelming.
For team leads it might appear that nobody is working and they might feel lack of control.
However, I can assure you that with a few changes to the way we coordinate and think about work from now on, it is possible to make remote stuff work extremely smoothly.
In practice you will soon find that remote work gives a lot of freedom to both, team leads as well as remote workers/professionals themselves. All parties can decide for themselves when and where they want to work.
Imagine living anywhere in the world while having the best people in your team working globally in any timezone. I know I’m currently writing this article in Bali, Indonesia, while my team is spread out in Estonia, Macedonia and Brazil.
New role and responsibilities
Being a team lead, going remote will be a rather big transition for you. While the goal of the job, will be the same, the role and responsibilities will change quite a bit.
Team leads have always had an important role as coaches, but their role will become even more important now. If we think workers in a remote team as the cogs of the operation then team lead will be the oil that keeps the cogs turning. The role of oil will become much more important in a remote team.
In a nutshell, the new mindset will be that people in your team will now become professional service people.
Your team members are experts/professionals in their field. You as a team lead will trust their expertise. You’ll have to let go control and concentrate on putting in as much effort as you can to ensure your chosen experts can work fluidly together.
With the new way, workers will appreciate the effort of a solid team lead more than ever before. It’ll be more evident to them that without a good lead the operation would be impossible.
New setup for work
Your team will be remote now. You as a team lead have to coordinate it all and see that the projects on your table will be completed effectively and on time.
What will change and what are some of the things that will make best remote teams stand out?
Forget office hours
First thing to note is that there is no such thing as office hours for remote work.
Most likely your team will soon be spread out between different timezones and each member will work when they feel most productive.
Because people are working during different hours, the team lead has to adjust to the schedules of team members. This means a team lead will have to be responsive at all times and working/leading will be blended into his daily routine.
It might be inconvenient at times, but it might also be extremely beneficial if you can be sure that someone from your team is probably online and active each moment you need them.
If you’re trying to enforce 9 to 5 schedule, you’re doing it wrong.
There will be more stressful times when workdays are long, but many laid back days, when you have to maybe send out only one email to ensure stuff runs smoothly.
The cool thing to note here is the better you do your job (as the oil that keeps the cogs turning) the less you yourself will have to work.
There will be no office hours in a remote team. Working is going on all of the time, day and night all around the world.
Mutual trust is probably the most important aspect of a remote team. People in your team have to trust you as a team lead to coordinate and pull them through bumps on the way. And at the same time you have to trust your team to pull through with their assignments.
It’s the same with on-site teams, but I feel trust is even more important for a remote one.
Each team member has to become an expert in his field and take responsibility for his work in the team. This responsibility will be the basis of trusting them. Give them an assignment and let them work on it. If they can’t pull it off or get stuck they’ll have to trust you enough to let you know about it. Then you as a team lead will do your magic to get them unstuck and working again.
I hear some videoconferencing tools like Zoom give conference organiser information on what apps are open in participants computers. This is totally opposite from trust and tools like these should surely be left out. Even when you’re not using the statistics.
Trust your team and let your team trust you.
Be the coach now more than ever and try to find solutions if your team gets stuck with an assignment.
Cut people some slack. This goes along with trust. Give them time to prepare and don’t try to helicopter them with a chat message about status on progress every hour.
At times You might feel like nobody is working and there’s no control over things. It’ll just be your own anxiety that, if communicated, will make things in your team super stressful.
Handle your anxieties before they’ll mess up the chemistry in your team.
Let people find a good schedule on their own. Give your team members time to work on their craft. As nobody is watching over them, they’ll soon find ways to motivate themselves and will find time to work on a project.
Also note, while idle group chat makes you nervous, people might actually discuss stuff in private messages and create bonds and synergy you don’t see that well. Let them work. You’ve hired professional experts after all. Now it’s time to do their thing without supervision.
Trust and patience are things that go hand-in-hand and often mean the same thing.
Learn to text chat
It’s hard to over stress how important it is to have a clear precise communication through chat channels to your team.
The most important tool for remote work is a chat app. Be it Slack or Skype or even Facebook Messenger.
Either way you’ll have group chats and private messaging going on. Be active in those chats. Be there for your team. Don’t let them wait for your reply. Reply or react to every chat message that is targeted towards you. Be kind. Have a very precise language when saying things, assigning tasks and handing out information. If you’re on top of the situation and know the goals, being straightforward will be relatively easy.
It might be just me, but I dislike when someone all of a sudden calls me in the middle of the text chat saying: “I got tired of texting so I just thought I’ll call to make it faster”.
This won’t work. We text chat so I can remember things. Also it might be that it’s not a convenient time for me to answer your call (baby next to me sleeping). Please train your fingers and get better keyboards. Text chatting works for a reason.
Compared to offices, chatrooms are non-emotional communication tools. In the office, face-to-face, we don’t usually have to tell people if we’re sad, stressed, frustrated or happy. This is important feedback that is not so evident in a chat.
People can’t read your expressions or feel your vibe through a chat. So always, when you think you should make your emotions heard, please write about how you feel. It might feel silly at first, but it’s invaluable to the people at the other end.
Even better, make a habit of asking everyone how they feel and start by describing you emotions about the project as often as you can.
Practice saying thank you. In real life it’s possible to show gratitude through a smile, but it’s not in a chat. Be grateful and respectful. It might look like a tiny thing but it means a lot to someone on the other side.
Say “thank you” and “great work” more often than not.
Tell your team and members in private messages how thankful you are for their time and effort they put into the project.
It is strange how often people miss to be grateful and it is extra hard to feel people when working remotely.
Try to give everyone solid feedback on where they stand once a week.
I’ve spent weeks feeling stressed out that my part is not getting along fast enough while team lead was actually very happy and was not being stressed at all. Just the way of communication (or a lack of it) left me feeling this way.
It has also been vice versa; team lead seemed fine with how things were going and was laid back in the chat, while actually we were on a tight schedule and I should have pushed harder.
Give feedback every chance you get. It is appreciated.
No more scheduled meetings
I have to break it to you; meetings are stupid. At least scheduled meetings where you hold people for an hour or two preventing them from working.
For remote working there should be no such thing. Meetings will be going on all the time in different group chats. People read them when they can and respond when they want to. Scheduling a meeting requesting everyones presence is extremely heavy productivity killer for remote work.
I have to admit that one scheduled meeting ruins almost half of my day. Remote people work when they have time and feel productive. Work is blended organically into their daily schedule (remember “no work hours”). If there’s a scheduled meeting, it means a person will have to reschedule his whole day around this meeting. As remote teams are spread out in different time zones it might mean someone has to wake up during the night to attend the meeting. So leave meetings out. Hold scheduled meetings only when really necessary. And to be honest I don’t see a reason to hold them at all. I know I never do and have managed years without them.
If you need to do daily stand-ups, make a channel where people write their items when they start working.
When you need to tell something important, send them emails.
The worse kind of meeting for remote worker is a video call. Some people are most productive in their pyjamas, others work in loud cafeterias or silent libraries. It’s a real productivity killer to actually dress for the occasion or go somewhere especially for a video call.
Regular conference call is somewhat less intrusive but still, I guess I’ve made myself clear:
Stop holding scheduled meetings.
Future of work
The technology for remote work has been in place for a while now. Only thing that has stopped us to embrace this way of working has been our own established corporate systems. With the stuff going on in the world, we are now forced to embrace this new way of working. While it might feel scary, it actually has a lot of positive effects too. We don’t have to wast time, money and energy commuting to the office every day. That will make the air cleaner to breathe and leaves us more time to spend wiser than before.
If you’re used to working on-site. Going remote means quite an attitude change for all involved parties. Remote workers have to become professional service people and experts in their fields. They will have to take full responsibility for their actions and make up their own schedules inventing their own work/life balances.
Hiring right people for the job will become more important than before.
Most likely wages and productivity measurement systems should be re-imagined to make it work. People should get paid for the work they put in and not for sitting in an office for the whole day. To get going with it, hourly pay will most likely do the trick at first, until you find a better and more motivating system.
There have been discussions and blog posts about the future of work and as a freelancer I usually have to admit that I’ve embraced the ideas behind those pretty ideas into my life already.
I believe that remote teamwork is the way of the future.
We will see the world where work will be organically blended into peoples lives and will not be switched on/off every day.
It’ll be difficult at first but rewarding in the end.
Winners will be the companies that will embrace working with off-site teams most effectively. You as a team lead will be the person that will make it happen.