Some years ago, for the first time in my career, I found myself leading a team which was completely remote. I didn’t think much about it at first. But quickly discovered that managing a fully remote team was a completely different ball game and most of what I had learnt and practiced as a leader did not work well in a remote situation. Things that I had taken for granted like 2-way communication, building trust with and within the team, executing together, interpersonal relationships, team engagement….everything was harder. It was new, unfamiliar and completely overwhelming! I had to unlearn most of what I knew and believed in! With few resources available to figure this out, I ended up experimenting & figuring out what worked best for me and the team. Many mis-steps later, we finally found a rhythm that worked!
As I reflect on the current lockdowns globally and the forced sudden remote work scenario for many leaders and teams, I realize that a lot of my mis-steps are likely to be others’ as well. This blog is a summary of what I learnt.
1, Trust is the most important thing to focus on
With remote teams, trust between team members and with the manager becomes paramount. The lack of face to face interactions, can cause small issues to escalate into a full blown crisis including email wars that wear down the team. I learnt that spending time together as a team (even virtually) both in work and play helped build better team trust. Conflict was acceptable, as long as it was on a topic and not a person. No “behind the back” tales to the manager. Encouraging team members to be open and discuss directly with their peers. If it’s an escalation, ensuring that all members involved are present to resolve. This helped put a stop to the Chinese whispers and gaming around whose side the manager was on!
2. Re-invent communication
A remote team sometimes does not have access to people, resources and information that we take for granted when we all work together in an office. I discovered that I needed to balance big picture with the details regularly. This helped people always know, how what they did fitted into the larger scheme of things. Transparency and openness are the bedrock of the success of remote teams. I also had to learn how to regularly communicate 1:1 with the team. Keeping channels of communication open at all times, allowing all topics (not just work related stuff) and learning to say things many many times were all new things to practice.
3. Empathy and compassion takes precedence
When we don’t see the people we work with every day, it’s common for us to de-humanize them. We easily forget that they have things going on in their lives at home and work. It’s easy to scream down the phone or send a flaming email when the person is not in front of us. The damage we cause when we do this is irreparable! I had to learn to pause, reflect and never communicate in a moment of irritation or anger.
4. Balance execution /avoid micromanagement
We are accountable for results and sometimes with a remote team, we feel that we are not on top of things. Somehow, there is a feeling of “loss of control”. This gets exacerbated when things start slipping and the execution ball is dropped. As a team, we found short daily stand-ups the most effective way to stay connected on tasks and deliverables. It helped the team stay connected on a daily basis as well as flag slips early enough to course correct.
5. Prioritize the team
As leaders we all know that our we should prioritize the team. But in the hustle and bustle of getting things done, we sometimes forget this. I learnt the hard way that this was not an oversight a remote team can afford. Making time for personal connect, career conversations, ongoing feedback and support are super critical. Different things work for each team member. Being flexible about the team’s needs and flexing my style to suit them was one of the hardest things I had learn.
So is leading a remote team different? Absolutely! Now is a great time for organizations to support leaders and managers with development and tools to make this easier than it currently is.
We all don’t need to make the same mistakes as we stumble into the new world of work!