#10 Leading Remote Teams

In this episode, we cover the change in mindset necessary to lead remote teams, working out loud, how to choose a tool, making decisions and planning for spontaneous conversations. (I know!)

Show Notes

The time zone issue
07.00 mins The difference between collocated and remote
09:00 Change in mindset
13.00 Working Out Loud
16:10 Choosing and using tools
21.30 Making Decisions
24.00 Informal conversation
27.00 Recommended Book

Full Script

Today’s episode, well, I have enough to say about today’s topic to cover quite a few coffees, so maybe I should have ordered a large one… I’m going to cover the topic of leading remote teams – and by remote, I mean leading teams of people, mainly knowledge workers, who are doing the work physically away from each other.

So I could be talking about virtual teams, distributed, dispersed, those with flexible working arrangements, those adopting agile working… We really are at a point in the world of work where we have more and more of these terms which remind us that there are other ways of structuring how we work together, apart from the traditional 9-5 at the office set up. (Meanwhile remembering that there might be people who prefer to work, 9-5 at the office, so they need to be accommodated for as well, where possible.)

What I won’t be chatting about today is global teams. Although much of what I’ll talk about will be relevant to those teams too, global teams often have an extra difficulty and that’s the issue of timezones.

Sometimes, depending on the kind of organisation you’re working for, you might also have difference in national cultures impacting the work, although in some cases, corporate culture can be stronger than national culture, and those differences are reduced… But timezones, timezones are the big one because they can limit the time for synchronous, that is real-time, discussions. We can do quite a bit of communication in the written form – notice how the world of work has embraced email and how the social world has embraced Facebook, – but there are times when we need deep discussions, and these are best done using speech, in real time.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Communication

As technology has got more sophisticated and affordable, and as internet and wifi connections get more stable, I’ve really come to think that how we lead a remote team is mainly affected by whether we can have real-time conversations with each other, whether it’s on video, audio, or even chat. Leading a team where we communicate mainly asynchronously – that is in written form with time lapses in between – will require quite a different strategy and ways of communicating than leading a team where we are able to just hop on a call of some kind when we need to.

In this episode, I’m going to assume that you and your team have a decent overlap in office hours (about half a day) – and I’m going to cover some of the things you might want to bear in mind. If you were here having a coffee with me, we could get into how to solve your specific challenges, but seeing as I don’t know much about you, I won’t even pretend that I know what you need. If there’s something I’ve learned about this space, pretty much like with leading any kind of team, is that the culture of the organisation and the nature of the work will heavily influence how you lead and manage. Having said that, there are some things to look out for regardless your situation, and that, I’m happy to chat to you about.

Making the Transition from the Office to Remote

If you are making the transition to remote team, think about what the main differences will be in how you communicate and collaborate. The first thing that comes to mind is that most of your communication will be done through technology – but sometimes we’re already doing this in the collocated space: think of the common anecdote of people emailing each other across the office instead of walking over to someone’s desk. And you’ve probably already moved onto storing documents online, rather than in a filing cabinet, so I’m assuming that you already use technology to share information and some of your work.

Before I carry on, I just want to point you towards a handy pdf you can download, which asks you questions about your current setup. I’ve used my framework for virtual teamwork, which dissects how we work together into seven areas: visibility, identity, results, trust, upgrowth, appreciation and leadership. Put all those first letters together and you get, virtual.

https://www.virtualnotdistant.com/blog/your-transition-to-virtual

So what are the main differences in how we work together?

I can think of three main areas:

– The way in which we have discussions; for example meetings, or conversations, or even how we ask for help

– The way in which we interact in an informal way – when we have lunch together (if you do ever have lunch together, you see, another assumption, many team members never have lunch together even when they share an office) or those chats that happen in the corridor or as you’re making coffee. (more assumptions here, I know)

Thirdly, the way in which we share and gather information about the progress of the work. Again, more assumptions but the example that comes to mind is someone asking across the desk “Where are you with gathering those numbers?” “Yeah, I’m just waiting for Sandra to send me over her final costs. Sandra, have you got those numbers ready?” “Yes, sorry, it’s on my list, give me ten minutes and I’ll send them over.”
You see, many assumptions here, including that team members are incredibly helpful to each other. The other way in which we might gather information about the progress of the work is through visual cues and clues that we pick up as we walk across the office – picking up on someone frowning at the computer; seeing a long report up on somebody’s monitor.
Now before we start thinking about how we can change the way in which we work in a remote team, we need to address the most difficult change of all:

A change in mindset.

Remote work, if we structure it well, can have many benefits, one of which is that people gain more autonomy over how they do the work. If we can extend some of that autonomy into decision-making, for example, then we can have a more adaptable team, one where the work is not constantly blocked because we feel like we don’t have the necessary information or authority to push it forwards; this autonomy can extend into aspects of teamwork, how we work together, which might be outside of our formal job description. If I see an opportunity to improve our process, how many conversations will I need to have with the team leader/manager or my team members? Are there small things I can implement as experiments that we can all try out, or do I have to wait until we’re all able to have a meeting, or until everyone has replied to my posts? How can I do all this when I am remote?

As a manager, the focus has to shift from supervisor to enabler; from problem-solver to coach; the focus is on whether the team processes and norms we have, enables us to deliver the best results, not on whether people are carrying out their work in the way that we would like them to and where we would prefer them to do it from.

At the risk of repeating myself, just highlighting that every team is different, so the work will be structured differently and your own role will need to be different, but the main thing I’m trying to get across here is that rather than focus on how, where and when a person is carrying out the work, we need to be focusing on whether they’ve got everything they need to do really good work.

On top of this, as a manager we might be in the best position to be the link between our team and organisation, to make sure that we continue aligned with the company’s goals and that our work stays relevant; and to make sure that we have visibility within the company. The advocacy role of the manager becomes even more important in a remote team, making sure that the team stays in touch with the company and that we grow our network within it – you never know when people might come in handy.

Working Out Loud in Remote Teams

With all that in mind, let me introduce you to the concept of Working Out Loud. The term was popularised by John Stepper in his book by that same name. Working out loud involves sharing your work and your thought process in a way that is helpful to you or to others. In remote teams, this can happen on a collaboration platform, like Yammer, or Slack, or on a project management tool like Trello or Basecamp or even on email.

So for example, you can share the early stages of a new task you’re getting on with, so that if somebody else in your team has done something similar before, they can offer some tips, or things to look out for. Or, you can communicate how you’ve solved a problem, in case somebody else on the team comes across something similar at some point.

Or, the nature of your work might mean that you need to complete a series of tasks, that affect other people’s work; that’s also a form of working out loud, making that completion, or delay (the delay is very important) visible.

These ways of communicating openly and publicly have two sides to them of course: as managers, we can use them to supervise and control the work; or we can use them to help the team stay aligned and hold each other accountable.

I much prefer the second one: making our own work process visible can help others understand our work preferences and give them some insight into how we make decisions. And yes, ongoing communication about what we’re up to can feel like a chore, but isn’t it useful to know the progress of the team’s work as a whole?

Isn’t it useful to know that someone’s going to work on a piece that will impact our own tasks that day?

Isn’t it useful to know that someone called a client with a request for information and the conversation turned into an informal update? We can now start the regular weekly conversation we were going to have with that client with: “I know you already spoke to Paul, but is there anything else you’d like to know about our progress?”

How you and your team work out loud will depend on the technology you have available and the nature of your work, but in every case, do come to some agreement of how you will do this.

What kind of updates are useful?

How regularly will you update the rest of the team?

What platform will you use? (You might have to resort to email if you have huge security barriers at your company, but agree on some rules of how you’ll do this.)

Communication Tools

Ok, so it’s probably time to talk about technology and how it enables us to stay connected. I know that in many companies, the tools you can use is restricted due to security concerns and other cultural issues. In other cases, you might have “tool overload” from having to build yourself the communication infrastructure.

So I’m not going to recommend any tools to you, I might mention some, but I’m not going to go down that road. However, I will address how to choose whether to use a tool or not.

First of all, I’ve seen tools chosen in two different ways:
1) Identify what we need a tool to do and then look for a tool accordingly.

Or

2) Pick a tool that looks great, or that we have heard is popular, tried out, or looked into it and then evaluated whether it’s something that could work for our team.

I much prefer the first approach, where we identify what we need and then look for a tool accordingly, but I am very aware that option 2 is easier and more fun, though it can also leave you with plenty of headaches.

Now, in order to help you without knowing your specific situation, I’m going to ask you some questions – these are not leading questions, they’re just there for you to answer and come to your own decisions.

If you’re looking for a communication tool to help your team:
What will you need the tool for? Be specific: is it for real-time chat communication? Is it for asynchronous? Do you need both? Are you likely to share short, sharp messages, or will some messages be really long, like a blog post?

Are you likely to need to attach documents to your messages, or include them in your conversations?

Will you need a mobile version that works really well and is easy to use?

What focus might the conversation take: casual, informative? Will you be sharing information? Will you be carrying out discussions?

What’s the nature of your work? Is it very task orientated, easy to replicate and can the work be divided into chunks?

Or is your work creative, with every project needing a different process?

Ok, I’ll drop the questions now before you choke on your coffee, but I hope they give you an idea of the kind of questions you and your team need to be asking before jumping onto using a tool. Of course, sometimes the only way of finding out the answers to these questions is to start experimenting with the tools, but before you do that:

-Agree what you will use the tool for
– Agree how often you will use it
– Agree on when you will revise how it’s working out for you

There is nothing more frustrating than getting all excited because we’ve finally found a way of collaborating online, only to find that at some point, things get difficult, people get bored and the tool goes dead. Believe me, I’ve been there.

I’ll give you a quick list of tools here. First of, if your company has the Microsoft Office 365 system, check it out, there are so many tools in there, and you might even be able to find another team that;s using them,that can help you assess their suitability.

Otherwise, take out your pen and search online for these tools: Trello, Yammer, Slack, Asana, Basecamp, Huddle, Sococo, iDoneThis, Google Drive, and for real time video, check out Zoom. Check them out and see whether they might be what you’re looking for. Probably, probably, you might find that some of these have disappeared. Well, it’s 2017 and I hope that this podcast will be around for a very long time – so that’s another reason why I’m not going to recommend specific tools for you…

One final warning: make sure that you don’t end up adapting your team process to suit your tool. The way in which you interact with the tool might well start to affect the way in which you interact with each other. This might be good, or it might be bad. In any case, make sure it’s your decision to change how you work, and not some tool’s decision!

And talking of decisions, let me address one more thing about managing remote teams. As I mentioned before, autonomy is one of the best things about working remotely, and within this, can be the autonomy to make decisions about how you work as an individual, but even making decisions that affect a team.

The last thing you want is people waiting around for others’ input or even for your approval for every single decision. I’m not suggesting that you and your team members begin to make decisions that affect you all without input from others, but there might be plenty of times when individuals can make a decision quickly.

Basically, what I’m asking you to avoid is to create a culture where everytime someone needs to make a decision, you call a team meeting. Once more, I am reluctant to advise you on this one, but can throw a few questions at you:

What type of decisions do you find yourself making, individually and as a team?
What kind of information do you need to make decisions and how is this being shared or communicated?
How do you know who needs to have input into a decision?
What’s the level of trust in your team? Do you trust each other to make decisions on behalf of you or on behalf of the whole team? (By the way, if you would like to know more about building trust in any kind of team, check out episode 6 of this podcast, on trust.)
A couple more questions:
How are your decisions (your own ones and those of other team members) communicated to others?
How much of your thought process do you share?
How do you gather input to help you make a decision?

Let me just stop here and make a couple of suggestions: you can gather input as comments to a document, or you can write an internal blog post and ask for comments, as part of a conversation on an online platform, you can hop onto a meeting, you can use sticky note applications etc…

Serendipity and Informal Communication in Remote Teams

So, that’s all the formal stuff. What about informal interactions, those serendipitous conversations, those times when you just chat with each other to get to know each other better, so that when you need help, it’s easier to reach out?

Well, the good news is, they can still happen! The difficult news is, you’ll have to plan for them. That might mean scheduling regular “virtual coffees”, informal meetings where you just chat about whatever; or have a section on your collaboration platform for random conversations. But the most important thing is to build the opportunity for “finding each other” in the space. If you have core hours or your type of work means that you all know when others are online, have a way of signaling that you really don’t want to be disturbed. Otherwise, agree that at any point, it’s ok to reach out to say hello and even to suggest taking a break from work together.

If however, your schedules mean that you rarely know when you’re online, have a way of signaling this. Either make sure you log onto your chat, or find an application that allows you to see at a glance whether someone is online and happy to be disturbed. You could also get into the habit of turning up a bit early to your online meetings, and make yourself a cup of coffee. That can also be a nice ten minutes of informal chat that might lead to some interesting, and even useful, conversations…

Talking of coffees… I was going to say that my coffee’s getting cold, but my coffees is disappeared! Maybe it really was a virtual coffee, maybe the waitress took it away…

Let me just wrap up today’s coffee then. I talked about the need to change the management mindset when we’re leading remote teams, and this includes communicating through different channels, sharing more of our thought process and changing our role from that of supervisor to that of enabler or even advocate for our team. Regarding tools, make sure you are choosing them to suit your team and that they don’t end up shaping the team in unhelpful ways… and finally, make sure you review every now and then how decisions are being made in the team and whether anything needs to change…

Book Recommendation: Under New Management

Well, that’s it from me but I want to leave you with a recommended read, in case you would like to continue thinking about different ways of managing. My recommended read today is Under New Management, by David Burkus. I had the pleasure of chatting to David for the other podcast I host, 21st Century Work Life podcast, for episode 137, although the number might be slightly different, I haven’t published it yet. I reached out to David to appear in the podcast because I found his book incredibly well balanced (as in, what works in one place might not work in another) – as in the example of the company that made salaries transparent before really being ready for it, – and the book, stylistically, is really easy to read and full of contemporary examples and stories.

The book covers some new and uncommon practices in organisations – from moving away from email, through unlimited vacation, to abandoning the annual performance review.

In our interview David mentioned that the different aspects of management he covered in this book were those that could work in any kind of work environment. So, while he doesn’t specifically talk about the remote space (although there are some examples from remote companies), all the concepts are applicable, regardless of where your people are working from.

Here is one of my favourite bits:

In the chapter ‘Lose the Standard Vacation Policy’, when explaining why Netflix trust their employees to act responsibly even though there is not a limited amount of days they can take off, Burkus pulls out this quote from Netflix’s popular culture slide deck:

“There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one comes to work naked.”

For more on leading virtual teams, visit www.virtualnotdistant.com
for more on leading virtual teams

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