Ray MacDonald, www.raymacdonald.com, March 9th, 2020
Leading People Remotely: 5 key focus areas for sustainable team performance
Leading people working remotely: 5 key focus areas for sustainable team success
Many organizations are now required to minimize personal contact to avoid spreading virus infection, including office environments that are mandating workers to “work from home”.
Technology solutions are being heavily promoted that are designed to enable workers (teams) to “work from anywhere”, to collaborate, and to host distributed meetings.
Let's talk about leading teams to a performance level when all the members are remote.
Pay attention to nuances of leading remote workers
Remote leadership best practices in large enterprises were developing and becoming more pervasive during the 90s through the 2000s before a back to the office call was made in 2013.
Getting and keeping a team of remote workers to sustain a high level of performance requires use of all the good leadership skills we have known plus specifically focusing on some nuances to generate more frequent feedback; leaders must adopt creative high-touch strategies. Too often for remote teams leaders feel at ease frequently cancelling meetings, adjusting schedules, and doing other culture-killing behaviours because no one is staring them in the face. Should a team culture be falling apart, by the time it is noticed, it is often difficult to adjust/recover.
The famous Tuckman teamwork model (Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing – (and the added Reforming)) focuses leaders on using techniques (tools from their kit of learnings) to shorten time spent in those unproductive early stages of Forming and Storming, and to mentor teams and make them sustainable at the more productive Norming and ideally reach the Performing stages. If you need a refresh on the Tuckman "Fight Right" model, Edward Muzio has a great 3 minute YouTube video to watch...
On-premises teams often use social tools such as pot-luck-lunches, pizza lunch and learns, off-site kick-off sessions, and other team-building practices to shorten those early stages.
"branding" your organization within workers' remote workspaces also builds a team atmosphere
Remote workers need a different approach; these are often achieved through weekly or daily team huddles, using a rotating “huddle master” approach, allowing some creativity in hosting the meeting, sharing of general responsibilities and delegating some of the leadership duties. Delegating is not only good for the team members and helps drive up participation rates, but offloads some leadership effort. Unique leadership also sends surprise handwritten cards and/or company swag (as gifts) which goes a long way to motivating your team. Company "swag" items, in particular desktop or household items or tshirts, are much more important than is often realized, "branding" your organization within their remote workspaces also builds a team atmosphere even over extended distances.
I prefer a frequent touch style of huddles using both Daily and Weekly. These are generic recommendations, specific types of work may dictate varied approaches. My Daily huddle is very brief, ideally 7 to 10 minutes but not more than 15 minutes and is used more for leadership messages. They must be kept fun and interesting. If you have Change Management teams that have off-hour (nighttime) work, than huddles are best held later, such as at 10:30AM, and not at the very start of the day. The Weekly Huddle is the longer (1 hour) team meeting and its agenda includes celebrations, team news, process change info, company news, guests from other teams (other company groups).
What leaders must do is take their successful general leadership skills and be specific about adding to their repertoire how to motivate remote workers in order to avoid teams getting stuck in the Tuckman unproductive stages.
Managing remotely requires a leader to consider the following items in their strategy:
- Your Team comes first, celebrate
- Intake and Pipeline management (a published “book of work” when appropriate)
- Availability (open door policy)
- High touch – frequent touchpoints/checkpoints (keep them fun)
- Deal with individual performance (don’t procrastinate, don’t allow invisible members)
Follow the golden rules of leadership:
- Delegate with Authority
- “you get what you measure” – Jack Welch
- Listen to everyone
- Never write a nasty message
- Send handwritten notes and other congratulatory surprises
- Treat all people as special
- Teach something every day
- Online ambiance for the leader – invest in lighting, sound, background for your home video conferencing station to look professional at all times
2. Courtesy (orientate/train the team in these items):
- Time zones (be considerate)
- Meeting etiquette (conference calls)
- Messaging etiquette (including email)
- Collaboration etiquette
3. Team Culture (how we get work done)
4. Technology performance
Brief thoughts about each main point:
Leadership, in particular “Servant Leadership” is focused on the team. To achieve a performance culture the leader should put the needs of the team first. Adjust your schedule to accommodate the team, be highly available and be approachable, schedule 1:1 including “skip-level” meetings, look and be professional by investing in proper video conferencing (lighting, mic, background).
Courtesy, team members need to know that other people care. Book the best meeting times for the team and not simply for the leader considering time zones. Ensure people understand meeting etiquette (use options to “join muted” or that they should keep themselves on mute when not speaking), whether everyone must be on video (or not). Always think twice before sending an email or other forms of messaging. Don’t capitalize all the letters if that’s in the form of textual shouting. Orientate them how to work on teams with file sharing and co-editing etc.
Team Culture, getting to a performance level means everyone is sold on the goals and values of the team. Using digital methods to support Sharing of each other's needs (both work and personal can be accommodated), allow time at the end of meetings for off-agenda items, and Caring by keeping track of each other and what help they need. A Team that cares about each other will perform well even when there are difficulties.
Technology Performance: the obvious one is that a company’s networks support the performance required, that the tools selected work well for the team, and that the cybersecurity desired is recognized and supported. At our home we have 2x Internet providers the local Bell and Cable companies, plus the option to use mobile wireless), this way we don’t lose connectivity.
Workflow, business must know how to get work into and how to receive output from your team. This must be well communicated, frequently highlighted, and accomplishments celebrated and ‘published’. If possible, depending on your team's mission and how long the process takes, a workflow tool that can show where in the flow a piece of work is becomes a difference maker.
Conclusion: “Work from anywhere” started in the mid-90s and accelerated through the 2000’s (yes, I recognize that there were even earlier versions of it). It was going well until a famous Gen X’er, Marissa Mayer, back in 2013 dictated that everyone at Yahoo! get back into the office. She believed that physical co-location would enhance communications and drive creativity. The baby boomer generation in leadership, perhaps getting tired of managing by objectives only, jumped all over it, and many companies required their people to get back into the office. A few years later, even as Marissa’s leadership was ending at Yahoo!, many continued a “overseeing is believing” style of a return to the office.
Suddenly, health impacts (the risk of spreading a dangerous virus) require leaders and workers to learn and develop afresh how best to lead individuals who make up the remote working teams. As it becomes a "norm", it should prove to be a highly productive way of operating in many industries as the technologies are becoming highly collaborative in a more natural way and with the future addition of "AI assistance" such a way of getting work done will be very powerful.
The paradigm shift in how to get digital work done will become wide-spread, very interesting times to watch.