A Rough Guide To Leading Remotely

Image of remote control as metaphor for leading a remote team

Remote work, and with that remote leadership, is here to stay.  With the Covid-19 pandemic creating social isolation globally, remote work is no longer a nice-to-have but a crucial and necessary part of your business.  Companies are forced to allow their workers to work remotely. Leaders are required not only to lead through the crisis, they are also required to adopt practices to lead remotely.

Leading remotely introduces a lot of challenges a business leader might not have foreseen and the transition can be a bumpy one.  It doesn’t have to be though. This rough guide to leading remotely intends to make you aware of the challenges of remote work.  It then offers some simple and pragmatic solutions to help ease your transition to remote work.

The issue of trust (or letting go)

Let’s start by talking about the elephant in the room.  The biggest barrier to managers refusing to adopt remote workers relates to a lack of trust.  As a leader, you fear people will not be as productive at home as at work.  You fear they will not respond when you have a burning and very important question to ask.  You fear they might do the wrong thing when you’re not there to oversee everything in person.

All very valid fears.  The real issue, however, is not how responsible your employees are, but rather how good you’ve been at preparing them to be reliable and productive even when no-one is watching.  The mother bird only knows whether her children can fly when she kicks them out of the nest.

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” – John Wooden

Any parent will understand this immense fear of letting go.  You can only watch and guide your child, protecting them from the big bad world out there, for as long as they are living in your house. Once your child leaves the protection of your home, you can no longer control what they do and whom they hang out with.  You have to trust that you were a good parent and that you’ve instilled good morals, values and life skills for them to be able to fend for themselves.

Primarily, allowing people to work remotely is a test of trust and an evaluation of your leadership skills.

The challenges of remote work

An organizational leader effectively serves the role of the nurturing parent to the employees they oversee.  If you see your role as controlling people like mindless puppets in pursuit of a goal, your results will be short-lived.  If, however, you see your role as responsible to develop individual strengths and instil values, the results will be more sustainable.

One of the biggest reasons why managers resist remote work is that they believe when they can see someone physically, they are in control.  This is very far from the truth.  Just because someone is within sight does not mean they are productive.  In fact, I found that it was much easier to be unproductive at work while being physically there.  To read more about my personal remote journey where I discuss this together with other challenges surrounding remote work, read “Why you should continue to co-locate, not isolate”.

How to lead remotely, practically.

When we started using email and social media we had to first establish a few basic rules as a society.  Don’t use capital letters.  Don’t spam me with jokes. Also don’t connect with me as a stranger and immediately start selling something.  The list goes on.

The same applies to remote work.  There are many resources on the topic of remote work.  One of my favourite and most comprehensive go-to resources being Collaboration Superpowers, which covers all aspects of remote work extensively and rooted in my personal experience of working remotely for more than 10 years.

If, however,  you don’t have time to read a whole book, here’s a shortlist of the basics to take into consideration for remote meetings.

1. Choose the right channel

Remote video calls are great for one-on-one sessions. The challenges really start when the group grows beyond three participants. Where usually interruptions and comments, while someone else is speaking, is a small problem, in a remote session it is extremely disruptive.  Try to limit larger group calls as much as possible.

Before you send out a remote call invite to everyone in your team, re-evaluate whether it is the best channel to get your message across.  If you simply want to broadcast an informational message, rather use chat or email.  For shorter messages use Slack and for longer messages use email in an easy-to-read format.

If you need to ask a quick question that you know someone knows the answer to, use a direct message on Slack.  No need to be transparent about everything.  That’s just spam.  As soon as the discussion lasts longer than 5 minutes, switch to either an in-person video call or do some more homework.  You’re either not clear on what your problem is or you’ve stumbled across an unknown that needs some more research.  Chat channels are interruptions and should be used as scarcely as possible.

Another big issue with companies going remote is relying solely on a workflow tool like Trello.  Trello, or whatever tool you use to visualize your work, does not substitute the need for personal check-ins with your team.  It is a tool to visualize what has been discussed and agreed once there is no or little need for discussion.  It’s not a suitable communication channel for managing new projects or items requiring input. Rather see it as a library or repository where you can go to in order to find information after it has been discussed in person.

Always supplement it with a personal check-in or follow-up.

2. Have daily check-ins

By far the biggest challenge for a leader leading remotely is maintaining group alignment.  The biggest challenge for being a remote worker – whether you’re a leader or part of a team – is loneliness and procrastination.  People procrastinate when they don’t know what to do, feel overwhelmed or can’t see the metaphorical winning line.

To alleviate this issue start the day with a daily stand-up.  Let the whole team dial in to discuss what they’ve achieved and what they’re planning today.  In a round-robin, and explicitly using names to call out the next person to speak, allow each person to give feedback and raise obstacles.  Remember that eye-contact is not enough to indicate who you are looking at virtually. You, as the facilitator, must control the flow of the conversation more explicitly.

Time-box these meetings to a maximum of 20 minutes, 15 minutes or less is ideal.  Initially, these daily check-ins might be longer.  If this is the case, try to reduce it with a few minutes each day.  The shorter it is, the more effective it will be.

Additional to the team stand-ups, ensure you have a daily personal video call check-in with your core team.  It might not have been necessary while you were working in person but it is a crucial success factor when working remotely.

Also, schedule daily check-ins with team members who you feel are not as effective as they could be or seem stuck in some way.

3. Prepare a clear agenda

Preparation is the most important aspect differentiating an effective meeting from an ineffective one – whether it is held remotely or not.  The impact of not preparing adequately is however exponentially bigger remotely.

When there is no clear agenda and no desired outcomes explicitly mentioned, the chances of a meeting being unproductive is very high.  People will disengage and unlike an in-person environment, getting their attention back is much harder.

Make sure that you have a clear agenda and know what you want to get out of the meeting.  Run through the agenda like you would an important presentation to ensure you have all the tools, people and information within close reach if needed.

There are some great tools out there.  Each electronic white-board or tool, however, has different benefits and disadvantages.  Where in real-life limitations and constraints are easily managed, remotely using the wrong tool might cause a meeting to be totally ineffective.  Make sure the tool you intend to use can do what you want it to do.

4.Sound matters

Even the best technology today doesn’t compare to real-life interactions and is one of the biggest frustrations when it comes to remote work.  Sound cuts out, connections freeze and software stop working.

To make the remote session as seamless as possible, ensure everyone uses a good quality headset and microphone.  If bandwidth is insufficient to switch off your video streaming and revert to audio.    When groups connect ensure everyone mutes their mike.

The facilitator controls the conversation and should give very clear and explicit instructions. Constantly look for feedback that indicates when someone wants to say something. Google Hangouts is one of the best tools to visually show feedback, but even when you don’t have any visual feedback, don’t let that stop you.  Use hand-signs.

5. Use hand-signs and other visual queues

When you go scuba diving one of the most important things you learn is the global hand-signs to communicate underwater.  Before each dive – regardless of whether you’ve dived 5 or 500 dives – the divemaster runs through the hand signals to make sure there are no misunderstandings.  Everyone must understand what the sign for distress is or when the divemaster calls a dive.

Remote meetings are enhanced when a group uses the same hand-signs.  At the start of the meeting, ensure everyone agrees on hand-signs to use.  Start with the basics like putting your hand up to indicate when you want to speak and expand your vocabulary incrementally.   Remember that when someone can’t hear raising the issue audibly is not going to be understood.  Rather, point to your ears and shake your head.

As the meetings evolve, evolve the hand-signs.

Another good practice is to always have a piece of paper and marker close-by to write or draw something to draw attention without interrupting.

6. Pair teams

When you lead remotely you can’t check in with everyone each day the same as you would in person.  Consider distributing this function of yours and introduce pairing – an XP practice where two people work together on a single task.  It is one of the most effective development tools as people learn best from their peers.

Be sure to consider who you put together.  Look for complementing strengths and weaknesses and consider personality styles.  Put a strong communicator with one less strong.  Put someone strong on testing with someone that is very weak on testing.

Allow the pair to self-organize in terms of the level of interaction and channel.  Some people chat on Slack, others enjoy keeping a screen with a hangout session running throughout the day.  It’s like having a virtual office mate that you can just glance at whenever you feel a bit lonely while he continues with his work and you with yours.

7. Include everyone

Engagement is hard enough as it is in a face-to-face situation.  Maintaining and stimulating engagement when leading remotely is often even more tricky.  When you have a group session try to include everyone in the session.

Start the remote session with a collaborative check-in or warmer. This is often neglected in regular teams but is an invaluable tool to strengthen relationships. It can be as easy as everyone showing what shoes they are wearing or it can be a 30-second check-in where each person has to type an answer to a personal question in the chat screen.  Make it short and make it explicit.

Throughout the rest of the meeting, ensure that one person doesn’t take over the conversation. Ask explicit questions to each team member and rotate the conversation.  Include one or two activities throughout the session where you require the participants to actively do something.

Keep calm and keep connecting

Remote work is challenging.  It magnifies the organizational issues like nothing else.  When communication was an issue in a co-located space, it will be a much bigger issue remotely.  When responsibility was lacking while working together, it will be a crisis when working remotely.  Technology amplifies.

However difficult it may be, going remote will allow you to more clearly see what you couldn’t see before and with that, opens up the opportunity to resolve issues.  So embrace remote work and remember that communication is more than 80% non-verbal.  Virtual connection requires more senses than just words.

Don’t expect yourself to be efficient in leading remote sessions just because you are the leader.  It’s a skill to be learned like anything else. Develop your own, find a role model, or invest in a facilitator or coach to make the rough road just a little smoother.

Photo by William Bayreuther on Unsplash

Kate Dames
With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.
Kate Dames

@funficient

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Creating happy, whole, post-agile workplaces with technology, yoga and play.
Kate Dames

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