The rapid and unexpected shift to remote working has taken the world by surprise. Organisations have scrambled to adjust to a new way of communicating1 as they move to remote team management.
In this new environment managers are faced with maintaining the strong communication and collaboration values they’ve built up over time. But more of a priority perhaps is the challenge of managing remote teams effectively so that projects stay on track, delivery timeframes are still met and customer service standards are maintained.
More than ever, agile leaders are being sought out within organisations to provide the adaptable leadership and clear and concise direction needed by staff to feel confident and connected as they perform their work.
COVID-19 has demanded a rethink of what it means to be a leader in a crisis.
Traditional leadership models and management styles have shifted from simply overseeing tasks and outcomes. Remote team management now needs to be more compassionate and empathetic as circumstances force leaders to face the human-centred issues of their teams.
Agile leaders can build the trust of their team by recognising and responding to the increased uncertainty of their teams. This starts with acknowledging and emphasising that people are facing not only physical and social isolation but a possible threat to their job security. Understanding how this may impact on their productivity and participation is an important first step. As leaders, this doesn’t mean downplaying feelings of insecurity and uncertainty. Rather, it means being open about the shared experience and gaining comfort with being vulnerable.
Building a two-way trusting relationship with your team will give them the confidence to approach you with issues before they escalate. Prioritising time to check in on the psychological safety of your team (and yourself) gives opportunities to raise awareness of personal circumstances that might impact on the work (remote schooling, caring for relatives). Use guided questions that encourage them to share their working experiences, such as: what’s the best part of your day? With the current situation, what challenges are you facing? What’s something positive you can tell me about another team member? These types of questions can help to open a discussion and demonstrates a willingness to listen and act on issues raised.
Even though the world of work as we know it may look different, we can reassure our teams that the fundamentals and our shared values remain the same. Reassuring your team that the work will go on, encouraging collaboration, communication and clear lines of reporting and accountability can help to ease anxiety and uncertainty.
Remote team management means being in control without being controlling.
Recognise the impact of language. As a leader, you don’t need to have all the answers, but rather help your team by listening and asking open-ended questions so they’re better able to reflect and come to an understanding of what they need to do. Switch to accountable phrases that encourage communication and get to the heart of issues, such as:
- Here’s what’s going on and what it means for us
- Here’s what’s most important
- What can we test and start learning from?
- What have we learned that we need to respond to?
- How can I help you solve this?
- Is what you are doing aligned to our approach?
- I trust your judgment
Making the switch to autonomous teams
When it comes to remote team management, some leaders find themselves confronted with new barriers to successful leadership. Being away from the close confines of office spaces and regular formal and informal meetings, as well as the pressure to deliver projects and outcomes on time can raise issues of personal responsibility, trust in the team and a need to excessively control outcomes.
But what if, as a leader, you could hand over the reins of needing to be the chief-problem-solver to your team? What would it mean for your colleagues to be able to think about solutions and be coached instead of commanded?
In his highly acclaimed work on intent-based leadership, David Marquet presents some principles of capable leaders that ring even truer in a remote working context:
- Focus on achieving greatness (not avoiding errors)
- Getting people to think (not be told what to do)
- Making people feel safe
- Pushing authority to information
- Fixing the environment (not the people) and
- Acting their way to new thinking
At the core of intent-based leadership is a view that leaders who allow their team the autonomy to make confident and informed decisions, in a safe environment will be rewarded with higher-performing teams that are more connected to their work and the company.
Moving to remote working presents a unique opportunity to try out new delegation strategies, team structures and collaborative approaches, allowing teams to step up into new roles and take on new challenges under your guidance.
Avoiding the remote team micromanagement trap
Many workplaces have put remote working in the ‘too hard’ basket for years because it raises too many challenges. How can I make sure my team is working? What if they just watch Netflix all day? How do I know they’re working hard enough if I can’t see them?
We’re in a situation now where confronting these perceptions is unavoidable.
What we see, when we look closely is that these assumptions come from a culture of micromanaging. Micromanaging is led by insecurity—but creates a vicious cycle as decisions get delayed, work gets over processed and vital information is withheld as colleagues feel threatened by others.
Remote working presents a challenge to micromanagers, as they’re thrown into situations where they’re forced to let teams work more autonomously, have reduced visibility and may have preconceived ideas about remote working and their team.
When micromanaging becomes an issue, clear communication about assumptions and expectations is the best remedy. This may mean acknowledging how you’re feeling to the team—”I’m worried this project won’t be delivered on time, can we set out some agreements around response times and task updates?” Implementing clear guidelines about tasks, responsibilities and project progress through tools such as Trello, Asana or digital Kanban boards can provide reassurance that everything is on track and has been taken care of.
Essential keys to building aligned remote teams
The success (or otherwise) of remote working teams will rest on how aligned they are to the company strategy and goals. This comes down to the communication, collaboration, and the level of trust of the team.
Part of the communication strategy with the team should include a discussion around how they can align their work to the expectations and outcomes for key stakeholders.
Some tips for building aligned teams of remote workers include:
- Decide when meetings will be held and who needs to attend. This includes informal meetings such as planning meetings and discussions about progress.
- Choose one or two channels for communication so that everything is kept in one place and is less likely to be overlooked.
- Have clear boundaries around working times, response times and private time—ask people to share their best available times with the team, set expectations on how soon you need responses and encourage ‘switching off’ at other times.
- Encourage time for ‘off-task’ activities that have been lost in the shift to remote work such as shared online lunch or coffee breaks and learning and professional development time.
- Allow sufficient time to summarise actions and clarify the expected outcome so your meetings end on a high note.
- Strategies such as new delegation methods or taking the time to seek feedback will provide insights by measuring the engagement levels of your team. Moving to remote leadership presents a wonderful opportunity to try new ways of working and communicating, as well as a chance to evaluate our own effectiveness as leaders.
- Why remote working requires a stronger focus on communication
- Looking after the mental health of remote working teams
- Intent-based leadership by David Marquet
- Implementing intent-based leadership by Andy Cleff
- The 7 Levels of Delegation by Jurgen Appelo