(I’ve gone into some detail in this post and therefore it’s long. If you want this in a quicker, click-through version. You can check it out here. Please share if you find it useful.)
It’s time for a reset on your approach to managing remote teams. We’ve been through the crisis phase of trying to keep our organizations running while moving entire workforces to their home offices (or kitchen tables). We’ve survived the faux-normal phase when we were getting pretty good at working as virtual teams and getting productivity back to normal. We’ve even enjoyed a few brief manic phases each time people returned from holidays and decided to start a marathon year as if it were a sprint.
Now, we’ve realized that we came out of the gates too hard. People are suffering. I’m hearing reports from executives that productivity is dropping. We need a reset.
Given that managers have the greatest leverage in changing the work experience of their employees, it’s going to fall on your shoulders. I’ve distilled a few of the messages from our 3-module Working Remotely training program into the 10 strategies to make your management style more conducive to fostering a happier, healthier, and more productive virtual team.
How do I manage a remote, virtual, or hybrid team?
How do you manage your own energy?
Guess what, it’s not only your employees who are human. You’re human, too. And that means you’ll have days when you’re exhausted, discouraged, and emotional just like they will. It’s normal. The problem is that if you aren’t willing to admit your emotional state, it’s likely to affect your behavior and your judgment. It’s also likely to spread to your team. It’s not only negative moods that can jeopardize effective leadership. If you’re having a particularly good day and trying to protect that mojo, you might be less willing to look for flaws in people’s logic or be too quick to pass off issues as minor.
To reset, spend 60 seconds each morning checking in with yourself. Acknowledge what you’re experiencing (i.e., name it) and take a moment to think about how your mood might affect your day. Chances are that being aware of your emotional state will reduce the impact it has on your management.
How can I do a better job of prioritizing?
I was harping on about managers’ failure to prioritize before the pandemic and I’m quite sure I’ll be doing it long after. Too many people falsely believe that multi-tasking works. It doesn’t. But if my ire was strong before, it’s at a fever pitch now as managers are failing to prioritize at a time when their people are anxious and overwhelmed, trying to keep it together, forced to manage not only to work priorities but also new and extraordinary personal ones as well. It’s cruel for managers not to prioritize.
We know from research published in Nature that people naturally add priorities and only subtract if reminded to do so. To reset, take your list of five, or seven, or seventeen priorities and put them in order for each and every member of your team (chronological, importance, pick any categorization that gets you a list with numbers). Discuss the tensions and conflicting priorities until each person knows the single most important thing they must be focused on at any given time. If you can’t answer that for a whole week, set priorities for the day. Then, use rapid reprioritization to move through your list of priorities quickly. You just might find you get more accomplished.
You can use this quick and effective technique to help you get each team member focused.
How can I set appropriate boundaries?
Boundaries are one of the four critical success factors for working remotely. Unfortunately, few people are setting and enforcing their boundaries. And for the few who are setting boundaries, their managers are often crashing through them. This violation reduces your team members’ sense of control in a time when too many things feel out of control.
To reset, ask for time to speak with each of your team members about what is working and not working in their current arrangement. Share your desire to help people reset their routines to be more effective and talk about what boundaries might work for them. Do they want the flexibility to toggle between short bursts of work and homeschooling (and therefore would prefer fewer long meetings)? Do they want to shift some deadlines from Fridays to Mondays because they have a chunk of time on weekends to be productive? These boundary conversations will look different with each of your team members. The point is for you to be aware of what works best, to support and enforce those boundaries where you can, and to make exceptions only when necessary.
How do we communicate and collaborate more effectively in a virtual team?
I’m seeing too many teams who are treating remote work as a 24/7 proposition. That’s not healthy or sustainable. Part of the problem is that remote work can be inefficient. There’s too much sending emails and waiting for responses. At 7 pm Eastern, when you finally get the response you needed from your teammates waking up in Hong Kong, your option is to work into the night or lose another day (I’m living this with a project we’re doing with a team that has members in Malaysia).
To reset, schedule a series of communication bursts each week. Find the best times to get everyone on the team working at the same time. Use these bursts to allow team members to work away independently, and also to contact one another, huddle in quick web calls, respond immediately to DMs or Slack messages.
At the same time, schedule communication blackouts. Set times when your team won’t be having meetings or calls, won’t be expecting responses to emails. Legitimize time for both efficient independent work and time to be offline and not working at all.
How do I communicate so my team understands?
The loss of face-to-face communication is significant. You’re forced into leaner communication channels that just don’t have the same fidelity. The more you rely on lean, text-based forms like email or messaging, the bigger the problem becomes. With stress levels running high (see point #1), the likelihood of you getting the tone wrong or your audience interpreting your intentions incorrectly is high.
To reset, spend more time planning your communications before you transmit them. (And by spending more time, I’m suggesting 30 seconds before an email and a couple of minutes before a call or meeting.) Ask yourself what you want your audience to know, to think, to feel, and to do differently after you communicate? Adjust your content, tone, and communication method to reduce the noise and increase the likelihood that the message will have your desired effect.
How do I set clear expectations?
When you’re relying on lower fidelity communication, it’s harder to set expectations and easier for misalignment to creep in. Those misalignments often lead to wasted time and effort, which is awful anytime and even more exasperating when everyone is so darn tired.
To reset, spend more time providing context than normal. Make your expectations extremely clear (for a refresher, check out this post on why clear expectations don’t have adjectives.) Talk about the thresholds for what you want the person to manage independently and when they should come to you for help. Finally, check for alignment with open-ended questions to gauge whether your message was clear.
What communication tools should I use for virtual collaboration?
I’ve noticed that teams have now established a routine where they are either using their preferred form of text communication or their preferred form of video communication and nothing else. Although email and video conferences are great for some purposes, there is a huge variety of tools that allow you to better match the communication vehicle to the purpose. New research is pointing to the advantages of different communication modes:
- Microsoft’s human factors lab showed that fatigue is reduced if you have 10-15 minutes off in between video meetings. Set your meetings to 45 minutes. No back-to-back
- Research by Tomprou et al. showed that video collaboration can be less effective than audio-only collaboration when it comes to collective intelligence. When you’re problem-solving on video, share the work on the screen. Turn off your cameras.
- A series of studies by Michael Kraus at Yale demonstrated that voice-only communication enhances empathy. When you need to strengthen your connection with someone, pick up the phone.
To reset, shift to more lean, asynchronous approaches. People are Zoomed-out. Get your routine communication happening in text-based vehicles. This will promote flexibility and encourage people with less power and more diverse perspectives to add value. Add the use of screen sharing plus audio, which seems to have advantages when you want people innovating and focusing on a task. (I talk more about the reasons for this in the Working Remotely course. Basically, it’s because it takes a lot of processing power for your brain to try to read body language from the crappy video of people in tiny boxes; processing power that could better go to being creative if you could hear each other and see a common screen.) Reserve video calls for topics that are novel, complex, or would benefit from an emotional connection.
How can I prevent team members from resenting one another?
You have team members who are working their butts off and the only people who notice are their family members who are complaining about it. That’s a recipe for disaster. Resentment grows among team members who each feel like they’re working harder than the others. The whole thing becomes a vicious cycle.
To reset, expose the unseen work on your team. Where possible, find easier, better, more efficient ways to get the necessary tasks done. Where the physical, cognitive, or emotional toil can’t be avoided, make sure that people’s efforts are being acknowledged. I provided more instructions on how to surface unseen work on your team in this post.
How can I prevent team dysfunction in a virtual team?
Another significant challenge of working remotely is the lack of contextual information about your colleagues. You don’t have a good picture of their day-to-day reality and that can lead to problems ranging from misinterpreting a comment in an email to relying on them to deliver something that they can’t.
To reset, invest more time in doing check-ins among your team members. Start meetings with questions about the person’s week. Encourage people to share any constraints that might not be obvious to their colleagues. I was so invested in this work that I created a set of exercises you can do during your virtual meetings to bolster team members’ awareness and understanding of one another. Download it here.
How do I support a healthy team culture in a virtual team?
Somehow, video meetings seem to be more formal and less personal than regular meetings (on the plus side, they are more likely to start on time). You’re packing your agenda with all sorts of important stuff, but then there’s no time to explore spontaneous ideas or to chat casually about projects or opportunities.
To reset, add some agenda-free meeting time to your week (facilitate this by implementing #7 and moving more of your information sharing to asynchronous communication). This could come in the form of an hour-long brainstorming session or office hours where you’re in a video room if anyone wants to drop in. Then add some downtime with the team. Use an hour for a virtual escape room (I tried it… very fun) or an online Scrabble tournament. It doesn’t matter what but encourage those important personal connections—they matter
How can you be a better virtual team leader?
It’s a long list and I don’t expect you to do all 10. Heck, I’m impressed you read all 10!! If you pick one or two where you can see an opportunity to be a more effective remote manager, those changes will make a noticeable difference for your team. As you embark on this reset, I encourage you to use that language with your team. Acknowledge that things are constantly changing and that you’ve tried some approaches that might have outlived their usefulness. Invite everyone on your team to do a reset on their own approach too.
Let me know which one you pick and how it goes!
Here’s the pin-up version. Click to download.
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