My teams across both Primitive and Human Systems Co. work remotely ALL of the time. Megan, in her time in the NHS in the UK, coordinated staff both locally and nationwide, and she runs her international marketing agency with staff across the world, without an office...
We take a great deal of pride in the people who work with us - we love having experts. But to get them, we offer the incentive of not stopping anything else that they're doing. Our researcher and writer is in Mexico, our data scientist in Canberra, our statistician jets around the world on her own work. And we do complex projects, with many stages of conceptualising, gathering data, re-conceptualising, trying, learning etc. Remote working through this complexity is our preferred way of working. And personally, I've done this for 10 years.
The management assumptions that underpin proximal work
When we embed with our clients, I am reminded about the assumptions that are made about ways of working which are dictated by physical spaces. There are a raft of practices which have the luxury of physical proximity, and many are substitutes for good management practice. Don't get me wrong, being together has advantages, particularly cultural ones, but I find that it's an unquestioned way of working. It is also often a work-around for many issues which can actually be solved in other ways.
So I thought, with the COVID-19 pandemic happening and companies FINALLY having to deal with this (it's amazing how many can, when the pressure is finally on and excuses go out the door), I'd offer some of the tips we've discovered for making things work:
Tip 1: Are you making work and work-flow ultra-clear?
I want you think about the way that you work around projects in the office. It's likely that your project team comes together, you go away and get started, and then either organise a meeting or "duck in" to a colleague, in order to check or clarify a couple of things (this conversation is the first green dot in the diagram below). The project moves through a series of course-correcting (usually) physical conversations and meetings to get to its end-goal.
We've found that there is significant benefit in clarifying our work and projects up-front. Trust me, if you try to have the same amount of virtual conversations as you do in an office, you'll quickly run out of time (and energy). Offices work on "collisions" and chance encounters, and it's very hard to try to replicate this sheer volume of interactions remotely. Instead, by ensuring that work is well mapped-out and clear as possible from the outset, you reserve communication for when it is needed, rather than requiring over-communication to reach a goal.
This means that we try to move in a much straighter line through clear scoping, shared understanding and discussions of process. Mid-course corrections will still occur, but even these conversations are shorter and more focussed.
We even discuss ways of working at the outset, not just the project content. For anyone who hasn't seen one, I completely endorse something like a SLAM Team charter, which gets used a lot for self-managing teams (which we're good at setting up). For example, we'll agree about things including:
What you communicate, when and how
When to ask for help, and what kind of help you're asking for (we have different types of meetings: "untangling", "sound-boarding", GSD's ["get s**t done's"], synthesising and affirming)
Who's leading? Who keeps their eye on the final goal, resolves issues, and holds the quality standard?
We'll often use a platform for managing projects to help make things clear. It doesn't really matter what you use, but we find something flexible with Kanban to be ideal - we've used and liked Trello, Plutio, Monday or Asana.
We've also become great at breaking down steps into smaller, clear chunks, which usually either represent a decision or outcome. For example, a task like "Research cleaning methods for that COVID-19 recommendations paper" probably looks like the following tasks:
Decide on the paper's audience - who is the paper for? Home-isolators, people going out shopping? People visiting hospitals? (This might be the objective of a first meeting, as it completely affects the direction and scope of the research. Also how do we want to get it to them at the end of the project?)
Someone search online (prior decision: peer-reviewed articles, or blogs/opinion?) for effective cleaning methods for COVID.
Summarise and know them well enough to answer the questions of the team.
Organise a "GSD" meeting to get the relevant team members (especially including our graphic designer and project lead) together. AIM 1: Decide on which content goes in. AIM 2: Have a structure/useful form for the client(s)/audience by the end of the meeting, for someone to insert the relevant info.
Most appropriate person to write the final copy, and send to the project lead for copy edit (typo's etc).
Graphic designer to make it look great (Prior decisions: In which style? Are there any format considerations, like sharing on social media?)
Publish and distribute as per communications/targeting plan decided in step 1.
We'll normally try to step out a project to this granularity before meeting 1, and make sure that it's clear (and amended) by the project team at the start to get the best outcome. It seems exhaustive, but its very helpful.
Tip 2: Managers with trust issues may not survive
OK, that's not a tip. But it's worth knowing that if you have a culture of managers who require visual confirmation of their staff's commitment and productivity, they're really going to struggle.
In Australia, many offices still substitute "being at work" for "working". Managers still like to look out their door and see their people glued to their screens, sighing and whimsically uttering "all is well - look how hard my people are working." It's a genuine fear of many managers that people won't work well if they're not being supervised.
In Australia, many offices still substitute "being at work" for "working".
Rather than freaking out, you should think about a few things:
Teleworking is going to have some impacts on both productivity, speed and collaboration (there's a good, referenced article about the benefits and costs)
Your workers in the office probably weren't quite as productive as you thought, anyway
It's a chance to stretch your "manager" muscles and try your hand at some new approaches and techniques.
So as a manager of a remote team, you will likely be making a few adjustments:
If you want to feel like collaboration is zooming along, you might want to look at something that has in-document collaboration (like GSuite or Zoho Docs). This allows you to "see" collaboration happening in real time, and can be a great "team" feeling, especially if it's paired with a voice call. Try it during your next team meeting - collaborate on a brainstorm or fun team task. I like "What I did on the weekend was...", and everyone has to write in a response for someone else. Let's face it, everyone is going to be doing the same thing at the moment anyway...
Make sure that your outputs are clear. "This will be done by (insert date), and include/look like (insert details)." This way you can be certain that, if things are appearing by the time they're promised, your staff aren't bingeing netflix, which should build some trust.
Combine 1 and 2, and you get a good project management tool/process to keep everyone moving and updating progress, which also reduces the need for physical calling or video calls (which can drain everyone's time and energy - video calls are so much more tiring than face-to-face meetings).
Tip 3: Professionalism changes
While this can be a real area of vulnerability and discomfort for teams and managers, it's a part of remote working that I really like. Generally "professionalism" is synonymous with "leave your home s**t at the door". When you're Skyping into someone's home, you see the way they arrange their workspace, their house, the way they dress for home etc. Their families and pets will even make appearances. It's a much more "real" place for everyone to see and be seen.
Leverage this for good. Facilitate everyone getting more comfortable with each other, talking about their lives, and being open about the challenges that they're having working from home. This move towards holism, honesty and realism is a "level-up" as a people manager - something to be embraced, rather than feared. Employees who feel personally engaged and understood generally work better, and are more likely to be honest, which helps you, their leader, in a lot of ways.
Just the beginning...
Managing a remote team IS different to managing from proximity. However, in our opinion, leaders need to be BETTER at their craft because of the changes - they can't get away resting on a lot of the lazy, short-cutting behaviours that pervade physical offices. This is actually a positive. If you know about the "knowns and unknowns" framework, you'll be starting to stretch yourself into areas of leadership practice which were either in your "known unknowns" or "unknown unknowns". If you embrace it, it will really make you a better people leader.
And if you need a hand in overcoming a specific problem or challenge, we're only a call/email away to help you start to explore, learn and solve. To support those transitioning to COVID, your first coaching session is also free - we love up-skilling people leaders!