Managing a (Newly) Remote Team? Do NOT Follow This Advice

Written by Seth Derner
Coronavirus has changed how millions of people are working including most of our clients. The most common question in the past three weeks has been: How is your team adapting?

This question is from a place of pure empathy because most everyone they know is dealing with the chaos of functioning in an entirely different way and in an unprecedented situation.

Here’s the thing, though: coronavirus has had very little impact on our company. We’ve been fully remote for thirteen years as we’ve grown from 3 to 33 people. Many of our families, including my own, are adjusting schedules and expectations to take care of our kids now staying at home with us 24/7. That’s the only discernible change you would notice if you dropped in on us three months ago and again today.

So, when I see the barrage of articles with advice telling leaders how to manage their (newly) remote team, I can tell very quickly which authors have lived it and who hasn’t.

And, after the third or fourth conversation with a client that evolved into a mentoring session on the topic, I assumed more people would like to know how to sort out the good advice and the advice you should definitely not heed.

Category 1: Advice that Can’t Read the Room
Man pointing
“Have the right people”

The author points out that some people aren’t cut out for working from home. Huh, no kidding? And, what exactly is a leader supposed to do with this “golden nuggetof wisdom?

Clearly this was from an old article that someone quickly repurposed to try and get web traffic. It worked, but the advice is totally unusable. If you see an article that seems to be tone deaf regarding the current situation, just ignore it. It’s consuming your valuable minutes. There’s much better stuff out there.

Category 2: Advice Like you Might Get From Your Mom (Unless your mom is a rock star leader of a fully remote team)
Woman pointing
“Have a Plan” … “Trust, but Talk” … “Leverage Technology” … “Take Time to Train”

When I first found this article, I thought “Oh, nice summary.” The more I read , though, the more I realized that you could take these four suggestions and apply them to nearly any situation where you have a group of humans.

  • Starting a new warehouse in western Kansas? Do these four things.
  • Teaching your teenage kids to drive? Do these four things.
  • Need to potty train 4 toddlers at the same time? Do these four things.

There’s nothing inherently wrong or bad with this advice, but it’s not especially useful, either, if you happen to be learning on the job how to manage people now working from their utility room in their basement. Articles like this example are like my mom’s advice: it’s not always actionable, but it’s directionally useful (most of the time).

Category 3: “My Diet is Amazing!!!” Advice

Here are a couple examples that are likely the cause of plummeting employee engagement scores around the country.

Man busting through paper wall pointing up
“Hold impromptu video calls if a conversation requires more than three responses on chat or email”

“When communicating with team members, utilize video first, then audio, then chat, and finally then email if you absolutely have to”

“Conduct daily check-in meetings via video”

If you find these articles, you’ll see that the authors are all credible. They have managed fully remote teams for years. Their advice is specific, they have solid rationale, and they give examples of how it works for them.

Just like the guy at the gym on the foraged moss diet.

There may be some cosmic or genetic reason it works for him but be very careful about assuming it’s universal.

This advice has the best of intent, but it fails to recognize that may only work in a team with a specific culture. This advice doesn’t work for everyone.

If I shared these expectations, there would be mutiny by Tuesday. These practices are not part of our culture. They would feel like heavy-handed edicts tone deaf to our norms of working together.

Is it useful for your team? Maybe. Maybe not. But our experience has taught us to:

  1. Look for evidence of real issues – not just hunches or impressions. If things going well, don’t create change for the sake of change or your preference. You might miss being able to drop in and chit chat, but your people might be just fine. Let them be fine and you deal with your stuff on your own.
  2. Engage your team in assessing and testing ideas. Unless you are doing triage on a rough situation, there’s little benefit to issuing a mandate that will cause more stress on your people. If you believe that a new team habit would help address an issue then explain that to your team, ask for their input, and get a couple of people to test it out.
Category 4: Advice That Sets you up to Fail
I found these two pieces of advice in the same article:
Man pointing
“Make sure that a timeline or a schedule is established so that everyone can refer to it”
Then, three sentences later:
Man pointing
“Some people have to juggle multiple meetings or tend to their children and family at different hours, and many of these responsibilities overlap. It’s essential to give your team of remote workers the autonomy needed to adjust”

Anyone else see a recipe for disaster?

Which is it: firm, mutually agreed upon schedule or truly allowing for autonomy? These are cross-purpose directives that bog down your team. You get into protracted “what-if” discussions with teammates.

Rather, be thoughtful about what new practices, policies, or habits you ask your team to take on. Forecast the potential conflicts. Stay focused on the principle behind the practice and remind your team to do the same.

Category 5: Mr. Oblivious Advice
Woman pointing
“Utilize Technology: Pick a video conferencing service and a collaboration app to give everyone the tools to engage remotely”

At first this might seem like “Captain Obvious advice” but it’s not. It’s just the opposite.

Think about this – in the midst of the most tumultuous period of life we have collectively experienced you want to implement a new collaboration software? In addition to the new stress of working from home and living under the restrictions, you now want them to learn new tools and be okay with a lack of team norms in how to interact with each other and the tools.

Put away the credit card and cancel the free trial. Instead, start asking your team to identify what got more difficult in the move to remote work. Then, engage them in brainstorming solutions. Look for simple work-arounds or ways to get more out of your existing tools. If your team wants a more robust solution, great. You get to help make it happen.

Category 6: I Wish This Advice Was a Joke
Man pointing up
“Install Attendance and Time-Tracking Software. It ensures that no employees can deceive their managers by logging extra time”

Nope. Nope. Nope. Unless you’re willing to do the same and share the report with your team. Never mind. Even then, this is a horrible idea.

To be clear, this isn’t a reference to software that helps schedule shift or provides a tool to record the hours of effort on an assigned task. This is software that records everything you do on your computer to report how much of the time you were productive. You step away for 5 minutes to take the dog out or for 8 minutes to console a toddler with a scraped knee – your machine is recording that as time off.

It’s not about productivity. It about control, the lack of respect, and an organizational culture focused on process not outcomes. Your good people are leaving you the split second they get a better offer.

Category 7: Solid Advice

It would be unfair to be critical of advice about leading a remote team without pointing you to some great advice.

This is the best I’ve found: “Get Your Remote Team Up And Running Fast: Eight Tips For Managers New To Working From Home” from the Forbes Business Council.

It’s clear this author has deep experience and the breath of perspective. What I most appreciate is that the tips address the important outcome – not the specific tactic. For example, tip #4 “Determine how your employees should communicate.” This tip doesn’t prescribe a method (“video first and always!”), but it does make it clear that your responsibility as leader is to help establish new expectations for expectations that help your team feel connected and productive.

Hang in there, everyone. It does get easier as people become more acclimated. And, after 13 years you can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Have questions or want to have a follow up conversation on this? Reach out. Happy to share.

Seth Derner
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