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Leadership in the age of remote work

COVID-19 has challenged conventional ways of working for individuals and teams around the globe. Organizations have swiftly and successfully embraced remote work with very little preparation. 

For instance, until early this year, nearly everyone on my team worked from the office. Working from home was an available but infrequently leveraged choice. The lockdown changed all that. People travelled to their home towns in remote locations, preferring to stay with families during the crisis. Many, for the first time, experienced an extended period of working from home.

Despite being forced into this new way of working, without prior preparation, people adapted well. In fact, it was a month into working from home when we carried out a quick pulse-check with my team of more than ninety people, and the results were mostly positive. 

31% of my team were willing to work from home forever! Another 52% expected a few adjustments on the home front which would allow them to continue remote working, efficiently.

results of the pulse check of a 90 member remote team
Remote work, it seems, is here to stay. And, we foresee the flexibility and convenience of remote work influencing major career and lifestyle decisions in the future. 

However, the shift to this new way of working required a reimagining of how people connect, collaborate and interact in remote teams. For instance, since COVID-19 struck, the frequent, “Could we meet?” messages from my team members have become infrequent, “Quick call?” messages. So, it’s easy for teams to slip into silos, leading to disengagement in a remote environment. 

This calls for leaders of remote teams to adapt. And, quickly. The larger focus areas for such a leadership-level shift are effective communication and the fostering of collaboration, and trust. Here are five ways that remote leaders can stay connected with their teams - 
  • Start from a place of trust
  • Lead with compassion
  • Set clear goals and outcomes
  • Connect with people and don’t make it all about work
  • Share frequent and timely feedback 

Start from a place of trust

Organizations have always associated rapport building with in-person meetings. People in geographically distributed teams frequently travel to build those personal connections. But, the current pandemic, ensuing lockdowns and travel bans have eliminated this option. 

It’s also important to note that the sudden shift to remote work has not diminished how unconscious bias continues to prevail at the (now remote) workplace. People tend to carry inherent biases, especially about those they haven’t met. A lot of us trust those who look, talk and behave like us - this is called familiarity bias. And, such biases cause us to mistrust the effort and intention of the people we don’t know. This is amplified when teammates interact remotely over extended periods of time. And, could further impact the team’s morale, opportunities and growth. 

Being aware of, and understanding the implications of our biases is the first step to fostering an environment of high trust. Remote leaders can set an example by assuming good intent and start from a place of trust. This approach has helped me delegate and empower my teams to be autonomous.   

Something else to be mindful of are the limited channels for immediate feedback or conversation for fully remote teams. People will not be online and responsive throughout the day. And, such expectations will make tools like Slack and Google Hangouts bottlenecks if our questions don’t receive responses in real time. 

This is an obvious opportunity for leaders to trust their team members to make decisions without seeking approval. A culture of information sharing will empower people with the right data to make decisions. I’d suggest documenting key decisions, approaches and rationales in common team wikis (like Atalassian’s Confluence or a shared Google drive).

Lead with compassion

We take certain things for granted when working in co-located physical office spaces. For instance, it’s easy to notice when someone doesn’t turn up for work and almost as easy to know when a colleague is stressed or anxious. A fully remote setup does not easily lend itself to picking up such signals. 

Leaders, especially during the current crisis, must go the extra mile and proactively reach out to team members to check on their well being. I have found a once-a-month 10 minute casual chat has a positive effect on people.
Additionally, location agnostic work presents a great opportunity for organizations to hire from a diverse talent pool. ‘Work from anywhere’ could give opportunities to people with disabilities, from marginalized communities and those with personal situations that need flexible work arrangements. 

Leaders of such diverse teams will need to build their inclusivity muscle. They will have to empathize with their teams, plan for and accommodate flexible working arrangements. Such an approach can be truly successful when the work culture also empowers people to share their concerns without inhibition. 

I’d recommend leaders letting teams know of their availability and that they are listening. Leaders have an incredible opportunity to demonstrate their vulnerability in day to day interactions. I’d also suggest letting go of biases that managers might have towards the more vocal in their teams. I have often encountered extremely interesting insights and feedback during my conversations with the less vocal and more introverted members of my team. 

Set clear goals and expectations

Teams work best when they are motivated by a collective sense of purpose. And, it falls to us leaders to help set the right goals and rally our teams to deliver the best outcomes. 

Every manager or team leader worries about productivity. But, productivity is a subjective measure. And, the subjectivity is more pronounced in remote teams. In line with Goodhart’s Law that states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” I’d say we need to focus on the right measures or outcomes. 

Today, remote leaders with a limited visibility into how teams are spending their time could be juggling doubts like, “Is my team really working?” or “Why are some folks offline on Slack?” or “Should I mandate video-on calls?” If leaders were to measure productivity against the number of hours worked, it could only worsen morale and alienate team members. 

I recall an experience, from a few years ago, when my team struggled with the once-a-month release of our application to production. We’d worry that a feature might fail in spite of working long and hard. So, we stepped back and decided to redefine our team goal to ‘ensuring a stress free production release.’ We achieved that goal within the next two months, and by the third month were releasing new functionalities every week. This was possible because we focussed on an objective that the entire team could relate to and collectively own.

Don’t make it all about work

Networking can be hard for some, even in physical office setups. For new employees joining a location agnostic team, connecting with other team members can be a herculean task. I believe leaders should proactively help set up networks of connections for new joinees. I’d also propose setting up informal channels for your team to connect on and to not make it all about work. 

Encouraging virtual coffees and a game session or two can go a long way in building team camaraderie. For instance, kicking meetings off with ice breakers lets team members learn about the others’ personalities, hobbies and interests. 

And, understanding team members’ aspirations and motivations helps leaders create the right opportunities for new team members to connect with people across the organization. In fact, I have found my being a ‘connector’ more beneficial for the new team member than my being a ‘mentor.’

Share frequent and timely feedback

People benefit from frequent and actionable feedback in any type of work setup; remote or otherwise. Leaders should recognize people aren't like stones on a catapult - that reach exactly where they’re supposed to when launched in a particular direction. People are like paper boats on a stream. They need to be guided around every bend, rock, swirl of water or gust of wind that comes their way.

It’d be wise for leaders to mandate frequent check-ins exclusively for feedback. For example, a 15 minute fortnightly or monthly check-in can ensure team members stay on course. A close friend of mine shared how she found it liberating when her team leader set aside time to discuss one agenda item; “How can I help you?”

Also, new and remote employees may not have access to ad hoc, informal feedback meetings that are easier to set up at the office. They’re probably operating blind without much needed support, visibility or recognition. Creating safe feedback spaces that communicate a job well done alongside access to learn more could greatly motivate new joinees.

In today’s new location agnostic and work from anywhere world, leaders will have to quickly adopt new styles of leadership. The future of work requires a flexible, high trust, inclusive and compassionate culture. And, as leaders of the digital age embrace these characteristics, they also need to recognize tools, frameworks and processes can only take their teams so far. 

It’s human and personal interactions that will strengthen distributed and diverse remote teams by reminding them of their collective purpose, and that leaders have their team members’ back as they collaboratively adapt to new ways of working.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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