Anne Bateman, Board Chair, discusses ways we can lead and support remote and dispersed teams, in light of self-isolation due to Covid-19.
I’m more of a social media watcher than a participant recently. With a return to working as an independent consultant and maintaining a governance portfolio, I’ve reoriented from being at the front of organisations to supporting others and their organisations who are good work and making an impact in the world.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been social media watching as each of us, the country, and the world grapple with the spread of COVID-19. I’m watching as people move to working from home in vast numbers. I’m also watching as we start to see people talking about (or anticipating) loneliness and isolation.
Over the last several years, I’ve had all sorts of teams – fully remote, partially remote, high travel, project, operational, etc. I’ve also done the transition from office to work from home a few times. And while it sounds absolutely amazing if you’ve never done a full work from home gig, there’s a whole new set of challenges to face.
One of them is when you’re leading a remote (or even primarily remote) team.
Some of you have been doing this for a long time, but for others this is fairly new territory.
Sometimes we become so focussed on ‘getting the job done’ that we downplay the need for connection and support (generally the ‘EQ’ side). In the office, this often happens more naturally because you see each other, share space, have corridor conversations and the like. But once you move out of the office space, how do you still maintain a sense of connection and togetherness?
I have a starter list I’ve developed over the years based on reading, talking to others about what works or doesn’t, and most importantly trying different things with different teams (because adaptation is always important). I thought I’d compile this as I struggled to find some practical hints and tips on this when I started out.
Here’s the starter list:
- Over communicate | when everyone is in a different place, you have to communicate more and more often. It sometimes feels a bit overcooked at first if you’re leading the team and you’ve said the same thing seven, 10, or 13 times. But if you have seven, 10 or 13 direct reports, they’ve each only heard it once if you’ve been communicating one to one.
- Use different methods of communication
- Don’t rely on email – Email becomes more and more swamped when you are remote, and asynchronous communication on email is often more challenging than other platforms.
- Use video for team meetings – doing this well is tricky. Managing or chairing a video conference is a different skill than in person meetings. Make even more space for quiet ones, follow up with the people who only use the phone line. This is really a topic unto itself!
- Make 1:1 contact – whether this is phone or video. While teleconferencing tools sometimes work, I’ve found that more often a quick FaceTime call instead of a Zoom chat can be quicker and more effective.
- Create a text messaging group (but don’t over-do it!), and let people be a bit silly if they want to. This is the least formal method of communication, and often people will share the little jokes that would have happened when sitting next to each other at a desk. I’ve had some wonderfully amusing groups with teams that had all sorts of pictures, little videos and things that made people feel wonderfully a part of each other’s experience (i.e. connected).
- Make space for informal communication | this might be the text messaging group, or it may be a shared lunch while on video. Encourage informal communication between team members, whether it is chat or phone calls – whatever suits them and they’re style.
- Open door time | when you’re in your office, and your door is open (or other indicators of availability as fits your office planning), people tend to wander in. Creating this virtual space is a bit trickier, and requires more encouragement. Send a calendar invite with a link with your ‘zoom room’ or virtual room that’s available for designated times a few times a week. Flick a text, ask people to join. Some online platforms allow you to have a consistently open door, and people can ‘knock’ to come in. This one takes a bit of work, but is another way to answer quick questions or even share a ‘how are you doing’ moment. This one is also good for ‘coffee break’.
- Stand up morning meetings | I’ve had teams that love these, the 15-minute stand up meeting. For the dispersed team, doing this virtually twice a week with a focus on how to help each other progress their work programmes supports a networked team. Also a good video check-in opportunity, as you can get a better sense of how everyone is doing with visual cues instead of only auditory ones.
- Online project management software | for many, this is moving to an advanced status. Asana, Monday, etc… and some of this might not be possible dependent on your organisation’s rules. If your team is already using it, or picks things up like this easily, then it’s fantastic. If it’s new and novel, it may exceed the change threshold.
It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully gives you a few ideas.
It’s important to remember that change is hard, especially in uncertain times. Rolling in one or two things at a time (even if in quick succession) in response to what your people need is likely to be more successful. And don’t forget to communicate the WHY – after all it’s good change management. Even better is to support the team members who start things up. The best and most enduring change comes from facilitating good ideas and letting them grow.
Let’s help each other out, support one another and make sure we’re ‘connected in the deep’ over this time. Share your tips, tricks, worries or just comments. Keep it going, and keep connected!