You’ve probably already read most of the advice that people have offered about working from home in the last week. Mine is geared towards those who lead knowledge workers, who might feel daunted at managing a team from home for the first time.
I’ve been leading technology and film teams at Gower Street for over two years, primarily from my home office. Fifty percent of our team is fully remote, but we have always operated like we’re in an office, and have many video calls each day in place of regular in-person meetings. For the last 18 months, I’ve been spending 4-8 hours a day on video calls talking to my team. In that time, the team has grown from just three people to over 20. I hired, recruited and spoke daily to many of my team members for several months without meeting them in person.
Here are my thoughts about how to be a successful leader of a remote team of knowledge workers. They centre around the importance of connection and great communication, whilst relinquishing control and discouraging continual availability.
Connections don’t just happen
Connection with our people is more important than ever, but it won’t happen as it used to. We might be used to grabbing people in the hallway for a quick chat, or relying on our team members to knock on our office doors or tap us on the shoulder if they need help. This isn’t going to work in a remote environment.
To overcome this, I intentionally book little meetings into my diary to catch up with people in my wider team, especially those I wouldn’t normally get a chance to talk to. I’d encourage us all to do the same, and to tell our people that they can also do this. A daily team catchup just to socialise is a good idea: it’s worth getting used to online small talk to help make those connection between our people happen. Socialising on video feels awkward at first, but I found that when I persisted it did become easier.
These connection points are especially important for less experienced team members, and we might need book lots of meetings to ensure they get enough time and direction. Successfully supporting our least experienced people has been one of the most challenging aspects of working in a remote environment for me, so I’d err on the side of too much time over too little.
Don’t just talk. Communicate.
It’s much harder to communicate online, even via video. We lose the ability to use non-verbal communication to reinforce our point. Just because we can see a small pixellated face doesn’t mean that we can assume we understand someone else correctly. We should strive extra hard to listen to people to comprehend their points of view, and choose our words extra carefully to instil in them what we’d like them to hear and understand.
It’s worth taking the time to learn how to use our video clients, and make sure we are set up well. If “meetings are the medium of our work” as Andy Grove from Intel memorably said, our video client is going to be our main tool for the next few months. Nothing is going to set an anxious team member on edge more during a difficult conversation than our fumbling with the technology, or experiencing audio or video issues. It’s worth investing in some headphones that work well, and buying the team what they need.
Good call etiquette is important. We usually mute our audio when not talking to prevent background noise interrupting communication. If the connection is poor, try asking everyone to turn off their video for a short period: this can improve audio quality. We sometimes use hand signals to facilitate communication is larger video chats. One hand up means someone has a point to make, two hands means that they have a directly relevant point to the previous one. A quick thumbs up is an efficient way to show agreement for a previous point rather than having to say so. It’s easy for someone to monopolise a video call, so it’s important for us all to be prepared to give way to others when speaking.
Leaders can help everyone thrive in this new environment by modelling good communication behaviours such as these. Our people will only behave as well as we do, and good habits will help foster a culture of great communication in our teams. This is needed now more than ever.
Control is an illusion
I’ve long argued we can control nobody but ourselves. Despite the effect of this realisation on my actions lapsing from time to time, I’ve always been brought back to this truth, sometimes brutally.
To this end, I’d encourage us to resist the temptation to keep tabs on when and how our teams are working. Agree realistic goals and checkpoints with them, and leave them to it. They will need flexibility at the moment, especially if they have children or other dependents at home with them. Let’s make sure we adapt to their schedule and needs, offering help where needed. More experienced people are better at doing this, our less experienced team members might need more help.
Everyone is experiencing disruption and juggling priorities at the moment. In a bigger meeting, someone might go abruptly on mute, or quickly turn their camera off. If this becomes difficult to manage, I’d ask them separately whether there is any way you can help, but otherwise I’d suggest we allow this to happen without questioning it. If we trust them enough to employ a knowledge worker, we should trust them to figure out when and how to get their work done and how to manage their home situation at the moment, offering help where needed.
Be careful not to expect continual work (from others and ourselves)
Many have talked about it’s important not to be continually working, just because we’re working from home. For managers, I’d take this further: let’s not pressure our teams to be continually online without realising we are doing so. If we do not set clear expectations about their response times and what’s expected, this pressure can be felt without us even being aware of it.
In the expectations document that I give to all my new team leaders, expected availability is one of the things I expressly mention. Whilst I might send them Slack messages at odd times, I don’t expect a response outside of office hours, unless it’s a (rare) real emergency. In the handful of real out-of-hours emergencies we’ve had, our team has responded promptly and admirably. I believe this is partly because I haven’t regularly demanded responses to trivial requests in the evenings or weekends, showing that I respect the time they are not at work.
Finally, as we lead our people through a world crisis, above all let’s remember that despite the very real pressure, there’s so much happening that we cannot influence. Let’s work as needed, help others where we can, and then make sure we allow those we lead (and ourselves) space to breathe, process and get through this together.