Mark Bouch offers TJ advice on how to lead remote teams.
Geographically dispersed, remote and virtual teams are not a new phenomenon. Many global industries had product development and functional teams configured to work effectively this way long before the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic era brought some unique challenges as a new generation of teams affected by workplace closure were neither configured to work remotely nor experienced at doing so. We observed the speed with which businesses adapted, switched to remote operations, introduced technology to support remote ways of working and maintained reasonable levels of productivity.
Across developed economies things are slowly returning to more normal levels of activity. But it won’t be like it was before. That’s something we should welcome. The pandemic highlighted opportunities to build a more resilient and balanced workplace, better configured to address the challenges of remote working than before.
Challenges and opportunities
The pace of change will only increase as exciting technologies like AI and 5G impact the way we work and how we interact with customers. More flexible working patterns are also inevitable post-pandemic. To date, CIPD data suggests flexible working patterns have been slow to catch-on, although lockdown has shown many organisations can remote office-based staff successfully.
Business wanting to ensure that remote working is a positive experience, need to ensure those that can work remotely have access to the opportunities and the tools to work effectively from home or on the move.
I have learned of several cases where travel restrictions resulted in impressive savings in travel budgets, greater personal effectiveness and work-life balance. This challenge to the ‘travel to the office’ orthodoxy paves the way for longer-term cultural change.
There are some cultural barriers to change, particularly where the ingrained culture is one of centralised control and direct supervision. Business wanting to ensure that remote working is a positive experience, need to ensure those that can work remotely have access to the opportunities and the tools to work effectively from home or on the move.
They will also need to develop new ways to engage colleagues, help them collaborate and ensure their wellbeing. Examples of how intuitive and simple cloud-based applications have transformed remote working during lockdown include tools like MS Teams, Zoom, Centrallo, Trello and Guild.
Increased uptake of these cross-platform tools enables remote teams and individuals to stay in touch, take control, organise and share important information. Increasingly they also replicate the ‘social’ contact missing in a dispersed team.
Whether companies intend to adopt more remote working or revert to an office-based culture, like any well-led change programme, they will need to engage staff to understand their preferences and issues with remote working before planning change. Provided emphasis is on flexibility, rather than enforced remote working, they may find themselves pushing at an open door.
In my experience, the consistent challenge for leaders of remote teams is to ensure people feel engaged and productive when isolated from other team members. Some people cope better than others with isolation. Others become digital introverts, perhaps individually productive but disengaged from other team members, the overall situation and team goals.
We can learn much from teams familiar with dispersed operations and those operating in dynamic and uncertain environments. They develop deliberate steps to reinforce a strong culture and agile working practices. These are examples of what leaders can do to maintain cohesive remote teams:
- Connect people to the organisation’s intent, focused beyond current operations
When people are dispersed it’s hard to make them feel they are still part of a connected whole organisation. In the military they talk about being ‘mission-focused’. Regularly remind people what you’re planning to achieve and why it’s important: clear intent provides a single unifying purpose everyone can relate to.
- Ensure people have a consistent picture of the current situation
In remote teams, people receive information from multiple sources, some reliable and some conflicting or inaccurate. Experience shows that situational awareness is essential to enable decision-making to be distributed.
Leaders must own this space. Regular and focused team calls allow you to provide factual information affecting everyone and confirm you understand what your staff are experiencing. A focused discussion about the overall situation should provide the context for all your team calls.
- Distribute authority to information
When people have clear direction about intent, they can operate without the need for constant intervention from leaders. This alignment enables you to distribute authority to the people on the front-line of your business who can see what’s going on and let them make effective and timely decisions.
If you don’t take the opportunity to do this, team members will not feel empowered and may default to a ‘wait to be told’ mindset.
What a wonderful onomatopoeic word! Literally meaning ‘finger-tips feeling’, fingerspitzengefühl’s closest equivalent in English is keeping one’s finger on the pulse. It implies the need for an accurate mental map of what’s going on, combining these insights with empathy, tact and diplomacy.
The best way for leaders to build this awareness is to make time to lead, not manage. This means making yourself available for regular brief individual check-in calls to listen to what people are experiencing. Ask open and curious questions to find out what is going on. Listen more and talk less.
Make time to talk to colleagues collectively. The bigger the group, the less opportunity there is for people to engage. Big group meetings are a better opportunity to impart information so people receive a consistent message about key directions, decisions and so on, but small group meetings provide a better opportunity for fingerspitzengefühl.
Remote team meetings should make time to reinforce the consistent narrative about intent and ask two vital questions: how has the situation changed? and, if so, what should we do differently? The first question assumes the situation is constantly changing as time has elapsed since you last asked the question, even if nothing else has changed.
- Be flexible
Remote working colleagues cannot be ‘always on’ when working from home for extended periods. This is particularly true of remote teams dispersed across multiple time zones. People working remotely by choice will readily give their full commitment, though will have to adapt to added distractions and responsibilities.
The lockdown period supplied some brilliant examples: the scientist interviewed by primetime TV news whilst her daughter sought a suitable location for her unicorn picture. Embrace this view into people’s lives. Show an interest in learning about them, their families, and their environment. These vignettes bring a more human face to the workplace.
- Develop and evolve working practices
Invite the team to develop a set of basic team rules or principles for remote operations. Many teams new to remote working simply try to replicate the way they operated before dispersal. It is unlikely to be optimal.
Leaders must make time to stop and think, get the team to reflect on what’s working well and propose how they should eliminate unhelpful working practices and evolve or adapt processes to maintain engagement and productivity.
- Strengthen relationships
It’s hard to replicate the office ‘buzz’ that helps invisible transfer of information. Keep communications flowing, transparent and two-way. Encourage people to set up social calls with each other. Demonstrate through your actions it’s OK. Remember to listen to team members and don’t let anyone become digital introverts.
There are occasions when you will still want to get people together; although technology can do an amazing job connecting multiple people and places in a virtual conference, sometimes it’s better to get face to face.
These rare occasions, when you can schedule them, are vitally important to communicate significant changes in direction, like a new strategy, to have a shared experience and for people to strengthen relationship build online.
When the pandemic ends (assuming it does), business will be different. There will be increased demand for remote working so it’s a great time to draw on the lessons of experienced remote teams to develop new ways to keep in touch, keep engaged and focused on what you are intending to achieve. These guidelines provide a long-term strategy for ensuring leaders are able to empower and support remote teams.
About the author
After a first career in the British Army combining operational leadership and strategy roles, Mark Bouch has enjoyed a 19-year consulting career during which he has designed and implemented high impact change programmes intended to build organisational capability and improve results.