Creating Clarity for Remote Teams
As concerns about COVID-19 mount, many companies are experimenting with having more of their employees work from home. As with any context shift, this change brings with it both opportunities and significant potential confusion. The companies that navigate it well will have a competitive advantage, and not only from healthier employees. Given the unknown magnitude and duration of the virus (and potentially a wider shift to work-from-home as a result), learning how to maintain clarity effectively while remote may become a key management skill for 2020.
We here at Talentism have been fully remote since our founding, and do our best to eat our own cooking when it comes to creating sustained clarity for ourselves. While it’s an ongoing learning process for us, too, I wanted to use today’s Sensemaker to share some of the practices that have helped us make remote work a success.
Methods for Creating Clarity for a Remote Team
Acknowledge the shift: At the risk of sounding obvious, working remotely is *not* the same as working together in an office. Clarity often starts with putting enough attention on “the obvious” that its implications can be teased out and underlying confusion can be addressed. Working from home full-time is a significant context shift that will upend many ingrained work habits and expectations, which, in Talentism terms, is a recipe for Confusion. People will respond to working from home in different ways: some will be supercharged, some will struggle, many will experience a mix of both. A surprising number of people won’t actually know until they’ve been doing it for a bit. As a manager, helping people make the most of this context shift starts with acknowledging its potential for confusion, and inviting your team to be aware of it, willing to experiment, and willing to help each other make it work.
Be extra careful around your own assumptions and those of others: Moving to a fully remote set-up, like any major context change, can be a hotbed of threat triggers. Managers with strong fairness and influence triggers may struggle to trust that work is getting done when they can’t see it. Managers with autonomy triggers may be allergic to the additional layer of explicit context-setting required with remote work and convince themselves it’s better if they let people figure it out for themselves. Most often, these triggers manifest in either dropping down into people’s work (aka micromanagement), or assuming everything is fine and abdicating responsibility for surfacing problems and keeping people in sync. Both ends of the spectrum generate confusion, and doubly so when managers swing erratically between one pole and the other. As a manager it’s essential to stay aware of your own threat triggers as they show up in relationship to the change, and design accordingly. As a manager of managers, it’s additionally critical to help your direct reports see these triggers in themselves before their behavior creates greater confusion for their teams.
Create more explicit sync points: Working in the same space typically provides much higher ongoing information exchange than working remotely. Everything from informal “hey how’s it going” chats to more subtle signs about the team’s “vibe.” On a remote team, all of that information has to be exchanged more explicitly. This is the time to double down on good management practices — clear goal setting, clear descriptions of how processes and responsibilities work, clear and regular feedback, clear exploration of problems. While meeting fatigue is real, it’s better at the start of this shift to err on the side of more sync points rather than fewer. If you don’t have them already, now is the time to ensure that you have regular 1:1s with your direct reports and your direct manager, team meetings, cross-functional team check-ins, etc. As time goes on you’ll get a clearer sense of what’s essential and what cadence works best for you and your team.
Leverage proactive sharing mechanisms: To keep information flowing without your whole calendar turning into endless zoom calls, set up clear channels and expectations for proactive sharing with your team. At Talentism, we have weekly Slack reflections for each team member (encompassing both personal and work updates), weekly Slack department updates, department-specific trouble-shooting channels, company-wide strategy update channels, etc. Each of these channels has a specific function, clear rules of engagement, and clear expectations around what to share, where, and when. We’ve found that all of these mechanisms are critical, sometimes in unexpected ways, to ensuring we’re all on the same page.
Clearly communicate expectations around escalation and transparency: Working from home means more autonomy. Keeping people in sync in a higher autonomy context requires surfacing problems and confusion early, and recognition that doing it remotely may present a higher barrier to action for some people than doing it casually in the office. As a manager or leader, it’s on you to set this expectation explicitly. What do you want your people doing when they run into a problem or are confused about how to proceed? What do you want shared broadly, versus worked out with a specific team member or manager? What do you want to have transparency on, even if people *think* it’s going well? If you don’t set (and reinforce) these expectations clearly, everyone will default to their personal preferences and fears, and you’ll lose your chance to handle confusion before it snowballs into larger problems.
Set clear rules around different channels: Team messaging platforms such as Slack are foundational to efficient remote teams. However, they can quickly devolve into useless noise if not managed closely, especially as the team moves toward more reliance on these platforms for all their communication. If you can’t explicitly name the purpose and rules for each channel, you’re setting yourself up for chaos. Make sure that for each existing and new channel you clarify:
- Why the channel exists
- What content is welcome / not welcome
- How people should engage with it (e.g is it for broadcasting information? Discussion? Project-specific collaboration?)
- Who follows what rules on the channel (e.g. is it a free for all? Or does a specific channel owner have responsibilities/privileges others do not?)
Don’t shy away from explicit reinforcement: Your transparency expectations and channel rules are only as good as their enforcement. People will do all kinds of things that run against what’s been agreed upon, and letting it slide once puts you closer to total breakdown of information flow than you realize. While it might be annoying or feel trivial, someone needs to own playing traffic cop, which means that you need to either own the responsibility or delegate it.
Leave space for being human: While different companies have different cultures around intimacy and formality, one of the biggest unspoken challenges of moving to remote work is the loss of natural opportunities for human connection. I’m lucky to feel like my remote team at Talentism is family, and that makes it easy to hold them in positive regard when something doesn’t make sense to me. A big part of establishing that was the lengths we’ve gone to to stay human with each other: we have our weekly reflections, as well as “open office hours” for coworking with video turned on; we have regular social catch-up calls; and we have Slack channels devoted to hobbies, pictures of our dogs, and nonsensical memes. Even if you personally don’t care about that kind of connection, giving permission and making space for others to have it can make a big difference in the remote work transition. To paraphrase Monty Python, “the Internet, ‘tis a silly place.” And that’s ok.
Take the opportunity to evaluate your existing work patterns:
As I talked about in the prior sensemaker on COVID-19, this disruption, like all disruptions, provides (along with its challenges) significant opportunities for those who can see it that way. Oftentimes, things don’t change until they have to. The move to remote work offers an opportunity to reassess many of the practices you’ve established as the status quo. Perhaps you’ll learn one meeting you thought was essential is fine to go without. Perhaps you’ll find that some part of office life you thought of as trivial is key to the team’s success. As you go through this experiment, set aside time on an ongoing basis for yourself and the team to reflect on what you’re learning. You might just find yourself better, faster, and stronger on the other side.
What fears or attachments do you have about moving to more remote work?
What triggers have you demonstrated in the past around remote work (either for yourself or others?)
What *unofficial* parts of office life do you rely on for gathering information and staying in sync with others?
Go through the practices discussed above, and jot down a few notes for how you could apply them to your own team(s)
Try it and see how it goes!
- As a reminder, the practices are as follows:
- Acknowledge the shift
- Be extra careful around your own assumptions and those of others
- Create more explicit sync points
- Leverage proactive sharing mechanisms
- Clearly communicate expectations around escalation and transparency
- Set clear rules around different channels
- Don’t shy away from explicit reinforcement
- Leave space for being human
- Take the opportunity to evaluate your existing work patterns