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Transitioning to remote work is a gift to some and a nightmare to others. Some people might hope to continue with at least part-time telecommuting after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and others can’t wait to get back to the office. Either way, remote work is where we find ourselves now, and while I’ve been writing a lot about remote work productivity, my colleague Kevin Eikenberry has been on my mind. He’s an expert in leadership and specifically, leading remote teams, and he’s the co-author, with Wayne Turmel, of a useful book called The Long Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

I asked Kevin some questions that have been on my clients’ minds, and he was kind enough to provide some great solutions for me to share here.

Three Considerations & A Mistake in Leading Remote Teams

Maura: Having a functioning remote staff isn’t just about sending people home—what are the top three considerations for leaders when allowing teams (or requiring teams) to work remotely from home?

Kevin: Only three? 😊 Beyond giving people the tools they need to succeed (technologically and otherwise), here are three that you might not have thought about:

  • Set new expectations – about schedule, flexibility, availability and more.  If you have all been remote for a couple weeks now, check in to see what’s working and decide what you might need to adjust. (Maura: I think it’s a great idea to specifically ask people who report to you: “What challenges are you having working from home? There’s also an exercise I learned in Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO), called “start/stop/continue.” Ask your team, “What do you think we should start doing, what do you think we should stop doing, and what do you think we should continue doing?” This is an easy framework to help you learn what’s working and what isn’t.)
  • This is a bigger change than you might realize. Simply learning how to be productive while working from one end of your dining room table or in your bedroom, is a shift. Give people some time, be patient, and help the team share best practices.
  • You have to work differently too. This isn’t just about leading a remote team. You are also working remotely. You need to give yourself time to adjust and adapt as a teammate.  You will also need to adjust how you lead. Read on for some examples…

Maura: What’s the most common mistake you see leaders make when they send people home to work remotely?

Kevin: I hinted at this above, but many leaders assume their routines and strategies don’t have to change. If you want great results leading remote teams, you will have to adjust. Here is one perfect (and important) example. You will need to communicate more frequently and more intentionally than you did before.  There are no spontaneous or serendipitous conversations now. Managing by wandering around? It’s gone. 

I have a goal of a specific number of my team I want to interact with each day. We didn’t have to think about that when everyone was in the office. As someone who has been leading remote teams myself for over a decade, it is one of my personal daily metrics.

Relationships, Accountability, and Feedback

Maura: How can leaders keep the team connected when everyone is working remotely?

Kevin: There is no doubt that people worry about losing connection and that relationships may erode when everyone is working remotely.  There are plenty of things you can do to mitigate that change, but I will give you three specific ideas. 

  1. First, turn on your webcams – and not just for meetings. Seeing a colleague in video isn’t quite the same as being across the desk, but it is the next best thing – and the best option you have now. 
  2. As long as you have that camera on, take a couple of minutes for a break (you still need to take those) and have a cup of coffee with them. Chat like you would if you were in the break room, just do it at your desks over the webcam on Zoom or whatever platform you use.  
  3. You can do what I did last week and host a virtual lunch with your team – no business, just conversation and hopefully some laughter.  Some people are having virtual happy hours too – and no one needs to worry about driving afterward!

Maura: What are the keys to creating accountability with a remote team?

Kevin: If you are able to create accountability when the team is together, you can do it remotely. If you struggled before, it will be harder now. Accountability starts with ownership, and no one can feel ownership unless they know what is expected of them. Make sure people know the expectations of the work and how it needs to be done. The “how” part has likely changed now that people are working at a distance, so clarify that with people. Then you are on your way to greater accountability. (Maura: I’ve been advising my clients to create weekly  objectives with each team member. At the end of the week, the team member should report in to their manager on the progress of the objectives, and together they should agree on the following week’s objectives. This will provide a specific agenda for connecting, and also a results-based metric on which to evaluate the team members. This is useful since many managers still rely on the amount of “face time in the office” as a performance metric, where “more” = “better.” Even before COVID-19, this is outdated.)

Maura: What do leaders need to know about the difference between giving in-person feedback and feedback online?

Kevin: In our book The Long-Distance Leader, we state the first rule as Leadership first, location second. This certainly applies to feedback. Everything you’ve learned about giving effective feedback still applies. The nuances include:

  • Make sure you are finding ways to know what feedback to give.
  • Give more of it.  You likely weren’t giving enough (negative and positive) before, and the need for it is heightened once people are separated. 
  • Turn on the webcam. Whether positive or negative it will be more effective when you can see each other.

Thanks again for inviting me Maura. We have created a full-scale portal of resources for remote leaders and remote team members as we deal with this pandemic.  I urge anyone to visit and take advantage of the wealth of ideas and resources we have placed here:  https://KevinEikenberry.com/covid-19.

Thanks so much to Kevin for sharing these resources!

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