Leading from your Lounge
Leading from your lounge by Chris Van De Sande
About two months ago, I was scrolling through LinkedIn and saw posts people were sharing on their remote working lifestyles. Numerous books on Amazon and Audible detailed how to be disciplined while working from home, and Facebook and Instagram boasted beautiful home offices with PJ-clad ‘workers’. I told myself that none of this content was relevant to me as our country was at least five years away from this remote working reality.
Fast forward to 23 March 2020, and our president announced a nationwide lockdown that would kick-off in 72 hours. “You may not leave your home unless it is for essential items, medical supplies, medical assistance or you work for an essential service.”
What the …?
How the …?
Overnight everything changed. We had no time to trial run this. No time to set things up properly or prepare our teams with thorough discussions. We needed to ensure that each team member had a stable and reliable internet connection, VPN access and understood the new communication SLAs. Not to mention, calming employees down and ensuring them that their jobs were not at risk.
As a leader, I’ve been trained for this, right? Wrong! Nobody could predict or prepare for a global pandemic that would transform life as we know it. As a young leader in a rapidly growing company, whose mentors and seniors have never experienced anything like this before, what do you do?
I’ve spent very little time gathering experience, building legitimacy and authenticity within my team. I’ve done everything I can to build trust, and use it to everyone’s advantage. But all these things have been based on a set of techniques that I’ve been practising that require me to be, at the very least, in the same room as the person I’m coaching. And without that, I have no idea what I’m doing – hello imposter syndrome.
Leaders won’t be surprised to hear that you have a great responsibility. Ever thought about the fact that you may be the most influential person in someone’s life right now? If that doesn’t scare you, even when NASA was asked what was a more challenging task between leading others and rocket science, the answer, without hesitation was, “Leadership, it’s much more complex.”
I decided to write this because I had no idea what to do and figured I probably wasn’t alone. I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading and experimenting (sorry, team) on the topic of leading remote teams and in the period we’re in, it’s likely going to be useful to at least one of you reading this.
TIP 1: RELAX!
As someone in my team always tells me when they can see my thoughts running away with me, “Take a step back, breathe and delegate where possible”. I can’t tell you how relevant this advice is now. Leadership comes first, everything else comes second. Everything you have learnt about leadership and most importantly, the principles you believe in and lean on, are still applicable.
Think about it – the only thing that has changed is our physical location. You are still going to be coaching and guiding others, influencing change, setting goals, creating purposeful disruption, strategising and assisting with vision alignment. The challenge is the change. You may have been awesome in a face-to-face catch-up session because you could pick up on body language cues to determine if others understood what you were saying, but that’s kind of irrelevant now. You’re working in the dark.
Nothing has changed in what you need to do. The difference only presents itself when you start thinking about how you are going to achieve it.
TIP 2: UNDERSTAND THE FUNDAMENTALS OF HUMAN BEHAVIOUR HAVEN'T CHANGED
Humans are social creatures. Whether they’re introverts or extroverts, we all need some level of interpersonal interaction. For many people, the workplace used to be the oasis where we received our recommended daily allowance (RDA) of that. The casual “Hey man, how was your weekend?” was vital to having a productive day, whether we recognised it or not.
Now, it’s gone and it’s our responsibility to ensure that your team members get their RDA. Something that I’ve started recently is dropping a casual message to each of my team members during the day to measure how they’re doing. It’s proven to be incredibly important; people’s emotions are all over the place at the moment and the smallest issue can become a major problem very quickly. Catching these issues quickly has proven to be pretty vital.
It’s a check-in, not a check-up. “Do you have a minute?” is probably the worst thing you can ask. The response is almost always going to be a positive one, but that’s probably not how they’re feeling. There’s no tone so the thought probably running through their head is “what have I done wrong?”. Checking up on someone can be extremely dangerous now. Your team needs to know that you believe they are trustworthy and as you know, the best way to achieve that is to trust them. I’ll dive deeper into the importance of trust a little later but for now, all you need to understand is that your team needs to get their RDA of social interactions, whether it be a check-in from you, a virtual coffee run with the team or some other kind of fun team activity. This is more important now than ever before.
TIP 3: COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION
Did I mention that communication was important? I can’t stress enough how critical it is. If you ever thought that overcommunicating things to your team was going to put you at risk of being an annoyance, throw all of those feelings out of the window because it just became mandatory.
Previously when you walked out of a meeting with the client, whether it was a review session, demo, requirements gathering session or even just a general chat, your team picked up on things. Whether those meetings went exceptionally well and you went running off to your team to tell them again how awesome they are, or the session was really rough and you wanted to protect them from it, they picked up on your body language and were listening, whether you were talking or not.
You probably communicated to your team more than you think and they needed to hear what you “said”. That was easy though because you were all sitting in close proximity to one another. These levels of communication likely gave them a better view of how you were feeling and transparency into how much you cared for them, even if it was subconsciously. They still need this feedback. They still need to know how much you care; how much you’re fighting for them and how awesome they are or aren’t.
Fortunately, we’re tech people and we are all for leveraging technology to make our lives easier so we can communicate this stuff in whatever way is easiest for us to get this message across. After all, the only thing that matters is that I get this message across. Well, not exactly. You know about the different people in your team, some of them love a chat with you every hour, others prefer it once a day or once a week. I’m also fairly certain that you talk differently to each of them because you’ve picked up on the specific ques that lead to people providing different information depending on how comfortable they feel with you. Naturally, you try and make them feel as comfortable as you can. Same applies now. Everyone feels more comfortable when communicating on the platform they are familiar with, the more comfortable they feel, the more likely they are going to communicate more effectively and reveal more about their successes and issues. It’s your job to make your team feel comfortable so that you know exactly what they need help with and when they need some recognition. If you don’t know the channel or platform they prefer communicating on, you’re going to default to the way that you prefer communicating.
Another thing to consider is what is an acceptable SLA in terms of communicating with the team? Do we clock in when we want to and expect our team to be online? Or are these chats only reserved for office hours? Do I need to tell the team when I’m not at my desk? I’m not suggesting what these answers need to be, but the questions do need answers, and the SLAs need to be established by the team together, not just you.
TIP 4: MEETINGS CAN ACHIEVE MORE THAN THEIR INTENDED PURPOSE
No, I’m not condoning having loads of meetings now. We already have far too many, and yes, we’re starting to realise quickly that many of the meetings we were having, could have just been emails.
Once you’ve determined the necessity of the meeting, it’s important to be cognisant of all the value you could be pulling out of it. To get this value, I first need to stress the importance of using webcams. Webcams offer body language, facial expressions and the small ques that you would usually pick up on if you were all in the meeting room together, like the gleam in someone’s eyes when an idea is pitched, or the effect of laughter on somebody’s face. And the best way to encourage your team to use their webcam is if you use it yourself.
As I mentioned before, communication is important. The caveat to this is that although they’re going to be communicating a lot with you, the communication between team members now has likely diminished and trusting your team members is as important as trusting your leader. There’s no point in us all following the same person into war if we don’t trust the soldier to our left or right. Meetings are an opportunity to showcase the importance, value and competence of each member of the team, especially if you have a newbie
Your team need to be encouraged to keep communication going between themselves but until they get there, yes, it’s going to take some time, meetings may be one of the few opportunities for your team to communicate and see each other. Use this to your advantage.
TIP 5: TRUST ISN'T OPTIONAL
Ever thought establishing trust was difficult? Well, it’s just become like running the Comrades marathon on crutches. In the same way that you can’t look people in the eye to determine if they understand you, the opposite is also true. We’ve spent our lives communicating in person, and our level of trust has become largely based on that.
The most important thing after communication here is to not confuse activity with achievement. You need to act. Your team can’t see that you’re busy anymore, they only see the things that you’re doing that make a difference to them, so start focusing on outcomes, not activity.
Therefore, it’s important to create visibility on what you’re doing to achieve things for the team but it’s even more important to achieve these things – no pressure, right? Building and maintaining trust at a distance is tough, really tough, but sticking to these few things may help:
- Stick to your communication SLAs
- Build processes as a team
- Let it go! Trust your team
- Make individual and team targets crystal clear
- Praise in public
- Delegate in public
“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” – Ken Blanchard.
Your team needs to know when they’re doing well and when they’re not. A lack of communication after unfavourable behaviour is the equivalent of your approval. Lastly, constantly check their beliefs, both positive and negative. The moment you incorrectly assume things of people, it impacts their ability to achieve the outcomes that you have established as a team.
In closing, a lot of what I have written here can be interpreted in the wrong way, but you’ve already established legitimacy with your team because of your clear intent, so don’t change that. I’m also not trying to change anyone’s job descriptions. You all have the same job to do as you had before remote working became a requirement, but you do need to recognise that the things you used to do, now need to be done differently.
In summary, relax. The only thing that has changed is how you do things not the things you do. Human behaviour hasn’t changed, your team still need their RDA of interpersonal interactions. Communication is vital, focus on communicating to your team in the way that they prefer, not the way that you prefer. There’s a lot you can pull out of meetings other than their intended outcome, showcase your team and use webcams as much as possible. Trust is still mandatory; lead by example and continue to portray your positive intent and you should be okay.
Like me, I’m sure the idea of this is keeping you up at night, and you’re worried that you might not be giving your team the attention and coaching that they require anymore, so you’re working longer hours, pushing the boundaries and tiring yourself out even further while seeing little results. You need to look after yourself, cut yourself some slack – almost nobody is getting this right, and you’ve had very little time to adjust. You have a tough job as it is, and I’ve never met anyone who has their life perfectly balanced.
Lastly, when all else fails, revert to tip 1.
A great deal of the above has been either based on personal experience or principles as defined in these books:
- The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership
- Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done with Your Remote Employees
- Remote: Office not required